Alex Ovechkin is one of the National Hockey League’s and hockey’s most recognizable and popular faces. The surefire future Hall of Famer has compiled numerous accolades throughout his career, with his 2018 Stanley Cup the cherry on top. So it was no surprise when it was announced the the Capitals’ captain would be traveling to China to serve as an ambassador for the NHL and to promote the game of hockey. The potential of this trip, however, is something that could be vital to the game’s growth and expansion throughout the globe.
History of Hockey in People’s Republic of China
Before diving into Oveckhin’s impact on this trip, a little historic context about ice hockey in China is needed. Ice hockey in China dates back to the mid-years of the 20th Century, when the Chinese Ice Hockey Association was founded in 1957, to serve as the governing body of ice hockey in China. Since joining the International Ice Hockey Federation in 1963, the growth of ice hockey in the world’s most populous country has been relatively steady, with a professional Kontinental Hockey League team, Kunlun Red Star, based in Beijing since the 2016-17 season. The NHL has also played preseason games in China the previous two seasons and the league has committed to growing the game in China. In the sixth-round of the 2015 NHL Entry Draft, the New York Islanders made history by drafting the first Chinese-born player in NHL history (though the late Chinese-Canadian Larry Kwong was the first player of Chinese descent to play in an NHL game), Andong Song.
The Importance of Ovechkin’s Trip
When looking at the increasing popularity of ice hockey in China, it is easy to see why Ovechkin’s trip is so important and vital to the reach and growth the sport. A superstar player who is clearly beloved among the country’s youth hockey community (Ovechkin was greeted by a throng of young fans upon arriving to the airport in China) will bring attention to a sport that may not be on the radar of many people in the country. Raising awareness about the sport and promoting its potential as not only a potential career path for athletes, but an entertainment value to communities could very well see action to give communities and children an opportunity to play the game.
Ceremonial puck drop ☑️
Photos with fans ☑️
Gifted a traditional bull jade carving ☑️
— Washington Capitals (@Capitals) August 4, 2019
On Monday, Ovechkin took part in a clinic for approximately 40 players aged 10-12 (above) among other festivities in Beijing. On Sunday, Ovechkin attended a hockey tournament which featured Kunlun Red Star, teams from the Supreme Hockey League, a minor league affiliate of the KHL, taking part in a ceremonial puck drop with the Chairman of ORG Packaging, one of the biggest sponsors of hockey in China, Zhou Yunjie.
— Washington Capitals (@Capitals) August 5, 2019
Ovechkin’s trip is more about simply raising awareness about hockey in China, however. It also represents a significant shift in the expansion of what was once a sport confined primarily to the United States, Canada, and Europe to one of the world’s most powerful countries and its most populated. With a potential avenue for revenue and entertainment value, as well as a potential career path for young Chinese athletes, the impact The Great Eight can leave from this visit has the potential to change lives and grow the sport of hockey for the better. In 2017, Forbes.com published a story looking at China’s Sports economy, which showed that 18% of Chinese people involved in athletics played basketball and the National Basketball Association’s popularity was evident by the increasingly higher apparel sales. China is also set to implement a national fitness plan next year that aims to grow industry, state, and society through the implementation of more sports programs. With an already growing popularity, the potential for ice hockey is seemingly endless with the support and promotion from the NHL and players such as Ovechkin and the efforts from the Chinese government.
By Michael Fleetwood