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NHL looks to China to ‘expand the sport’

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When Andong Song started playing hockey in China at age 6, he wore figure skates on his feet and had to use the straight parts of short-track speedskating rinks for practice.

His father brought back equipment from his travels one piece at a time, and his family moved to Canada a few years later so he could pursue a career in the sport. Song, the first Chinese player selected in the NHL draft, envisions a day when that sort of cross-global exodus is no longer necessary for kids growing up in China.

That could be coming soon with the NHL looking at China as hockey’s next great frontier. With the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, China is eager to step up its game and the league is intrigued by the potential of a new nontraditional market with 1.4 billion people that might take to hockey like it did basketball.

“It’s a place that hasn’t had that much of an opportunity to be introduced to what everybody acknowledges is a great game,” commissioner Gary Bettman said. “Because of the size of the market and the fact that lots of sports haven’t been developed there, it’s a good opportunity to expand the sport even further.”

This week, Bettman is expected to announce NHL preseason games in China between the Los Angeles Kings and Vancouver Canucks, along with grassroots programs to build a hockey foundation where the NBA has laid one for decades. It’s the first big step toward the NHL making inroads in China, whether or not players participate in the 2018 Olympics in neighboring South Korea.

NHL Players’ Association executive director Don Fehr said showcasing the NHL, running clinics and getting more broadcast coverage all figure into the long-term strategy. Even though Russia’s expansive Kontinental Hockey League now has a team based in Beijing, NHL exhibition games – and potentially regular-season games as early as fall 2018 – will have a bigger impact.

“Even with the KHL there, they know it’s not the best league,” said Song, a Beijing native and sixth-round pick of the New York Islanders in 2015 who now plays for the Madison Capitols of the United States Hockey League. “They know it’s not the NHL.”

According to the International Ice Hockey Federation, China only has 1,101 registered players and 154 indoor rinks. Despite having a quarter of China’s population, the U.S. has 543,239 players and 1,800 indoor rinks.

By October, 14 different NBA teams will have played 24 preseason games in greater China since 2004, so the NHL has some catching up to do. The Boston Bruins sent an envoy on a Chinese tour last summer that included players Matt Beleskey and David Pastrnak, and Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis recently said his team could be next after hosting youth players from China in January.

“There will be about 200 new rinks being built in China and we would expect China being a very, very formidable force in the Olympics,” said Leonsis, who called China the next great hockey market. “And also we’ll see that China will be producing players and I would expect that we’ll have NHL players that were born and trained, just like we’ve seen in the NBA, and China will be able to bring players here.”

The NBA gained popularity in China in part due to Yao Ming, the first pick in the 2002 draft. The NHL is going into China hoping to develop homegrown stars. Chinese broadcaster and producer Longmou Li, who has worked the Stanley Cup Final and helped families move to North America for hockey, said 500 to 600 new families are joining the Beijing Hockey Association each year, which could mean churning out an NHL first-round pick every five to six years.

Song said because the sport is still in its infancy in China and centralized in the northeast and in big cities, keeping the best players there instead of seeing them leave for North America is the biggest challenge.

About 200 Chinese hockey families currently live in North America, Li said, and the return of those players, coupled with the KHL’s Kunlun Red Star’s presence and a commitment to skill development, will help the national team grow in preparation for the 2022 Olympics. With a broadcasting deal already in place to air four NHL games on state-owned China Central TV and 10-12 online through Tencent each week, his keys to the growth of Chinese hockey are players reaching the NHL and the national team competing at the top level of the world championships.

Stanley Cup-winning coach Mike Keenan was recently tapped to take over Kunlun and oversee the men’s and women’s national teams, so the process is underway.

“If NHL can help China to get that, I think we can at least get 100 million fans from China,” Li said. “Because hockey is just so passionate a game, is so fast a game, it’s so easy to get people to get involved. But they will need to attract them to watch.”

Although being awarded the Olympics was impetus for the Chinese government to pour resources into hockey, it’s getting some help from the private sector in the form of Zhou Yunjie, the chairman of of metal can manufacturing company ORG Packaging. The goaltender-turned-billionaire is at the forefront of hockey’s growth in China through NHL partnerships and sponsorships.

“As long as (TV networks) in China broadcast many more games in China, it will attract more people to notice the NHL, especially the youth hockey player,” Zhou said through an interpreter. “Because there are many Chinese kids that have started learning hockey there, and there is a good population of the people that will develop hockey in China.”

When Chris Pronger famously plastered Justin Bieber into the boards during a celebrity game at NHL All-Star Weekend in January, not only was Zhou playing goal but an ORG Packaging patch was on players’ jerseys. Talking about spreading the “gospel” of hockey, Leonsis called Zhou “the greatest evangelist.”

Zhou can’t do it alone, and NHL integration in China is also connected to the 2022 Olympics. After NHL players participated in the past six Olympics, there’s pessimism about the league going to Pyeongchang next year. Discussions about Beijing will happen later.

By then, the league should know if the experiment is working.

“If we can get in on the ground floor, help them with that (and) bring our expertise,” deputy commissioner Bill Daly said. “You can’t argue with the population or the economy, so if we’re able to do that it could be a great opportunity for us.”

 

Goalie nods: After blowout loss, ‘Hawks start Darling against desperate Bolts

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It wasn’t a good performance from Corey Crawford in Saturday’s 7-0 loss in Florida — the Chicago starter was hooked after allowing four goals on 25 shots.

Of course, it wasn’t a good night for the guy that replaced Crawford, either.

Scott Darling was torched for three goals on six shots against the Panthers, but now gets the first crack at redemption — Darling will start tonight when Chicago gets back into action in Tampa Bay.

The Lightning are hopeful they’ll have as much success against Darling — and maybe even Crawford — as the Panthers did on the weekend. Tampa Bay is desperate for points, and heads into tonight’s action sitting three points back of Boston for the final wild card spot in the Eastern Conference. The Bruins are idle tonight, but the Isles — who have 82 points, to Tampa Bay’s 81 — are in action, hosting Nashville.

So it’s a big night for Tampa, to say the least. Appropriately, Andrei Vasilevskiy will get the start, after stopping 29 of 30 shots in a big OT win over Detroit on Friday.

Elsewhere…

Eddie Lack is 5-1-1 in March with a .931 save percentage, so he gets the call as the ‘Canes host the Red Wings. Petr Mrazek goes for Detroit.

Roberto Luongo is still out, meaning James Reimer gets yet another start for the Panthers (he scored the shutout against Chicago over the weekend). Robin Lehner is in goal for Buffalo.

— We mentioned the Isles-Preds game above, and it’ll be Thomas Greiss in goal for the host team. It’s his second straight start, having played in Saturday’s loss to Boston, and it comes ahead of the recently recalled Jaroslav Halak. No word yet on a Preds starter.

Jake Allen‘s ridiculous month (7-1-1, .951 save percentage) continues with a start against the Coyotes. Mike Smith will be in goal for the visitors, looking to snap a five-game personal losing streak.

— The Flames will stick with Brian Elliott when they host the Avs tonight. No word yet on a Colorado starter.

Coyotes agree to terms with first-round pick Keller on entry level deal

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The Arizona Coyotes have agreed to terms with Clayton Keller, the No. 7 overall pick in the 2016 NHL draft, the team announced on Sunday.

Keller is one of two first-round picks the Coyotes had in 2016, along with defenseman Jakob Chychrun who has been with the team all season.

The plan for Keller at this point is to join the Coyotes and spend the remainder of the season with the club. Since the team only has seven games remaining on the schedule his presence with the team the rest of the way will not burn one of the years off of his entry level deal (since he is under the age of 19, he would need to play in nine games to lose one year of his entry level contract).

“We are extremely pleased to sign Clayton to an entry level contract,” general manager John Chayka said in a statement released by the team. “Clayton is a highly skilled, dynamic forward. He is a strong skater who has a powerful shot and great hockey sense. We are excited to have him join our team and finish the regular season with the Coyotes.”

After spending the previous two years playing for the U.S. National Development Team, Keller joined Boston University for the 2016-17 season and put together a huge season for the Terriers, leading the team in goals (21) and total points (45) even though he only played in 31 games.

The Coyotes’ next game is in St. Louis on Monday night.

Keller was born in Swansea, Illinois which is less than 20 miles from St. Louis, so the timing for his debut would be pretty perfect.

Along with Chychrun, Dylan Strome and Max Domi, Keller is going to be one of the talented young players that is going to be key to the Coyotes’ rebuild.

Goalie nods: It’s Anderson vs. Price for first place in the Atlantic

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The Montreal Canadiens and Ottawa Senators are locked in a fierce fight for the top spot in the Atlantic Division, and they will have one more chance to take advantage of a head-to-head matchup on Saturday night.

It will be the fifth and final meeting of the regular season between the two teams — and third in the past eight days — as the two teams enter the night separated by just a single point in the standing (Montreal has a one point lead).

Montreal won the previous two head-to-head meetings this month, topping Ottawa in a shootout on March 18 then coming back the next night with a 4-1 win.

As expected, both teams will be going with their No. 1 goaltenders on Saturday night with the Senators turning to Craig Anderson and the Canadiens starting Carey Price.

With wins in eight of his past 11 starts, a stretch that has seen him surrender more than two goals in a game just two times, Price is once again playing at that Vezina Trophy level we have seen from him in years past. His overall numbers for the season may not be quite as dominant as we have seen over the past couple of years but right now he is one of his zones where he looks nearly unbeatable.

Anderson has been on a similar roll for the Senators in recent weeks and has only lost three of his past 12 starts … two of them came at the hands of the Canadiens.

Elsewhere on Saturday…

— It was Richard Bachman vs Darcy Kuemper in Minnesota for the Vancouver Canucks-Wild game, while Sergei Bobrovsky went against Michal Neuvirth in the Columbus Blue Jackets vs. Philadelphia Flyers game.

Braden Holtby will be in net for the Washington Capitals when they host Mike Smith and the Arizona Coyotes.

— With Tuukka Rask out for the Boston Bruins’ huge game against the New York Islanders, Anton Khudobin will get the call. No word yet from the Islanders on who they will start after going with Jaroslav Halak on Friday night against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Eddie Lack was the first goalie off the ice for the Carolina Hurricanes on Saturday and is expected to start against Cory Schneider and the New Jersey Devils.

— No word yet from the Chicago Blackhawks or Florida Panthers for their game.

Frederik Andersen looks for his third shutout in a row when he starts for the Toronto Maple Leafs in their game against the Buffalo Sabres. Robin Lehner gets the call for the Sabres.

Brian Elliott is back in net for the Calgary Flames after having his personal 11-game winning streak snapped against the Washington Capitals this past week. He faces his former team, the St. Louis Blues, who will be starting Jake Allen.

Martin Jones gets the start for the San Jose Sharks when they visit Pekka Rinne and the Nashville Predators.

— It is a rare night off for Cam Talbot in Edmonton as Lauent Brossoit will make his first start since Feb. 21 when he gets the start against the Colorado Avalanche. He has made just two relief appearances since then. It will be just his third start of the season. The Avalanche have yet to announce their starter for the game.

Antti Raanta goes for the New York Rangers when they visit the Los Angeles Kings. Jonathan Quick is in the crease for the Kings.

Panthers didn’t want to trade Crouse, but Bolland contract was ‘strangling’ them

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Interesting note here from Florida head coach Tom Rowe who, last night, watched former Panther prospect Lawson Crouse play in Florida for the first time since being traded to Arizona.

Crouse was the price the Panthers had to pay to unload Dave Bolland‘s contract on the Coyotes last summer. Rowe wasn’t involved with the Bolland signing, but was involved in dumping the contract — he was Florida’s assistant GM at the time the deal went down.

His take, from the Miami Herald:

Florida traded Crouse to the Coyotes last summer as part of a salary cap dump; Arizona took on the final three years and $16.5-million of Dave Bolland’s contract in exchange for a top prospect — in this case, Crouse.

“We got criticized for giving up on a great young prospect but we had to,” Rowe said. “That contract was strangling us, cap-wise. …

“When we traded him, our scouts were furious. I’m not going to lie. But we had to do something and that was trade Lawson. I’m sure, to this day, he’s still sour about it.”

Crouse, who Florida took 11th overall at the 2015 draft, has five goals and 11 points through 64 games this year, averaging 11:50 TOI per night. Those numbers don’t jump off the page, but they do need to be taken in context — Crouse is only 19 years old, and the 10th-youngest player to play in the NHL this season.

Bolland, meanwhile, hasn’t played since December of 2015, due to a variety of back and ankle injuries. His time in Florida was largely forgettable — after scoring the $27.5 million pact, he played just 78 games in a Panthers uniform, scoring 28 points.  It’s widely regarded as the worst deal GM Dale Tallon has made during his time with the organization.

Shortly after taking on his contract, Coyotes GM John Chayka said Bolland wouldn’t be healthy for the “foreseeable future.” The 30-year-old has two years remaining on his deal, at $5.5 million annually.