When the IOC awarded the 2022 Winter Olympics to Beijing, China, the NHL took notice. China is a huge, untapped market that could sway the league into continuing its Olympic participation.
With plans for the 2016 World Cup well underway, we know how the NHL and NHL Players’ Association are going to grow their revenues. So now we can turn our attention to something that can actually grow worldwide interest in the game, the Winter Olympics.
It’s a tournament that has kind of been lost in the shuffle here, largely because of the ambivalence the league has displayed for future participation and its preparations for the World Cup. At the World Cup kickoff in Toronto Wednesday, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman took a not-so-subtle jab at International Ice Hockey Federation president Rene Fasel, saying, “We hear rumors that Rene Fasel may be at some point ready to talk to us,” about Olympic participation.
The wildcard, and possible game changer, in all of this is the International Olympic Committee’s decision to award the 2022 Winter Olympics to Beijing. If the league is going to make any inroads into the biggest untapped hockey market on the planet, what better way to do it than to bring its best players to them when they host the world? “It’s a market that ultimately we’re going to want to develop and cultivate for NHL hockey,” deputy commissioner Bill Daly told thn.com. “To the extent it has any impact, it’s a positive impact. I think part of the exercise is determining how positive it is potentially.”
This is great news for anyone hoping the NHL remains involved in the Olympics because prior to the awarding of the 2002 Games to Beijing, NHL interest in going back to the Games was lukewarm at best. The players still want to go and are willing to play in a best-on-best tournament every two years to make that happen, but the league has yet to see the bump in interest it had anticipated. Opening the game to China might be the bump it is seeking.
Bettman acknowledged Beijing is “a factor” in the future of NHL participation and is intrigued by the prospect. “It’s an important market. It’s a big one,” Bettman said. “If you can influence one percent of the population, you’re doing well. We’re going to need to take a look at what we think the overall impact on the game would be by participating and some of that may depend on the commitment China is prepared to make to develop hockey in China. Is it a dispositive issue? No. But obviously it’s something we’re going to have to take into account.”
And there might be some momentum on that front. As the host, China will have an entry in the 2022 tournament, which will entice the country’s federation to develop players who can at least compete at that level. And in this year’s draft, the New York Islanders made history by drafting the first Chinese-born player ever when they selected Andong Song out of Lawrenceville High School in New Jersey. The Beijing-born defenseman, who moved to Canada to play minor hockey when he was 10, will play this season at Phillips Academy and hopes to go on to college hockey. He was also an ambassador for the Beijing bid committee.
But there’s a terribly long way to go. According to the International Ice Hockey Federation, China has just 610 players, including women players, in the entire country and has just 58 indoor rinks. In terms of its IIHF ranking, China is 38th, just behind Australia and New Zealand. There is really nowhere to go but up.
If the NHL is intrigued enough to commit to playing in China, you would have to think it would also commit to Pyeongchang, South Korea in three years as well. That will put the Games seven time zones removed from Eastern Time in two straight Olympics, but if the payoff is making inroads into a country with a population of 1.4 billion, it could be worth it. The NBA has seen an explosion of basketball interest in China, with 300 million players in the country. The NHL will never see those kinds of numbers, but even a fraction of them would be worth the effort.