The Chinese have panda diplomacy and now Stephen Harper is reciprocating with hockey diplomacy, trying to convert China’s sports fans to Canada’s game as a way of bridging the divide between Ottawa and Beijing.
Mr. Harper, who’s had a strained relationship with China and is currently on an official trip in the country, taped an interview with Chinese state television Monday where he encouraged the nation’s citizens to watch Toronto Maple Leafs games that are being broadcast throughout the Asian nation.
The Prime Minister said he looks forward to the prospect of Team Canada’s hockey team facing off against Team China in future winter Olympics.
(Canada and China already compete at the Winter Games in women’s hockey.)
“It’s just another great cultural connection that will enhance the sense of shared experience between the Canadian people and Chinese people who I know have, notwithstanding occasional political differences, great affection for each other.”
Mr. Harper spoke of how he’d like Chinese sports fans to embrace the game developed in Canada.
“It’s a game we’re very proud of. Modern hockey was something that Canadians not only invented but developed as a sport as a reflection of our values and our country,” he told China Central Television on the last day of his visit there.
The interview is to run during a Leafs game that is broadcast to legions of Chinese sports through a television deal arrangement with the NHL.
“We’ve never had a proprietary view of [hockey],” Mr. Harper told CCTV.
“We’ve always encouraged the spread of the sport in all countries and we want to see other people in other parts of the world appreciate it and become good at it.”
Mr. Harper was joined in the interview with China Central Television by David Hopkinson, chief commercial officer of Maple Leaf Sports Entertainment.
Mr. Hopkinson was visiting China at the same time as Mr. Harper’s trade trip in an effort to drum up business for MLSE. The Leafs games being broadcast in the Asian country offer big-name companies an opportunity to reach Chinese consumers.
The Leafs have already run Mandarin-language ads on the rink boards around the ice at Toronto’s Air Canada Centre to take advantage of this new viewing audience.
For the NHL, the broadcast deal in China is part of an effort to grow the game internationally as sports such as professional basketball have already done.
Mr. Harper, who published a book last year on the early history of professional hockey teams in Toronto that were precursors to the Leafs, was asked by Chinese state TV whether he’s a Leafs fan.
Mr. Harper, who represents a Calgary riding in the House of Commons, replied in the same careful answer he has used for years when asked to pick sides in hockey.
He noted there are “shared loyalties” in the Harper home. “We cheer for the Maple leafs in the East and the Calgary Flames in the West and I keep telling people one of these days one of them is going to make the playoffs,” the Prime Minister said, smiling.