China: the next ice hockey superpower?

Hockey’s popularity has been growing for years . . . 

While basketball is the most popular sport in China hands-down, ice hockey is rapidly expanding in popularity. With the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics on the horizon, the sport’s growth is resulting from both Chinese stakeholders’ strategies and deliberate business moves by the owners and operators of international hockey teams and leagues. The NHL staged pre-season exhibition games in Shanghai and Beijing in 2017 and 2018, and it is promoting hockey through a tie-in with a popular Chinese cartoon series created by a Canadian. One Chinese hockey team, HC Kunlun Red Star, has played in Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) since 2016.

Investing in excellence and entertainment . . .

China has for years invested millions in state-run sports academies, the success of which are evident in the progression of Chinese athletes winning medals at the Olympics and elsewhere. Jack Ma, the founder of Chinese e-commerce company Alibaba, and a fellow Alibaba executive recently announced a 1 billion RMB investment to support the growth of women’s soccer in China. Ma’s 2014 investment in China’s most successful soccer team, Guangzhou Evergrande, was purely a business decision. At the time he stated “we're not investing in football, we're investing in entertainment.”

An opportunity for Canada?

We see plenty of opportunity for Canada as hockey grows quickly in China, whether that be for Canadian coaches leading youth and elite teams, the sale of high-end equipment, or providing hockey-specific engineering services as the number of hockey rinks mushrooms across the country. And it seems likely that Canadian players will continue to ply their trade in hockey teams in the Middle Kingdom for years to come; of the 36 players currently on Red Star’s roster, 20 are Canadian.