China does Olympics really well. In preparation for the 2008 summer games, the People’s Republic doubled its subway system and added an airport terminal. It built impressive grounds from scratch in downtown Beijing, including the architecturally stunning Bird’s Nest and Water Cube facilities (relocating some 500,000 Hutong residents to do so). It built a Tibetan highway to Everest’s base camp so that the torch could make it up the mountain swiftly during its unprecedented relay around the world. The Communist Party put on a rollicking, US$100m opening ceremony that employed 10,000+ performers, and it also won the medal count for the first time in history.
So naturally the People’s Republic earned another turn with the games. In 2022 the Winter Olympics will be held in Beijing, deeming the city the first to hold both. However, winter sports can prove slightly more niche than more popular summer ones, and China senses one main event in particular – Ice Hockey, literally translated to ‘Ice Ball’ – will need some help gaining momentum in the four-year run up to the next games. Let’s call it a ‘cultural boost’, with assistance from Wayne Gretzky, Gary Bettman and Johnny Hockey.
The second annual China Games consisted of two preseason matches between the Boston Bruins and Calgary Flames, in Shenzhen and Beijing. The Stanley Cup made its rounds, and even accompanied The Great One to the Great Wall for a photoshoot. The game started with the national anthem, sung by a runner up of China’s equivalent of ‘The Voice.’ Most everything was in line with the American spectator experience, except for video explanations on various rules that played between points or when penalties were called. I think the showcase of mite-aged players between periods required all if not most of China’s youth hockey players to show up.
The most egregious deviation from the norm was a lack of beer for sale, despite Tsingtao being a main sponsor. The many ex-pats in attendance were unsettled by this sad reality, and started to pour out of Cadillac Arena earlier than usual. Even the deployment of energized cheerleaders couldn’t make up for the lack of overpriced lager.
The game itself started out slowly – I think Tuukka Rask let in a game tying goal late in the second period to make things interesting – but by the third period Brad Marchand and others were scrapping after the whistle, their competitive spirits transporting them back to the grit of TD Garden. Despite lacking much hockey exposure, fans had the wherewithal to gasp every time Johnny Gaudreau stickhandled, each of his puck possessions reengaging the bulk of the arena back into the game.
Still, though, there is room for improvement. Way too many standard passes and plays were dropped, maybe a result of sub-par ice quality, and the boards looked more precarious with each player that slammed into them. By the third period most spectators had cleared out, and the ones that remained seemed disinterested.
Gary Bettman and his organization have a new deal with Tencent and CCTV to stream NHL games on the mainland, but I would stop just short of calling this spectacle a win-win for the NHL and China’s hockey culture. Bettman said he wants regular season games to be played in China soon. To that I say good luck – but if he’s serious, he’ll need to start with the kids in front of me who played Grand Theft Auto on their phones the entire game.