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…