While the NBA grapples with its newly tense relations with its Chinese sports and business partners, the NHL remains on track with its strategy of strengthening its presence in China and encouraging the development of hockey there.
“Nothing about the current situation has changed our views on the importance of continuing efforts to grow the sport of hockey in China, or on any of the plans that we have in process,” the NHL’s deputy commissioner, Bill Daly, said via email.
Like the NBA, the NHL salivates over the potentially vast market of fans, viewers and merchandise sales in China. But unlike the NBA, the NHL hasn’t been put in the position of weighing money against morals.
A now-deleted tweet by Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey supporting antigovernment protests in Hong Kong triggered hostility among Chinese business officials before the Lakers and Brooklyn Nets played two preseason games in China. Tech company Tencent and state-run CCTV canceled planned streaming and telecasts. Merchandise related to the Rockets, formerly the most popular NBA team in China, disappeared. The NBA issued a statement saying it was “regrettable” that Morey’s comments had “deeply offended many of our friends and fans in China,” but commissioner Adam Silver amended that and said the league would not “put itself in a position of regulating what players, employees and team owners say or will not say” on social issues.
The NBA has sent teams to China to play nearly 30 preseason games over the years but the NHL’s push into China is recent and coincides with the country’s focus on winter sports leading up to the 2022 Beijing Olympics. The Kings and Vancouver Canucks played exhibition games in Shanghai and Beijing in 2017, and the Boston Bruins and Calgary Flames went to Shenzen and Beijing in 2018. In addition, the NHL hired Sandy Ma Yun as its director of international strategy and opened an office in Beijing. It also sent Washington Capitals star Alex Ovechkin there on a goodwill tour last summer. Wayne Gretzky traveled to China in 2018 as an ambassador for Kunlun Red Star, a Beijing team that plays in Russia’s KHL. The Kings last year formed the Beijing Jr. Kings, the first development initiative by an NHL team in China, and this summer sent several alumni to a camp in China.
Under commissioner Gary Bettman, once an NBA executive, the NHL has followed the NBA’s lead on many strategic and marketing ideas. The NHL would love to have the revenue the NBA gets from China — estimated at $4 billion by Forbes in 2018 — without also getting its current headaches. But sports and social activism have a way of intersecting, and the NHL must assume the risk of culture clashes as it does more business with China.
Grandpa Shark is back
Patrick Marleau, who left San Jose for Toronto as a free agent in 2017, returned last week when he signed a one-year deal for the league minimum of $700,000. Marleau, 40, became a free agent when he was bought out by Carolina, which had acquired him from the salary-shedding Maple Leafs.
The Sharks went against the tide of the NHL’s youth movement but made an expedient move: They were 0-4 and had scored five goals before Marleau rejoined their lineup.
“We stay very committed to what we’ve started the year with, which is integrating all the young players into the organization, but there’s realities that you have to deal with such as suspensions and injuries,” general manager Doug Wilson told reporters. “This is an opportunity to add a veteran into our group to give us some veteran depth that’s versatile and understands how we play and is very accepting of the role that Pete de Boer, our head coach, may need at different times.”
Marleau had an immediate impact, scoring two goals in the Sharks’ 5-4 victory at Chicago on Friday. He scored only 16 goals for Toronto last season, but he might be rejuvenated by returning to the team he represented for his first 19 NHL seasons. If only he could play goal, which looms as the Sharks’ biggest problem.
It’s all the rage
You’d be angry, too, if you were a longtime Flyers fan, so the team has given its followers a novel way to vent their hostility.
The Flyers created a “Disassembly Room” at Wells Fargo Center and stocked it with dishes, glasses, mirrors and other breakables that fans can smash to their heart’s delight. A five-minute session is $35 for one person and $60 for two. Participants are outfitted with a jumpsuit and a safety helmet and get a baseball bat and hockey stick to wreak havoc. “The concept is definitely one of a kind and nontraditional,” Valerie Camillo, president of business operations for the Flyers and the arena, said in a news release. “We ran the concept by some of our fans who told us they thought this would be a fresh way to have some harmless fun.”
The Nashville Predators do something similar during the playoffs: They bring in a junked car that’s painted with their opponent’s logo and charge fans $5 or $10 to smash the car with a sledgehammer. The Predators give the proceeds to the team’s charitable foundation, which the Flyers should consider.
A change will do you good
Winger James Neal scored seven goals in 63 games with Calgary last season and was scratched from the lineup for the finale of the Flames’ first-round playoff loss to Colorado. Traded to Edmonton in July for Milan Lucic and a conditional 2020 third-round draft pick, he has enjoyed a dramatic revival by scoring seven goals in his first four games, including a four-goal performance against the New York Islanders on Tuesday.
The turnaround, he said, comes from regaining his confidence. “It’s playing with some great players and having fun playing the game,” he told NHL.com “I think everyone that’s come in here kind of just took a step back and everyone has a lot to prove. We’re sticking together, becoming a team really quickly and having a lot of fun doing it. We want to be a Stanley Cup playoff team and have the guys to do it.”