BEIJING — Recovering from Thursday’s relatively moderate reception in Shanghai, the matchup Saturday night between the Los Angeles Kings and the Vancouver Canucks here — the second leg of the NHL’s first preseason games in China, resulting in a 4-3 shootout win for the Kings — witnessed a much stronger welcome from a city bracing for the 2022 Winter Olympics.
The attendance of 12,759 in Beijing — a northern city with a solid base for hockey and other winter sports — was only a mild uptick from 10,088 in the cosmopolitan Shanghai, but the contrast in fan engagement was rather stark.
In Shanghai, a large number of foreigners were in attendance at the Mercedes-Benz Arena, where the NBA’s China preseason game was hosted last year. Many fans flew from Los Angeles and Vancouver to show support.
“There was a lot of promotion of the China Games by the NHL in the United States, and we started planning on this trip since early on,” a fan from Los Angeles told Tencent. “We came in a group of six. We not only visited Shanghai and Beijing, but also went to Jiangsu and Sichuan. China is such a beautiful country.”
Most of the fans who wore hockey jerseys at the games were foreigners, a contrast to scenes at other sports’ China games, such as the NBA and soccer, at which enthusiastic Chinese fans often wear replica jerseys of James Harden and Cristiano Ronaldo.
After all, hockey — the NHL, in particular — remains foreign to many Chinese. Although the attendance in both Shanghai and Beijing exceeded 10,000 — not bad for the first experience — the ratio of knowledgeable hockey fans in the audience was low. To accommodate this, programs containing player and rule introductions were placed at seats before the games. During whistles for offside and other violations, the JumboTron showed explanations. But even so, confusion and misunderstandings of the rules — from line changes to fights — still loomed over a large chunk of the audience during the games.
The lack of knowledge of the game, however, did not prevent Chinese fans from doing the Wave and cheering. Every time Bailey — the Kings’ mascot — gestured for them to be louder, they played along. When the JumboTron called for waving white rally towels, the arena became a sea of white heat.
The zeal Chinese fans displayed toward the first-ever NHL games in China mirrors the nation’s booming sports industry, particularly in its winter sports. In Beijing, many children were taken to the game by their parents, a good sign for hockey’s growing potential in China’s middle class — the bedrock of its ambition to become a global sports powerhouse.
And with 2022 looming, hockey — boosted both by a government-led promotion and a ramp-up of civilian participation — is rising to the center stage. With a population of more than 1.3 billion, China, borrowing a page from the NHL, has started a patient search for its own Auston Matthews.
ESPN’s Kevin Wang contributed to the report