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NHL hopes to make inroads in China with preseason games

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SHANGHAI (AP) As the Vancouver Canucks held their first practice in Shanghai before their exhibition game with the Los Angeles Kings, a dense fog settled over the ice. The humidity in the arena was high and the players could barely see the puck.

Large dehumidifiers were rolled in and the mist eventually cleared, but the NHL has perhaps a bigger visibility problem in China – a country with little tradition of winter sports, hockey included. The league is hoping to turn that around with a major push in the country, beginning with its first two preseason games between the Canucks and Kings in Shanghai and Beijing this week.

The timing couldn’t be better for the NHL. With Beijing set to host the 2022 Winter Olympics, the government is putting a massive emphasis on developing winter sports. Hockey training programs and youth leagues are expanding across China, and the nation’s first professional team, the Kunlan Red Star, plays in Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League.

With interest on the rise, the NHL believes it now has an opportunity to crack a market that has traditionally been more fixated on basketball and soccer.

“You don’t quite know what to expect the first time the game is coming here, but I’ve always believed that hockey is a game you need to see live,” Los Angeles Kings coach John Stevens said after Wednesday’s practice. “And once you see it live, you become hooked as a fan.”

A glance at the numbers shows just how far the NHL has to go. According to the International Ice Hockey Federation, China has just 1,101 registered players, compared with nearly 556,000 in the U.S. and more than 631,000 in Canada.

And the fan base in a nation of more than 1.2 billion people is still in its infancy. On Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter, the NHL has just 47,000 followers, some of whom are obviously new to the sport. (One posted a question about the temperature of the arena and what was suitable to wear to the game.) The NBA, which hosted its first preseason exhibition games in China in 2004, boasts more than 33 million followers on Weibo.

“We’re learning a lot about how to market here and we’re learning a lot about how tickets are sold,” says David Proper, the NHL’s executive vice president of media and international strategy. “We’re just viewing this as Year 1 of a multi-year project and in Year 1 we may not knock it out of the park . but we can still build over time.”

Media exposure certainly helps. State broadcaster CCTV now televises five games per week to Chinese audiences and the Internet giant Tencent streams 14 games per week on its digital platforms, including the Stanley Cup playoffs.

The NHL also has an influential partner on the ground in Zhou Yunjie, the billionaire founder of a Chinese drinks packaging company who has devoted significant time and resources to building the game he fell in love with as a youth in Beijing. Zhou’s company, ORG Packaging, is the presenting partner for this week’s exhibition games.

“Hockey was actually quite common in northern China back in the ’60s and ’70s, so there is a foundation among the kids in those areas,” Zhou told The Associated Press at his company’s newly opened hockey training base in a Beijing suburb, which includes a fully stocked gym, physical therapy room and a hotel for players attending training camps.

Zhou said China’s hockey revival should focus on both universities and a professional league, using the North American, northern European and Russian systems as models.

“It will take time before ice hockey really becomes like a religion with young people as it is in the West,” he said. “But ice hockey will definitely catch on with lots of kids.”

One thing that will certainly help is developing a home-grown star similar to Yao Ming in basketball and Li Na in tennis. There are promising signs on this front, too.

Song Andong became the first China-born player to be drafted in the NHL two years ago, selected by the New York Islanders. The 20-year-old Song has committed to play at Cornell this season.

On Monday, the Vancouver Canucks signed 21-year-old Sun Zehao to an amateur tryout contract to serve as the team’s third goaltender for the China preseason games.

“He’s working with our goalie coach,” Vancouver coach Travis Green said. “He liked how quick (Sun) was, how competitive he was. . I just think it’s a great experience for him.”

The NHL should also get a boost in China as excitement builds for the 2022 Olympics. The league angered its players by deciding not to interrupt its season to allow them to take part in the 2018 Games in South Korea in February. That stance may change for 2022 in the much larger Chinese market.

To some, skipping the Pyeongchang Olympics is a missed opportunity to gain a bigger foothold in China.

“With 2022 coming up, winter sports are taking the leading focus of all sports in China right now – more so than football,” said Mark Dreyer, founder of the China Sports Insider website. “They’ll be promoting the Korea Olympics more than ever before.”

For now, the league is focused on taking its first baby steps in China, giving spectators in Shanghai and Beijing a good show.

“It’s going to be pretty cool, especially for people who have never really experienced it before,” Kings forward Tanner Pearson said. “It’s going to hopefully start something good here.”

 

All-Rookie, All-Star Teams and rest of 2018 NHL Awards

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Let’s recap the remaining winners from the 2018 NHL Awards. Before we do so, here are the other big winners and corresponding links.

Hart Trophy

Taylor Hall

GM of the Year

George McPhee

Vezina Trophy

Pekka Rinne

Selke Trophy

Anze Kopitar

Jack Adams Award

Gerard Gallant

Norris Trophy

Victor Hedman

Calder Trophy

Mathew Barzal

Bill Masterton Trophy

Brian Boyle

Ted Lindsay

Connor McDavid

Lady Byng

William Karlsson

Also:

P.K. Subban named cover star for “NHL 19.”

Humboldt Broncos reunite to honor late coach Darcy Haugan (Willie O’Ree Community Hero Award).

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Now, let’s jump into the remaining awards and honors.

Mark Messier Leadership Award

Deryk Engelland (see video above this post’s headline)

King Clancy

Daniel and Henrik Sedin

William Jennings

Jonathan Quick with Jack Campbell

Of course, Alex Ovechkin won the Maurice Richard Trophy and Connor McDavid took the Art Ross.

First NHL All-Star Team

Left Wing: Taylor Hall
Center: Connor McDavid
Right Wing: Nikita Kucherov
Defense: Drew Doughty and Victor Hedman
Goalie: Pekka Rinne

Second NHL All-Star Team

Left Wing: Claude Giroux
Center: Nathan MacKinnon
Right Wing: Blake Wheeler
Defense: Seth Jones and P.K. Subban
Goalie: Connor Hellebuyck

All-Rookie Team

Forwards: Clayton Keller, Brock Boeser, and Mathew Barzal
Defense: Charlie McAvoy and Will Butcher
Goalie: Juuse Saros

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Humboldt Broncos reunite to honor late head coach

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Ten members of the Humboldt Broncos reunited on Wednesday night during the 2018 NHL Awards in Las Vegas. The survivors of the April 6 bus crash that killed 16 players and staff were on stage to help give out the first Willie O’Ree Community Hero Award to their late head coach Darcy Haugan.

The award, presented “to an individual who – through the game of hockey – has positively impacted his or her community, culture or society,” was voted on by the public after fans submitted candidates, and the field was then narrowed down to three finalists.

From the NHL:

Haugan left a lasting impact in Humboldt, Sask., as well as every other community that was fortunate enough to have him as a resident or involved in junior hockey. He changed the lives of many of his players, always being there for each one of them and never hesitating to give them a second chance. He fought for his team and had their backs – he was the coach and mentor everybody wanted. Haugan believed strongly that the game is not about making hockey players; it is about making amazing human beings. He did just that, building up young leaders who also developed strong hockey skills along the way. His presence would fill the room and his love for the game was undeniable. Haugan died doing what he loved, surrounded by the young people he dedicated his life to. Haugan left behind, in all of those he touched, his spirit and passion for the game, his love for his beautiful family, and his example of dedication to his community.

Haugan’s wife, Christina, accepted the award in his honor.

The other finalists were Debbie Bland of the Etobicoke Dolphins Girls Hockey League and Neal Henderson of the Fort Dupont Hockey Club.

The NHL Foundation is donating $10,000 in Haugan’s memory to the Saskatchewan Brain Injury Association, a charity important to the coach.

On Tuesday, the NHL and NHLPA announced that Washington Capitals forward Chandler Stephenson will bring the Stanley Cup to Humboldt on Aug. 24 that will involve a skills competition at the Broncos’ home rink.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Hall beats MacKinnon for first Hart Trophy

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Being that Art Ross and Ted Lindsay winner Connor McDavid wasn’t even a finalist, it’s clear that being indispensable to your team factored heavily into the 2017-18 Hart Trophy voting.

With those unspoken parameters in mind, it makes sense that the MVP race ended up being so close between runner-up Nathan MacKinnon and winner Taylor Hall. Anze Kopitar ranked a distant third, but he could take comfort in being a finalist and also taking home his second Selke.

Sometimes you need to dig deep into “With or Without You” stats to realize how much a player stands above his teammates. You merely need to glance at the gap between Hall’s scoring (93 points, sixth-best in the NHL) and the next highest-ranked Devil (Nico Hischer with 52). Hall clearly dragged the Devils to an unlikely playoff berth, scoring that many points in just 76 games.

Nathan MacKinnon, meanwhile, finished with 97 points in 74 contests, yet he enjoyed a bit more help as Colorado’s top line was rounded out by fantastic wingers in Mikko Rantanen (84 points) and Gabriel Landeskog (62).

Now, the trickier part is figuring out if McDavid deserved to either win it or at least be a finalist. Ultimately, the PHWA viewed Hall as the “player adjudged to be the most valuable to his team,” no doubt weighing a playoff appearance in their decision:

As you might expect, the deeper voting is quite interesting. Kopitar narrowly edged Claude Giroux for third place, while there’s an interesting list of players who managed a single vote: Patrice Bergeron, Sidney Crosby, Victor Hedman, and Eric Staal. Drew Doughty got a fourth place vote while Hedman receive one fifth, yet Hedman ended up the Norris winner.

During certain seasons, the Hart Trophy is an easy call. This was one of the tougher years to truly pinpoint a top season, but the beauty for hockey fans was because there were so many great choices.

However you feel about who should have been the actual winner, Taylor Hall generated an absolutely brilliant season.

For a player who was traded for flawed reasons and blamed far too often for his teams’ failings, it must be awfully sweet to receive such high recognition. It can’t hurt that this award came after his first-ever postseason appearance, either.

Naturally, Hall has his eyes on the sort of celebration that Alex Ovechkin is enjoying right now, but Hall’s 2017-18 season was “a long time coming” in its own right.

And, yes, the Oilers must weep at the thought that they voluntarily gave up an opportunity to deploy the 2018 Hart winner (Hall) and the 2018 Art Ross winner (McDavid) on the same team.

GM of the Year George McPhee adds another award for Golden Knights

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George McPhee of the Vegas Golden Knights continued a big night for the franchise as he was named 2017-18 General Manager of the Year during Wednesday’s NHL Awards show in Las Vegas. Earlier, Gerard Gallant won the Jack Adams Award for top coach, William Karlsson was named winner of the Lady Byng and captain Deryk Engelland took home the Mark Messier Leadership Award.

The NHL’s 31 GMs and a panel of League executives, print and broadcast media voted on the award following the conclusion of the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Using the NHL’s expansion draft rules to his advantage, McPhee made shrewd deals to add draft picks and impact players while creating the franchise’s first-ever roster. Success came right off the bat and the Golden Knights ended their inaugural season by becoming the first modern-era expansion team from the four major North American professional sports league to win its division. By advancing to the Stanley Cup Final, Vegas became the third team in NHL history to win multiple playoff rounds in their first season.

McPhee was presented with the award by actress Lynda Carter and Nicklas Backstrom, the player he drafted in fourth overall 2006 while GM of the Washington Capitals.

Kevin Cheveldayoff of the Winnipeg Jets and Steve Yzerman of the Tampa Bay Lightning were the other finalists this year.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.