Shenzhen, China – In the first preseason game of the 2018-2019 NHL season, the Boston Bruins defeated the Calgary Flames 4-3 in a shootout. Does it matter? What matters the most was that it was played in Shenzhen, China (just north of Hong Kong) and many hockey fans from the south witnessed their first ever live hockey game.
Fans, as well as my friends and contacts from the hockey world came from everywhere – Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Thailand and as far as Canada and the United States (not counting the players). The game was not sold out but I would say it was close to 85% full with a capacity of 16,000 at the Shenzhen Universiade Sports Centre, home of the Kunlun Red Stars Vanke Rays of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL). Not bad at all.
What was great to see was that there were so many young fans attended this game. Great job by the NHL to make this an afternoon game which started at 2:30pm. Families that travelled to Shenzhen had ample time of reaching the arena in the morning and the game finished around 5pm, plenty of time to head back to the border to Hong Kong or had the option to stay for dinner. I can see why the NHL would cringe at allowing their players to play in the Olympics. The 2:30pm start in China, meant a 2:30am EST televised game in North America which meant the ratings would be low unless it was the Gold medal game. But, if the NHL do allow their players to participate in the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, they would be showcasing their players in front of a 1.3 billion market. Easily more than the population of the US and Canada combined but will save this discussion for another day.
Many of the young fans who were players, had just competed in the Gretzky Cup. Yes, ‘Wayne’ Gretzky Cup which featured 3-4 divisions and 4-5 teams in each. It was held at the rink beside the arena during the week, where Gretzky made an appearance on the final day. Some of you may know, Gretzky signed a deal with the Kunlun Red Star group to be their ambassador and jointly promoting his hockey school which means we will see him several times in China over the next few years.
Lord Stanley’s Cup also made an appearance in Hong Kong before making its way to Shenzhen. While in Hong Kong, it was displayed at a couple of ice rinks and several schools including the Hong Kong International School and the Canadian International School. Just before the game, the Cup (in its box) was quietly shipped out with its keeper Phil Pritchard as they needed to catch a flight out of Shenzhen to Beijing.
The negative part of the weekend was that Super Typhoon Mangkhut would cause havoc in the southern part of China. It was not supposed to hit the Shenzhen area until Sunday but with winds packing close to 200 km/h, (equivalent of a Category 5), it was coming fast. Many were prepared for the worst as the airports were already rescheduling or cancelling flights. Gretzky, who was supposed to do the ceremonial puck drop before the game, had to leave as the airport announced that no private planes would be allowed to take off after 7pm. Otherwise, he would be stuck here for a few days but with other commitments with the Red Star the following day in Beijing, he did not take any chances. Plus, the second NHL China Game is in Beijing and will be played on Wednesday.
I’m sure the Bruins and Flames were itching to go before the storm but the game needed a shootout to decide the winner. It actually worked out well as the fans really wanted to get their money’s worth with overtime and a shootout to follow. Well … it was not too bad unless you were one of the unhappy fans that were left scratching their heads after finding out that there were no beer or decent food sales in the arena. Decent food such as hot dogs, burgers or popcorn? They really dropped the ball (or puck) on this one. Just think of all of the revenue they could have generated. While I’m at it, the merchandise could have been better. I mean, at least last year, fans had an opportunity to buy a China Games puck. This year, there were jerseys, t-shirts and caps and we expected them to be overpriced. However, the selection of it was not be desired.
At the end of the day, the Hockey Gods came and smiled. They allowed us to enjoy an exciting game which needed a shootout to decide the winner. But more importantly, they told Typhoon Mangkhut to hang back and hold off so that many of the fans, can witness the first ever NHL game in south China. Thank you!