LOS ANGELES – High above the ridiculousness that is the NHL All-Star Game, a 55-year-old Chinese billionaire looks on from his suite at the Staples Center. It’s the ultimate juxtaposition on a couple of levels. Chinese billionaires don’t often attend hockey games and this game doesn’t really represent anything remotely close to NHL hockey. At one point, an associate who hands out wooden business cards that cost five bucks each, pulls up a clip on his smart phone of a goalie making a diving save.
“I goalie,” the Chinese billionaire says proudly.
Meet Zhou Yunjie, the chairman of a company called ORG Packaging based in Beijing. In 2016, he was ranked No. 271 on Forbes’ China Rich List with a net worth of $1.2 billion, up from No. 348 the year before. When you’re this rich and accomplished, people call you Mister. So most people in North America refer to him as Mr. Zhou (pronounced JOE). And if he hadn’t already existed, there’s a good chance the NHL would have tried to invent him.
A billionaire whose goal is to grow hockey in the world’s most fertile and unexplored market? Are you kidding? With the 2022 Winter Olympics going to Beijing, there has been an explosion of interest in winter sports in China, a market that is continually grasping the concept of sports as a form of entertainment. And Zhou wants to work with the NHL as a conduit to that market.
“We are looking forward to future cooperation with the NHL,” Zhou told THN.com through a translator during all-star weekend. “I would really like to work with them.”
And the feeling is mutual. Deputy commissioner Bill Daly recently returned from a trip to China where he had meetings with seven different governmental and private sector companies in three days. ORG already has partnerships with the Boston Bruins, Washington Capitals and Los Angeles Kings. In fact, the Bruins will be holding their second ORG Night Sunday when they host the Montreal Canadiens and Zhou will be on hand to conduct the ceremonial faceoff. ORG was a sponsor of the World Cup of Hockey, had board advertising at the All-Star Game and currently has a deal with young Bruins’ star David Pastrnak. Daly told THN.com that the NHL and ORG are “in an advanced stage of discussions,” to have ORG on board as a league sponsor.
“Hockey is the No. 1 sport on ice. It’s marketable and there’s a big market there.”
“We are thrilled with the relationship we and our clubs have established with Mr. Zhou and the interest he has shown, and the investment he has made, in the NHL,” Daly said in an email to THN.com. “Certainly it is helpful to have that relationship as we attempt to broaden and deepen our ties with the Chinese business community. But what we are finding is Mr. Zhou is not alone in his interest in hockey. There seems to be a real appetite in the Chinese business community to associate with the North American sports business. And we think we can be a beneficiary of that.”
The NBA has had a foothold in China for more than two decades now. This past year marked the 10th edition of the China Games featuring preseason games between two NBA teams, something the NHL hopes to replicate next fall with exhibition games featuring the Kings and Vancouver Canucks. The NBA is now a huge part of Chinese culture, aided by the fact that homegrown 7-foot-6 center Yao Ming had a Hall of Fame career with the Houston Rockets. Zhou Qi, a 7-foot-2 forward who was drafted in the second round last June by the Houston Rockets, is currently playing in the Chinese Basketball Association and hopes to follow in Ming’s footsteps.
As is the case with most non-traditional hockey markets, there is almost no grassroots connection to the game and that is a huge obstacle. But even that might be changing. The Chinese government is trying to build between 200 and 300 indoor rinks in the next couple of years and, funded by Zhou’s company, young Chinese players have been making pilgrimages to both Boston and Washington to do skill development with NHL teams. Two dozen young Chinese players just completed a 12-day camp at the Capitals practice facility and 25 more will spend the next couple of weeks working with the Bruins.
Zhou said there are currently about 2,000 kids and 100 clubs playing in the Beijing area, a number he said will grow with more state sponsorship of the game.
“People’s lives in China are getting better and they are turning to the concept of competition in the sports into entertainment,” said Richard Zhang, president of Ocean 24 Sports and Entertainment, who helps Zhou put together his deals in North America. “Hockey is the No. 1 sport on ice. It’s marketable and there’s a big market there. That’s why (Zhou) is putting his energy into this.”
It all started with a lunch meeting during the World Cup. Judd Moldaver, an agent with the CAA Agency that represents Pastrnak, thought it would be a good idea for Kings president of business operations, Luc Robitaille to meet Zhou. The Kings’ parent company, AEG, owns the Mercedes-Benz Arena in Shanghai and the MasterCard Center in Beijing.
The two hit it off over their lunch in Toronto and that led to Robitaille inviting Zhou to come to all-star weekend. And the best part of it all? Robitaille also invited Zhou to play goal in the celebrity all-star game that was held the day before the main event.
“He loves the game and he loves Bobby Orr,” Robitaille said. “He really enjoyed himself in the game and I think he and the guys got a big kick out of it.”
Zhou has been on Forbes’ billionaire list for two years now and is described by the magazine as a self-made billionaire. He founded his company along with his mother in 1984, starting with four employees. Almost a quarter of a century later, ORG is a publicly traded company that has about 4,000 employees and boasts Red Bull, Coca-Cola, Budweiser and Campbell’s Soup as some of its major clients. ORG is China’s leading producer of three-piece cans, which are used primarily for food, and two-piece cans, used for soft drinks and beer.
Zhou started playing hockey as a goalie in Beijing when he was 12 and has had a fascination with the sport ever since. He regularly watches NHL games and is interested in hockey not only as a business venture, but in growing the game in China on the grassroots level. According to the International Ice Hockey Federation, China currently has about 1,000 registered players, which means a hockey player is literally one in a million. With that kind of potential for growth, Zhou is using his partnerships with NHL teams to expose young players to the kind of coaching they need to become elite players.
“With people like that wanting to push the development of the game with us, it’s absolutely phenomenal.”
Zhou has arranged for current and former Bruins to go to China to conduct hockey clinics in the summer and this coming summer, Capitals coach Barry Trotz and several alumni players will be making a trip to hold another camp. Zhou has also arranged for players from the Beijing Primary School to attend camps in both Boston and Washington. This week, the Bruins will host 25 players and the Capitals recently wrapped up a 12-day session with 24 players ranging in age from six to 12 that finished with a scrimmage against a group of local players at the Verizon Center between periods of the Capitals game against the Bruins Feb. 1.
“I was definitely pleasantly surprised,” said Dan Jablonic, the hockey director at the Kettler Capitals Iceplex. “I wasn’t sure what to expect, whether it was going to be a learn-to-skate, learn-to-play clinic, but they all could skate really well. I would say the majority of the players had ‘B’ or ‘A’ level travel skills and there were actually two players who were top players, who were definitely ‘AA’ or ‘AAA’ players.”
What Jablonic found with the players he coached was they had a very good handle on individual skills. He found a group of kids that listened well, worked very hard and kept their attention focused even at the end of the second of a two-a-day session.
“To see how well these kids listen was really a coach’s dream,” Jablonic said. “At the end of a two-a-day when most kids are really out to la-la land, these kids stayed focused and would sit and take a knee and listen and watch, even when they were tired.”
Where they are lacking, Jablonic said, was in game concepts and the team game, something he attributed to the fact that so many of the young players receive the bulk of their coaching in one-on-one settings. Jablonic said the one player he classified as a AAA player had tremendous individual skills, but found himself turning the puck over in game situations because he was trying to do too much on his own.
“We tried to get them to understand the concept of them really giving the pass and going to the open area and understanding that you might be skilled, but you have to utilize the other four players who are out on the ice with you to become a better player,” said Jablonic, who played at the University of Minnesota-Duluth and the ECHL before playing briefly in Sweden. “That’s a part of their game that was a little bit of a weakness, but they were willing to learn that. I was surprised at how well they moved the puck over the course of their time there and became willing to pass the puck, get it back and utilize the whole ice.”
And this is where the cultural differences might be something of an obstacle. As is the case in North America, a good number of former players have seen an opportunity to make a living as skills coaches in China and they have been coming from Russia and other former Soviet countries. There are even some Canadians coaching there. It has led to what Jablonic calls, “almost a figure skating model” where coaching is much more focused on the individual. That could change if the government does manage to build all those rinks and makes the game accessible to more people.
But development takes time. Lots of it. The Sunbelt states producing top players is a relatively new phenomenon and kids not having places to play is a barrier to development. Two years ago, the New York Islanders drafted Andong Song in the sixth round. Song was born in Beijing and began playing hockey there, but moved to Canada when he was 10 and now 20, is playing for the Madison Capitols of the USHL, where he has played 33 games with no points. Players who are willing to go to the lengths that Song and his family have gone to develop as hockey players might be the key to that development, at least in its infancy stages. Jablonic said that a number of players who took part in the most recent camp are already making plans to come back this summer for a deke and score school.
“I think it would be great for Hockey Canada and USA Hockey to help them with the proper development model,” Jablonic said. “I don’t agree with what they’re doing right now. You hear some of the coaches talk about it who were with this group and they were saying certain guys come in and they’re identifying players so early and if that coach has a group of really good mites or squirts, that doesn’t predict how good those kids are going to be as bantams and they’re excluding a bigger pool of players.”
There are critics of the development model over here that might complain about the same thing happening, but the difference here is the massive pool of players. But in terms of building the game, that’s where the NHL might come in. At least that’s what Daly found when he visited there.
“What I sensed was a real welcoming and open attitude to having us there, having us do more things there, making our games more available and accessible there,” Daly said. “They were very encouraging of us bringing our teams and games to China, helping and supporting the Chinese youth hockey infrastructure and assisting them in building a national program. In every one of the meetings I had, it was mentioned that while hockey doesn’t have as much exposure as basketball in China, our game was very popular with the Chinese youth and teenagers who were fascinated by the skill and pace of hockey played at a high level.”
So perhaps hockey isn’t just a unique fascination of one of the country’s billionaires, though having someone like that advocating for the NHL and the game certainly doesn’t hurt. As Daly pointed out, building and growing winter sports there is a priority at the highest levels of government. Hockey can’t help but benefit from that, but the NHL has to be there to showcase its product in more than just pre-season games. That will require it to send players there for the 2022 Olympics, which could be good news for those still holding out hope for 2018 in Pyeongchang. If the International Olympic Committee draws a line in the sand and says no Beijing without Pyeongchang, that could be enough to prompt the NHL to rethink its position.
Zhou, meanwhile, will keep pushing. He has had a number of meetings with both Daly and commissioner Gary Bettman and the two of them held a breakfast meeting during the all-star festivities to discuss business opportunities. And if the NHL is looking to maximize revenues, it could do worse than turn its efforts to a country with 1.4 billion people.
Or as Robitaille said: “With people like that wanting to push the development of the game with us, it’s absolutely phenomenal. It’s a great market and at the end of the day, if you grow the game, there’s more money for everyone.”