For a few moments on Friday, Kuala Lumpur will become the center of the hockey universe.
The steamy Malaysian capital is hosting a gathering of the International Olympic Committee this week that will culminate with the awarding of the 2022 Winter Games. Two cities are in the running: Almaty, Kazakhstan, and Beijing. The smart money is on China—which did a bang up job of hosting the 2008 Summer Games—to get the nod.
If it does, that bodes well for NHL participation.
Not that the selection of Almaty would be an deal breaker. After all, it’s been made clear time and again that players would travel to Venus for a chance to wear their country’s colors in the Olympics. Their desires will play a big role in any decision regarding future participation.
The NHL is somewhat less enthused about shutting down its operations for three weeks in the middle of the season and putting its top stars at risk of injury in exchange for what it sees as a questionable marketing boost.
That said, the Chinese market is so vast and so promising that another Beijing Games would make it difficult for even the most hard-line of the anti-Olympics owners to write off participation.
In fact, a report by TSN’s Rick Westhead suggests that NHL involvement could be in the bag if China wins on Friday. According to Westhead, an executive with CCTV, China’s public broadcaster, says the league already has pledged to send its players to the Olympics if Beijing is selected to host in 2022.
“Longmou Li, who has negotiated broadcast rights of National Hockey League games for the world’s biggest country, said that NHL officials have told him that they’d use a China-based winter games to build up the league’s popularity in the important emerging market,” Westhead reported.
A league source told SI.com that this is “categorically untrue,” and there is a good reason to believe him. There’s no way the league would make a commitment this far out—it still hasn’t made an official decision on 2018 yet—and it certainly wouldn’t agree to participation when that promise could be used as a bargaining chip in the next round of CBA talks, which are set to be held before the 2022 tournament takes place.
But really, how could the league say no? Participation in Nagano and Torino may have provided a negligible boost, but Beijing is a different animal in terms of both revenue potential and growing the sport. As Westhead reports, viewership of the Canada-Sweden Olympic gold medal game during the Sochi Winter Games on CCTV peaked at an astonishing 120 million viewers. Meanwhile, CBC reported an average audience of 8.5 million in Canada.
And the appetite for the game is growing. China is building rinks at a rapid pace—it will have more than 500 within the next five years, a total that would place the country fourth in the world behind only Canada, Russia and the United States, and ahead of traditional hockey powers like Sweden, Finland and the Czech Republic. CCTV currently shows one NHL game every week during the season, a broadcast that draws nearly a million viewers.
And how’s this for a recognition of the game’s growing importance? Alongside 2010 gold medal figure skaters Shen Zue and Zhao Hongbo, and NBA legend Yao Ming, the Chinese sent Song Andong as part of their official delegation to Malaysia. The 18-year-old became the first Chinese-born hockey player to be drafted by an NHL team when the Islanders selected him last month, and he’s been front and center in local media events with his country’s better known stars.
Andong may or may not be in the NHL in 2022, but that’s not the point. His presence in Kuala Lumpur illustrates the value the Chinese are placing on hockey as part of the event. As 2008 proved, they go all out in everything. If Beijing lands the 2022 Games, it will want the best possible hockey tournament. You can bet the Chinese will do what it takes to ensure NHL involvement.
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