In 2013, Zhou Yunjie was in Boston on a bit of business when he found himself with a little leisure time on his hands. He hadn’t played hockey since he was a teenager and had basically lost touch with the game he once loved as a young goaltender back in Beijing in the 1970s. But the Boston Bruins’ Original Six brand appealed to the billionaire businessman. So with the Bruins at home, Zhou decided to take in a game at raucous TD Garden.
That night in Boston relit the hockey fuse in Zhou’s mind. “I always loved hockey and then I went to a live game,” he said. “That gave me the inspiration basically to bring the NHL to China and grow the sport of hockey in China like the NBA. The NBA has been there more than two decades and is very successful there.”
Since that night more than five years ago, Zhou has gotten back into the game in a big way. Through his company, Beijing-based ORG Packaging, he has forged partnerships with the Bruins, Los Angeles Kings and Washington Capitals, as well as a separate deal with the NHL. His plan is to make hockey ubiquitous across his home country of more than 1.4 billion people. “My ultimate goal would be seeing hockey really grow in China from grassroots, so maybe leagues or teams from primary schools, middle schools, and then ultimately China has its own professional league,” Zhou said. “And then, you know, we want to see players in the NHL representing China.”
Zhou’s goal to turn China into a hockey-loving nation has been years in the making. He learned to skate in Beijing when he was eight and began playing hockey when he was 12. He continued competing through his teenage years until 1979, when his team disbanded. It would be decades before he would be reunited with hockey. Although he continued to play a bit after his team folded, he soon lost touch with the sport he had grown to love.
In 1984, Zhou and his mother founded ORG, a metal-can manufacturing company. His focus quickly turned to building his company, but he applied the lessons he learned as a young player to his business interests. “Hockey played a very important role in my life,” Zhou said. “The spirit of a team, teamwork, competition and also perseverance have all been very important in my life and also my career.”
Zhou now hopes Chinese kids take the same lessons about “perseverance and also teamwork” that he learned from the game when he was their age. The ORG-NHL partnerships have invested in youth clinics and camps to get the growth of the game rolling in China, and registration has since doubled – from 1,225 in 2016 to 2,764 in 2018, according to the IIHF.
ORG-sponsored players have taken trips to the U.S. to meet their NHL heroes, and for the past two years the company has been the title sponsor of the NHL’s China Games, which have featured exhibition affairs between Los Angeles and the Vancouver Canucks in Shanghai and Beijing in 2017 and, most recently, the Bruins and Calgary Flames in Shenzhen and Beijing in 2018. “The games provided an opportunity for the kids and their parents to have direct access to live hockey,” Zhou said. “You might see something on TV, but when you go to a real live NHL game, the experience is very different. They got to experience that live and also learn about the NHL, about hockey, about hockey culture. I think it’s very important.”
Back home in Beijing, Zhou owns his own rink, the 2,500-capacity AZ Sports Ice Club, which is where the Bruins and Flames practised when they were in China and where the Jr. Kings (through a partnership with the Los Angeles Kings) play year-round. It’s also home to KRS-ORG of the Supreme League (VHL), the second-tier league beneath the KHL, whose roster will feature many players that will represent China at the 2022 Olympics.
Zhou’s hockey aspirations may have taken a hiatus for a few decades, but he’s more than making up for lost time – bringing hockey to an untapped population and fulfilling some personal fantasies at the same time. “The partnership with the NHL, with the teams…and to have my own rink, my own team in the VHL, it’s a dream come true,” he said. “The thing I enjoy the most is to see kids skating on the ice in my rink. Basically I see myself when I was a little kid, when I was playing hockey. So I’m very happy that I can provide such a platform for the youth in China.”