| TORONTO, March 29
TORONTO, March 29 With or without the Olympics, the National Hockey League will join the sporting stampede into the coveted China market with the league expected to announce on Thursday preseason games in Beijing and Shanghai.
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman dropped a hint of the league's plans in a recent interview with Reuters when he said: "We will be in (China) on a regular basis before the (2022) Olympics in Beijing."
The NHL's arrival in China looks set for this September with the Los Angeles Kings and Vancouver Canucks reportedly penciled in to play two preseason games.
There are also plans to stage grassroots programs and for teams to play exhibition games against local Chinese clubs.
With the NHL signaling it is prepared to sit out the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Games the International Olympic Committee has dangled the 2022 Beijing Olympics in front of league officials as the big prize.
Like every other business in the world, China and its 1.3 billion population is a market the NHL is keen to develop but may not need the IOC's help in order to tap into.
"As they say, size matters," said Bettman. "More importantly commitment matters and to the extent there is a prioritization on the focus of developing hockey in China that's something that gets our attention more than just visiting for a couple of games and disappearing.
"The IOC has alluded to the fact that maybe Korea is the gateway to China, maybe it is, maybe it's not."
Compared to many other leagues and teams the NHL is already late to the party.
Glamour soccer clubs like Barcelona and Manchester United long ago seized on China's potential while the NBA has seen the country develop into its biggest market outside the United States.
Major League Baseball has a huge following in Japan and South Korea and played games in Beijing but has yet to make a huge impact in China market while the National Football League has an office in Shanghai as it looks to bring the sport to the world's most populous country.
With plans to build hundreds of hockey arenas and set up grassroots programs ahead of the 2022 Olympics, the NHL sees China as ready to do the heavy lifting to grow the sport, something Japan did not do before the 1998 Nagano Winter Games.
Bettman worries South Korea may also not have a long-term vision about how to grow the sport, giving the NHL yet another reason not to send its players to Pyeongchang next year.
"Obviously (China) is a place with enormous opportunity particularly because everything we are being told is that there is a commitment to growing winter sports, and in particular hockey, through the development of young players and through the building of rinks," said Bettman.
"Let me give you the other side of it, we went to Japan in '98 in Nagano ... we tried to seed the market in advance of the Olympics with some regular season games and they were sold out and there was interest.
"The day after the Olympic tournament was over in Nagano they ripped the ice plant out of the building."
There is currently no organised league in China and the country languishes in the lower tiers of the International Ice Hockey Federation.
The highest profile hockey is provided by the Beijing Kunlun Red Star which play in the Russian-based Kontinental Hockey League.
In return for building arenas and growing the sport China will get plenty of NHL assistance and expertise in icing a respectable national team in time for the 2022 Winter Games "Like (Bettman) said China is potentially a big market, the biggest market I would say, if tapped well," Red Star chairman Zhao Xiaoyu told Reuters. "The NHL should come from now, every year until 2022, that way the NHL will contribute a lot to the Winter Games but not only in China but globally.
"The NHL needs to expand its presence in China, in Asia market.
"Ice hockey is getting more and more popular and against the backdrop of 2022 Winter Olympics it is an important push.
"Authorities in China attach a great importance to that." (Reporting by Steve Keating in Toronto)