This story first ran on SportingNews.com on September 21, 2017, and can be viewed here.
Successfully reaching non-traditional audiences outside North America is a hard task for any professional sports league in the United States.
After Thursday morning, the NHL seems to be on the right track.
The Kings and the Canucks held a preseason game at Mercedes-Benz Arena in Shanghai, the first of two the teams will play in the NHL's inaugural China Games series. The game is the first North American NHL game played in China, marking the first true attempt by the NHL to expand its reach to Asia, host of the next two Winter Olympics.
The Kings dominated the Canucks in the preseason bout, winning 5-2. Los Angeles picked up two goals early from Adrian Kempe and Tanner Pearson. The Canucks were down 3-0 in the second period before Sven Baertschi and Markus Granlund brought them within a goal. But Pearson found the back of the net again in the third, and was followed by Jeff Carter, who hit an empty-net goal to seal the deal.
In reality, though, what happened on the ice doesn’t matter. It was just an early preseason game, and there are still two weeks before the NHL kicks off its regular season.
"It was really fun," Canucks defender Erik Gudbranson said after the game. "This is a beautiful rink, to begin with. I think (the fans) took to it very well. I'm hoping that they had fun. I hope that they appreciated what we had to offer and that we brought some excitement over here with us. We certainly tried to play to the best of our abilities and put on a show, but as I said it's just tough that we lost."
Both teams dressed their regular season lineups, something not generally seen in early preseason play, in an attempt to capture some of the skill of a regular season contest.
Kings coach John Stevens, while obviously happy with the three-goal win, said his main focus was simply to grow the game of hockey. That's why they made the trek to China in the first place.
“To me, the icing on the cake is just getting an opportunity to grow the game in a country that's not familiar with it," Stevens said, via the Los Angeles Times. "That's exciting."
Hockey itself has been on the rise in China in recent years. Youth leagues and training centers are popping up everywhere. The government is pushing to develop hockey — and other winter sports — ahead of the 2022 Winter Olympics, which will be held in Beijing, too.
With the game on the rise, the NHL deemed it to be a perfect time to attempt to enter the Chinese market, similar to how the NBA did several years ago.
“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 told the Washington Post. “And once you see it live, you become hooked as a fan.”
The NHL knows its still early in its endeavor in China. It isn’t going to rush anything, and knows that the following in China is still small and new to the sport.
But it’s viewing Thursday’s game as a test, what it hopes to be the start of what hopes to be a successful long term project in China. After all, the league is still learning.
“We’re learning a lot about how to market here and we’re learning a lot about how tickets are sold,” David Proper, the NHL’s executive vice president of media and international strategy, told the Washington Post. “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.”
The two teams will make the more than 1,200 kilometer trip north to Wukesong Arena in Beijing for the final matchup in China on Saturday.
While the Canucks struggled on the ice on Thursday, Baertschi said it wasn't all bad. For a lot of the team, it was their first time playing a true game together. He said he thinks the game was a step in the right direction, and that the experience playing halfway across the world is something that can truly bring Vancouver together in time to start the season strong.
"We're here right now, and we have to come together as a group," Baertschi said. "No better way, being far away in a totally completely different country and spending some time together. The guys have had fun so far, but at the same time I also think were here to make sure we're ready once the season starts."