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A Fan’s Perspective: The NHL experience in Shenzhen

The 2018-19 season marks the 30th season since the Calgary Flames last drank from Lord Stanley’s Cup. After their victory over the Montreal Canadians, tens of thousands of Calgary’s finest braved blustery late May weather to celebrate the franchise’s first championship. Just a week later, thousands of Chinese protestors gathered in Tiananmen Square with a very different aim and a very different result. Thirty years later, as China seeks to move on from the narrative of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, the Calgary Flames seek to recreate the magic of 30 years ago. They began that journey Saturday in China.

For the second year in a row, the People’s Republic of China welcomed NHL franchises for a pair of exhibition games. The league’s foray into China appears potentially advantageous for all parties. The league gets to expand its reach to a market of 1.3 billion people with an economy projected to be the world’s biggest within 15 years. Any wealth from the Chinese market can line the pockets of both the league’s owners and its players. While economics likely drive the league’s motivations, for the PRC this form of cultural exchange (after all, what is Canadian culture but hockey?) both softens China’s image in the west and helps to prepare the country for the 2022 Olympics in Beijing.

Last year’s games between the Los Angeles Kings and Vancouver Canucks drew lukewarm reviews. Poor attendance in the first game in Shanghai led Phil Esposito to memorably declare that “the NHL blew it.” As an advisor to the Kunlun Red Star, the only China-based team in the KHL, Esposito certainly has a vested interest in seeing hockey thrive in China. (For Flames fans with a good memory, this is the same team that former Flames bench boss Mike Keenan was fired from in December 2017.)

So did the NHL learn its lessons from its first foray into China? Along with hundreds of other Canadians living in Hong Kong (including my five-year-old son), I headed north to Shenzhen to find out.

Shenzhen Universiade Sports Centre

After the debacle in Shanghai maybe it should be little wonder that Shenzhen was chosen as a venue in 2018. Shenzhen, a small town of just 30,000 inhabitants in the 1970s, has grown to a population of over 20,000,000 in its metropolian area. Its close proximity to the trading port of Hong Kong was key to its development, and was likely another reason for Shenzhen’s choice as a venue. Thomas Wu’s influence also shouldn’t be underestimated. The Hong Kong-based Wu serves as one of the IIHF’s three Vice Presidents. For NHL fans in Hong Kong, the game proved an easy day trip.

After criticism was leveled at the NHL and its Chinese partner, Bloomage International Sports Development Company (with whom the league has agreed to put on two more exhibition games in the next six years), ticket prices for this year’s event in Shenzhen were approximately 30% cheaper than last year, with tickets ranging in price from 15 to 280 Canadian dollars.

Despite midday temperatures of 35 degrees, hundreds of fans arrived hours early for the game to take part in NHL fanfest activities. Most early arrivers were North American and already fans of the game. Hockey jerseys from across the league could be seen, with Flames jerseys outnumbering Bruins gear by at least a 2:1 ratio.

While Lanny McDonald’s easygoing attitude and willingness to take photos and give autographs was undoubtedly a highlight for many, the biggest highlight for most was the presence of the Stanley Cup. Up to 90 minutes before puck drop fans could get their photo taken with the most iconic trophy in North American sports.

Hallowed memories

Other fan-friendly activities rounded out the experience. Curtis Lazar and Rasmus Andersson played street hockey with kids, while Alex Tanguay chatted with fans. There were also competitions for hardest shot and shooting accuracy, with the latter rather ironically sponsored by Tsing Tao beer, as no alcohol was available at the venue site. For fans looking for a more traditional hockey experience, the only reasonable option was warm beer selling for two dollars a can in an overwhelmed stall outside the venue gate. While not ideal, this proved to be the oasis in the desert for some fans sweltering in the heat.

The league’s efforts to create a family friendly environment were largely successful. The 2:30 p.m. gametime allowed for hundreds of children to attend. In order to help educate fans, Chinese-speaking emcees narrated as Harvey the Hound and Blades the Bruin spent a few minutes on the ice before the game entertainingly demonstrating cross-checking, tripping, elbowing and holding to the crowd. After penalty calls during the game, a brief description of the nature of the infraction was displayed on the scoreboard. The pre-game Hockey 101 education also included an explanation of offside and icing, though the nuances of Corsi were left for another day.

Not your standard Ticketmaster fare

The game itself had a distinctly Calgary home game feel. A large part of that was due to the presence of Flames PA announcer Alan Beesley, who urged the crowd to cheer on “your Calgary Flames”. The red-themed China Games aesthetics also helped. Efforts to engage the crowd through the use of Chinese cheerleaders and your standard fare of AC/DC, Tragically Hip and Bruno Mars also helped enliven the crowd, which responded dutifully to Chinese instructions on the scoreboard to “make some noise” and “wave your towels”.

By the middle of the second period, the flavour of a Canadian event had peaked as the wave circled the Sports Center while the crowd watched the scoreboard trying to guess the right coffee cup in the Tim Horton’s Coffee Cup Challenge. Beesley pressed the crowd even further, calling out “surfs up in the C of Red!”

Eight powerplays apparently weren’t enough for the pro-Flames crowd as they rang out with boos in overtime after Mikael Backlund’s obvious tripping penalty. Meanwhile in the crowd, children were enamoured with the big Canadian dog. Harvey the Hound may have won over more Chinese children than any Flames player did on the day.

Blades and Harvey wow the crowd

The league’s attendance figures of 10,218 seemed pretty accurate as the eye test indicated the stadium was about two-thirds full with approximately half the crowd constituting the Chinese middle class and the other half Western expatriates.

It was before the game and in between periods where the bridging of East and West was most overt. The greatest moment of cultural unease felt by most Canadian fans was prior to the game as both teams lined up for the singing of the national anthem and the only anthem to be sung by Jike Junyi was the anthem of the People’s Republic of China. A hockey game without the Canadian anthem felt about as odd as a hockey game without a pint, and Canadian fans got to experience both Saturday.

Between periods Matthew Tkachuk and Jake DeBrusk were peppered with questions about their feelings on the atmosphere, their impressions of Shenzhen and whether or not they liked China. The questions appeared designed as much to boost the esteem of Chinese fans in attendance as anything else.

While the China Games did do a lot of things well there were some obvious failures. Firstly, the food service was embarrasing. There appeared to be no more than 15 staff working the concessions for an crowd of over 10,000 people. The offerings were extremely limited. No hot food. No beer. Fans could choose from three flavours of pop, caramel corn, Snickers, and potato chips.

The game’s drink selection…

the food selection wasn’t much better

The food services staff were drastically outnumbered by a security force of well over 150 that was armed with an armoured Hummer, machine guns, and shields. This show of force was not only puzzling but counterproductive. The troops were needed in Vancouver in 2010, not Shenzhen in 2018.

The PRC meets the NHL

The lessons of Vancouver 2010?

I can’t add much on the performance of the Flames that brighter minds haven’t already identified. The 1-3-1 powerplay structure looks poised to improve last year’s 29th-ranked powerplay. Of the new additions, Austin Czarnik’s slipperiness and ability to make plays from small spaces stood out, along with Noah Hanifin’s impressive mobility. The Real Deal James Neal comes as advertised: big bodied but a little slow with dangerous set of hands that should finish many scoring opportunities.

Yesterday’s matchup proved that the NHL still has a long way to go to establish its presence in the Chinese market, but the league does appear to have learned some important lessons from last year. While the Flames should have beaten a very mediocre Boston lineup, there were positives to take out of the game.

While the Chinese attempt to move on from the memory of events of 30 years ago, Flames players and fans alike hope that this was the first step in recreating the memories of 30 years ago.

  • MontanaMan

    Agree – very interesting story and provides some insight into the games. I wonder what the end game is for the NHL as clearly China isn’t interested or ready for the NHL. Is it 10 years away? Although an interesting trip for the team, it’s highly disruptive and will set the team back the first two weeks of the season adjusting so there’s no real advantage for any NHL squad going over. Hopefully there’s a long range plan that the NHL is steering towards.

  • SydScout

    My thoughts on being at the game in Shenzhen. Note: I’m not an expert like you folks who grew up with the game so I could be way out to lunch here. First up, the questions from OTW, Cheeky and our resident Heat expert:

    OTW
    How about our new players, Neal, Lindholm, Czarnik and Hanifin?

    – Hanafin was invisible in the first. I guess that’s a good thing if you’re a D man. Neal looks a little unfit but boy oh boy his shot! Wow, it’s heaaaavy. Plus he looks like he’s pissed off every shift. Plays with an edge. Love it.

    Czarnik was ok in the first but played really well in the second and third. I think they threw him into the shootout to beat his old team. It didn’t work, but I like the idea.

    SF
    how Gillies looks after a summer of training. – the dude is massive eh? But seems to play small. It’s weird. Needs at least another year of AHL time.

    Cheeky
    how Ras looks… And Brodano if the chemistry is back…
    – No Ras mate. Brodano – too hard to tell. Saw a few stretch passes from Brodie that didn’t hit the spot but the intention was right.

    A few other observations:

    Mony and chucky were arsing about and goofing off at warm up. It’s great to see that team spirit. I also noticed that Jonny and Mony the last two off the ice pre game. They just seem to love what they do.

    Lindholm is an aggressive forechecker.

    The PP’s were consistent. No line blending.

    Mony JH chucky Lindholm Gio
    Neal Czarnik Backs Ryan Brodie

    That five on three kill! As my mate said (who was watching back in YYC), ‘I have NEVER seen two forwards on the ice when killing a 5 on 3. Whoa. I need time to digest this.’

    Pretty good intensity for a pre season game

    Bennett…if he ever gets it all together he’ll be great. It’s that last pass or a quality finish around the net that he’s lacking. Not for a lack of trying, kid puts in.

    Czarnik and Frolik seemed to be building chemistry, talking heaps between plays. Maybe that Fro being the veteran and helping a kid and fellow countryman out. Czarnik has a great pass.

    But when the lines changed Frolik looked good with Backs and Chucky. So much smoother.

    Janko is a smart player. He may not have the high end talent that other do but he puts himself in the right position all the time and makes smart plays. If he’s our fourth like centre I’m so ok with that.

    Lanny is SUCH a legend. Cool to see him do the ceremonial puck drop

    • HAL MacInnis

      Thanks so much for doing this, SydScout. Lots of context for us fans to have as the preseason plays out. Much appreciated.

      Looks like Peters is keeping things simple for the boys early on without much juggling. That’s probably a wise thing as they find their legs and some chemistry. I really like the feedback on Neal, as well. Playing with emotion is that extra level of compete that is hard to find. I hope that rubs off on his teammates. Some people dismiss getting psyched for sports as a meathead thing, but it’s the only way to produce adrenaline in your body and having that edge on the ice is incredible. If Smith played out of goal, he’d be laying out bodies all over the ice.

    • freethe flames

      Again after watching the Heats goalie coach(my apologizes to the Flames goalie coach but I suspect they teach the same thing) with the goalies the other day they teach deep in the net and go down early. For me that’s counter productive for a big goalie; be high, stay big and go down later- take up as much of the net as possible and let the puck hit you. Now if your an athletic goalie like Parsons(Kipper) maybe being deep makes some sense because your reactions are so quick.

  • SydScout

    Oh and Paul’s write up was bang on. Especially the bit about the beer. Here’s a great yarn for all you Canadians. I’m on my own at the game, and a young bloke walks past with a can of beer. I hit him up, ‘mate, where’d you get that?’ He smuggled in six and without thinking hands me one. Doesn’t want cash for it. So we hit it off, move seats and hang out. He takes off at the end of the first period, leaves the arena and comes back with 15 more cans and 8 cheeseburgers! Again, will not take a dime for it. So typically Canadian, nicest fella. Needless to say we were pretty bloody cheerful when we left. Great atmosphere back in Hong Kong last night, heaps of hockey fans around. Everyone was in good form.

    • Off the wall

      Love this Syd. Great story!
      It sure would be fun to shoot the breeze with you in person.. You’re a solid bloke and I’m sure our Canadian friend recognized that.

      Thanks for the update on your prognosis of the game and the players we all selfishly asked you to watch for us..

      • SydScout

        Likewise OTW – no doubt an interesting discussion between a Scot and an Aussie. I’m sure there will be a few tales to tell (I lived in Edinburgh for six months, after living in Cardiff…supporting the Cardiff Devils hockey team!) over a can or five of Tennents. Will be in YYC this December but you arent based there right? Lets tee that up some day – be a good laugh.

        Like you, I just fell in love with this team and the game. Its hockey first, daylight second then every other sport.

  • HAL MacInnis

    Awesome article, Paul. It’s really cool to get a well thought out and written account of something pretty historic for us Flames fans. Thank you very much.

  • UpTkachuk

    “Bennett…if he ever gets it all together he’ll be great. It’s that last pass or a quality finish around the net that he’s lacking. Not for a lack of trying, kid puts in.”

    I think this is the best description of Sam that I have ever read in a single sentence. Saw a couple of such plays from him in this exhibition game. I hope he gets it together this season. An engaged and effective Sam Bennett could be worth more than all the moves made in the off-season.

    • SydScout

      Thanks UpT – Bennett reminds me of Ruud Van Nistelrooy…in a completely opposite way. RVN could finish like no-one else I’ve seen (and I hated the guy playing for Man U). Evidently he only scored one of 150 goals from outside the box.

      In this context, I wonder about Sam being put with finishers. Neal may not be a bad idea for a few shifts, especially in pre season. Mony would be great, but I doubt they’d do that with Lindholm around. Czarnik to me doesnt seem like a finisher at the NHL level, more a playmaker. I agree an effective Bennett would be better than any offseason moves, but from my eye he certainly is engaged!

  • Flint

    Not so sure what was meant by all the security talk, and it being counterproductive but I can only assume you mean Vancouver 2011? The Stanley Cup riot, no? The olympics was 2010. Unless I’m missing something or the point?

    • Speed Kills

      No its the 2010 Olympics … Very heavy Police/Security presence due to possible terrorism on a world stage… Crybaby~Tantrum Canuck fans are just embarrassing to the league, the province, the city and Hockey in general. Not surprising actually, if you ever have the dis-pleasure of listening to a Canucks TV broadcast the ultra-homer and ultimate whiner commentary/colour play by play is insulting to any above average hockey fans. They question and doubt Every penalty against and over analyze and cry about all of the slightest missed call against the other team, not to mention the most average play by the canucks being in the realm of the gods but yet any plays made by the Visitors are fluky/lucky or just flown by under-the-radar and ignored. All the visitors shots are wide by 10 feet but all the canucks shots “just missed by whiskers”(even when the missed by 10 feet) … Yeah its that bad… No wonder their fan base is so…. well lets just say “Out To Lunch or in La~La~Land” as well as overly excitable and prone to do things like Tantrum Riot after a loss… Great Article by the way! Cheers!

      • Off the wall

        Haha, that was funny and horribly accurate about the Canucks broadcast crew.

        I call them Bert and Ernie, cuz of Shorthouse and his voice and Garrett with his rubber ducky analysis. He’s been playing in the tub too long and I think it’s shriveled his brain..🎼rubber ducky, joy of joys, when I squeeze you you make noise, you’re my very best friend, it’s true 🎼

        I watched too much Sesame Street growing up..

  • Puck Head

    Not related but when watching the game the other night it was apparent that Mony and Johnny are a pair and should not be broken up to play on different lines. Johnny is a playmaker through and through while Mony is pure scorer and the only player who consistently finds scoring lanes. There is no other player like Mony on the squad. It’s entertaining just watching Mony looking for open ice.

  • Off the wall

    Well, that was refreshing write up. I really appreciated the blend of past and present. Well done Paul!

    It was comforting hearing Beezley’s voice over the PA, introducing the players.

    The things we don’t get to see, like Harvey interacting with the kids, the two mascots teaching the new fans about penalties is heart -warming. It educates in a simple and fun way. Besides, Harvey the Hound is awesome!

    And who couldn’t love Lanny McDonald? He’s a gem.

    Playing street hockey with kids, that’s how you get the interest peaked in children. Lazar with that ear -to ear -smile, would lighten any child’s mood. Congrats to him and Andersson for being a ambassador for our hockey team.

    There’s a BIG gap in our cultures, and bridging that gap can be challenging.

    Here’s hoping that the fabric of hockey starts weaving it’s way into the souls of China, much like it did for this wee Scotsman.
    It took me a while to grasp it, however once I understood it and played it, it has become a part of who I am.

    I can’t imagine my life without it.
    It’s the fastest, most skilled game ever played.

    Thanks for the great picture you painted for this fan and a reminder of how long ago it was that I became a life long fan of hockey!

  • freethe flames

    So a hockey question now. BP suggested that there will be line up changes for the next game; any reports out there form practice as to possible line changes? Second has anyone else been to Flames practice in town other than my first day coverage?

        • freethe flames

          So to ever gave this the bum’s rush here’s my reasoning: with that 13 stiches across his face Hathaway could get the night off. Of the the 3 forwards on the trip the guy best suited to play with Bennett and Janko is Lazar. Last year they played together a bit and from my seat they actually looked promising but old GG did not give it much of a look.

          Again I heard BP in an interview imply he was planning on getting everyone in. I’m not sure how he does it unless he sits and entire line for a night. Would it make any sense to go Klimchuk/Lazar/Peluso instead of the Janko line?

  • Derzie

    Crossing over to new countries in professional sport is tough but can be very rewarding. As an example, when I grew up in Canada, everyone played soccer/football as a kid. It was easy to get going, minimal costs, all skill levels can play. Yet when we went home and watched TV, it was baseball, american/Canadian football and basketball (to some degree), but not soccer. As a result, we grew up as MLB, NFL/CFL, NBA fans, but not soccer fans unless you immigrated to Canada from somewhere else.

    In the winter, EVERYTHING took a backseat to hockey. Everyone coming out of my era that watched sports, had a favorite team in each league.Common thread? TV. Not everyone can attend games. The majority of fans of pro sports never get to attend a live game. The live event enhances the experience but it is not the gateway to becoming a fan.

    Fast forward to now. My kids grew up being exposed to sports through video games. The games were a gateway to TV viewing. And the in-person experience was the culmination. Their favorite sport is soccer/football. The video games are fantastic and they have TV access to the games. When I grew up, you had to read about Premier League scores in the newspaper a week or two after the game happened. Hardly going to allow me to be a fan if I can’t even get info about it.

    So with China, if my kids are an example, they need their entry point into the NHL. Video games maybe. Fantasy sports. TV/streaming is a must. The live games are the end result, not the entry point. We seldom pay good money to go to an event to “see what it’s all about”. If it was free, we may check it out and learn in the progress. If the NHL were run by leadership that had their stuff together, this league would thrive. Bettman and his dopes like Daly are so woefully out of touch and make money in spite of themselves on the backs of the players.

  • freethe flames

    So I bored and decided I would help Coach Cail pick the line up for Mondays exhibition game vs the Oilers. This is based upon 3 things; 1 it’s a home game and the fans deserve to see the shiny new toys, 2 it’s against the Oilers and we should try an beat them and 3 my observations from day one in practices(lines may have changed since then but here goes)

    Mangiapne/Quninne/Foo
    Rychel/Dube/Robinson
    Pollock/Gawdin/Shaw
    Lomberg/Gravoec/Bruille

    Kylingon/Heally
    Valimaki/AOM
    Samuelson/Sproul

    Rittich
    Parsons

      • freethe flames

        OTW: on Monday he was on a line with Ehliz/McMurty/and Bubba and the same squad as Dube’s line. Is there a chance lines have changed but as that is the only information I have that’s what I went with. Is there a chance he plays absolutely especially for the home crowd. (Might depend who the Oilers’ dress) I had hoped by bringing this up that someone who might have gone to practice the last 2 days might also speculate. Saturday morning for me was chores and daddy driver stuff and Sunday morning is reserved for Church. So I have no updates. I might get to another practice next week but we will see. I am still trying to figure out why Holmstom was not at practice Friday.

        • mrroonie

          Saw tweets from Flames PR and FN’s own Ryan Pike the other day that Hogstrom has been dealing with an injury and has been skating by himself or with one of the coaches before the main practice and then leaves the ice when the rest of the players come on. He’s hoping to be skating with the rest of the players in the next few days.

  • The GREAT WW

    So the Nurse camp leaked that they believe his value is a little north of $4. (Which the Oilers don’t have).

    Are they fishing for an offer sheet….?

    WW

    • Brian Burkee

      Yes but Chiapet is all smiles now after hearing that Josh Morissey just signed for only 3.1 million today. Josh has more points than Nurse and probably has a greater upside. So no way the nurse camp can expect 4 million. Oilers will also have 5 million freed up on oct 6. Sekera injury gives them that cap relief. I just hope we didn’t overpay for Hanifin who so far in his career is only averaging 27 points which is the same as Morissey.

      Morissey 3.1 million
      Hanifin 5 million

      Backlund 5.3 million (that was for you Walt lol)

      • The GREAT WW

        Morissey signed in Winnipeg……which is about 100X more attractive city to play and live in than Edmonton.
        So Chia has to pay the premium.

        Honestly, do you really expect Nurse to sign for less than Russell?!

        WW

        • Flint

          Exactly. Russell makes 4mil/year.

          Nurse was 2nd in TOI for the Oilers skaters 22:15 (behind only Klefbom by some 30 seconds/game). He was first in points from the “D”. He skates well. He’s strong as a bull.
          Best +/- of the D. Third in shots on the team of all skaters including forwards. Third in hits. Positive corsi player (better than Larsson, Davidson, Sekera, Russell, Bear) with 48,9 off zs.

          When you look at the Oilers “internal salary cap” why should he not be asking for comparable to Klefbom, Larsson and Russell who all make 4mil/year.

          I say stick to your guns Nurse, Chia loves handing out money… keep that team cap-screwed for the next decade!

  • BlueMoonNigel

    Can’t believe posters slagging Neal for his effort in Game 1. Dude’s a distinguished vet. I think he knows a thing or two about how to pace himself for the long grind which is the NHL regular season followed by the playoffs. I could care less if he mails it in for the rest of the exhibition schedule because I know when the bell rings on opening night, he’ll be “game on.”

    • freethe flames

      A distinguished vet who is a self proclaimed leader playing on a new team for a new coach probably should led by example don’t you think. A few years ago GG gave a letter to a guy who supposedly had the same type of resume; how did that work out. I’m not saying Neal will be the new TB but I certainly expected a better effort from him. Maybe he is a Phil Kessell type and I sue hope so rather than a TB type.