Skating into Chinese mainstream

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Matt Grzelcyk (R) of Boston Bruins vies with Garnet Hathaway of Calgary Flames during the 2018 NHL China Games between Calgary Flames and Boston Bruins in Beijing, capital of China, Sept. 19, 2018. (Xinhua/Meng Yongmin)

Even with its return to the Olympics in 2022 still undecided, the National Hockey League is steadfast about growing the game in China, as evidenced by discussions about bringing regular-season contests here.

The second edition of the NHL China Games wrapped up at Beijing's Cadillac Arena on Wednesday with the second of two preseason clashes between the Calgary Flames and Boston Bruins that drew large and appreciative crowds.

The Bruins won 3-1 on Wednesday after notching a 4-3 victory in the Sept 15 opener in Shenzhen.

Now the league is considering something bolder for its next move in the Asian market.

"We are certain we can help grow the sport here in China," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said before the Shenzhen game.

"I think that at some point we will get to the stage where we will consider playing regular-season games in this market. If it's going to happen it will probably be at the start of a season so we can get the players back to their normal schedule without too much interruption."

As the 31-team NHL considers expanding to non-traditional markets outside Canada and the United States, logistical issues become more pressing.

Next month, the NHL Global Series features the Edmonton Oilers and New Jersey Devils opening the regular season in Sweden, and two games between the Winnipeg Jets and Florida Panthers will be played in Finland in November.

Although still largely unfamiliar with the nuances of the world's fastest team sport, Chinese fans seem to enjoy its entertainment value.

Cheered by an announced crowd of 12,933 on Wednesday, the Bruins completed a sweep of the China trip with a 3-1 win over the Flames. And even though thousands of fans left after the second period-presumably believing it was a two-half game-the remainder cheered loudly whenever there was a big hit, a scoring opportunity or a great save.

According to Tencent, NHL's digital media partner in China, the number of simultaneous online viewers for Wednesday's game reached 300,000 in the third period, up from 65,000 during last year's Beijing matchup between the Vancouver Canucks and Los Angeles Kings.

Bruins president Cam Neely said there's still a steep learning curve when it comes to selling the NHL to new fans in China.

"Any time you can introduce a new sport to a different culture, it's exciting," the 53-year-old Hall of Famer told China Daily before the Bruins worked out at Beijing's AZ Ice Sports Club.

"There is a huge growth opportunity here, but education about the sport, which is something the Bruins and the NHL are excited about, will be a slow process."

Neely said if the league stays true to its China mission, more teams should be brought here for longer visits.

"Maybe you bring four teams over and they stay in one city rather than traveling around," he said.

That coincides with the NHL's stated objective of heightening its China profile and eventually opening a league office here.

"The biggest focus is on building the game globally, so the travel doesn't really matter," said Jake DeBrusk, the Canadian forward who was named first star of Wednesday's game after scoring twice for the Bruins.

Teammate David Pastrnak, who hails from the Czech Republic, agreed, adding: "I think it's nice to start the regular season in other countries sometimes. And it's great that Chinese fans get to see the NHL."

In conjunction with the China Games, the NHL sponsored coaching clinics in both cities, with Stanley Cup-winning forward Alex Tanguay and former Ottawa Senators bench boss Paul MacLean serving as instructors.

Still, could there be a better way for Chinese fans to fall in love with the sport than by watching Sidney Crosby and Connor McDavid competing for Team Canada, or Jake Gaudreau and Auston Matthews leading Team USA at the 2022 Beijing Olympics?

Commissioner Bettman remains cautiously tight-lipped.

"The fact is, 2022 is still a long way off and we haven't made any decisions," he stressed. "So if it sounds like I've slammed the door, that's not what I was intending to do.

"What I was intending to do is explain where we are and what the considerations are."

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