The IOC will be voting for the host city of the 2022 Winter Olympic Games on July 31st in Kuala Lumpur. A strong contender is Beijing, which previously hosted the 2008 Summer Olympics.
A Beijing win may have a significant impact on the Maple Leafs. And it has everything to do with China’s quiet growth as a hockey nation.
The emergence of China as an economic power in the last few decades is well documented. Bloomberg has estimated that by 2030, China’s GDP will reach 22.2 trillion dollars. (Note: for years, we have been warned that the Chinese are coming). Such figures as these, combined with the growing affluence of the Chinese middle class, make it extremely unwise for the IOC or any sporting body to overlook the influence and potential of this giant market.
Over the last few years, MLSE started a strong push to export their brand into the region. They envision that the Maple Leafs can transform from a national to a global brand. The dream outcome for MLSE executives would be to parallel the success of the Yankees or Man Utd. (two teams with ubiquitous brand recognition).
MLSE’s plans are notably ambitious. Among the numerous challenges, one stands out as rather obvious: are the Chinese ready to embrace "Canada’s game?" More importantly, who are these masochistic Chinese fans that want to cheer for the Leafs? Regardless of these uncertainties, our sporting overlords remain undeterred and appear poised to take over the world.
Phase one of the Leafs expansion into China is well underway. In November of 2014, Rick Westhead of TSN wrote an article on the Maple Leafs developmental strategy in China. Westhead reported that MLSE had already "established relationships with companies interested in sponsorship agreements with the Raptors." The fruitfulness of these partnerships encouraged them to further explore ways to promote the hockey team overseas.
In 2014, 87 NHL games were broadcast in China as part of a three-year deal with the league. (I have read figures that state the number of Leafs games aired ranged from 12 to 20, but I can’t confirm). In the Stanley Cup Finals, an average of 800,000- 1,000,000 viewers watched the Blackhawks beat the Lightning. These ratings would be the envy of many NHL teams. Upon sensing an opportunity to accommodate Chinese viewers and sponsors that would wish to capitalize on advertising revenue, MLSE began placing Mandarin ads on the ACC’s boards for a few regular seasons games this past season.
Clearly, the financial incentives of growing the game in China are immense. Basketball and the NBA have forged a dominant presence (Yao Ming looms as a political, cultural and actual giant) and therefore have immensely profited. Hockey, however, is still a great unknown, barely registering even as a niche sport. The enormity of the task cannot be overstated, when taking into consideration that the IIHF lists only 308 U-20 players in a country with over a billion people. Meanwhile, basketball has 300 million registered players across the country and shows no sign of slowing down.
The numbers do not seem to discourage Chinese officials, who foresee a future where Chinese national teams can compete with the likes of Canada and the United States in the Olympics.
In the political arena, the Canadian government is seizing the opportunity of "hockey as diplomacy." An interview with Stephen Harper aired on CCTV during a Leafs broadcast, while on his trip to China (accompanying him were various MLSE representatives). In a separate interview, President Xi Jinping claimed that hockey was his favourite winter sport. The urgency to grow the game of hockey is occurring at the state level.
This new partnership between the two nations and MLSE became evident when the Chinese women’s national team arrived for a three-month training stint. In an interview with the Toronto Star, Dan Noble (the Canadian training coach of the China’s women’s team), commented that a primary goal was to establish a "long-term partnership." During the women's visit, which began in November, the ladies competed against junior teams and universities in Southern Ontario. They were also invited to Ricoh Coliseum to watch a Marlies game.
Far away from Toronto and MLSE facilities, the Leafs sent a group of representatives to Shanghai for their second hockey development camp in February. Greg Schell, who is the Leafs Coordinator of Hockey Development, explained that the camp is structured so that the children work on things such as skating drills, puck control, and a "modified" version of the draft combine.
Included in that party, was a member of the Leafs alumni, Peter Ing. Ing, who is of Chinese descent through his father’s side, is working as both team ambassador and instructor. In an interview with China’s CCTV-5, Ing was asked to describe his experience so far.
Q: "Is this the first time [you’ve come] to China?"
A: "Yes, this is the first time. I’ve always wanted to come for the right reasons. For me, to be an ambassador for the game of hockey, to be an ambassador for the Leafs -- knowing that Beijing has a great chance for having the Olympics. I think it would be an awesome time to try to grow the game here in China."
Beyond grassroots development, the team is also considering holding future training camp and exhibition games in China. They are by no means alone in trying to shape this emerging hockey landscape. Teams such as the Vancouver Canucks and New York Islanders have already invested in their own programs. TSN recently reported that the KHL is interested in putting an expansion team prior to the year 2022. All of these moves signal that China is a market that is ripe for the game of hockey. One advantage the Leafs may have is that their efforts have given them a sizeable lead over other NHL franchises. They are quietly bringing Canada's game and Canada's favourite team to an entirely new generation of hockey fans.