The players are still shaking off jet lag and plenty of seats remain unsold, but on a rainy night in Shanghai, the National Hockey League is preening for its debut in a rising superpower whose sports fans, and dollars, it covets.

Under a tent beside the Shangri-La hotel, hockey executives, promoters and a coterie of onlookers – kids in jerseys, moms with smartphone cameras, dads with smiles – slap balls at nets and watch a few stars sign autographs and wrap their tongues around bingqiu: ice ball, the Mandarin Chinese word for the game.

On Thursday night, the Los Angeles Kings and Vancouver Canucks will face off in the city’s Mercedes-Benz Arena, marking the league’s first exhibition game in China.

No one expects this to be an instant roaring success. By late Wednesday night, an online ticket seller showed seats still easy to find in the arena’s lower bowl, while a few upper-bowl sections were less than half sold. Wednesday’s meet and greet next to the Shangri-La was the first non-practice event in China for the Canucks’ Anders Nilsson and Bo Horvat. The Kings’ Dustin Brown declared his inaugural journey to the Middle Kingdom, to that point, “pretty low-key.”

Building the game in China, it’s clear, won’t happen overnight.

Still, the arrival of two teams in the most populous nation on earth marks an important moment for the NHL as it attempts to replicate the success, and revenues, other sports have managed to wrest from China.

“We’ve been testing the waters and starting to understand” China, said Kevin Westgarth, the league’s vice-president of business development and international affairs.

Now, “we’re jumping into the ocean,” he said.

China is “going to be awesome for the league. You see what it did for basketball,” said Horvat.

The National Basketball Association, after all, has become the gold standard for professional sport in China, a pioneer that has won legions of fans, and a tidy sum of cash, for its efforts.

Last season, the NBA attracted an average 2.1 million Chinese viewers to each of its games streamed through online company Tencent, on top of those who watch traditional televised broadcasts. NBA China brought in $150-million (U.S.) in revenues from China in 2012, and has boasted of double-digit growth since then.

Small wonder, then, that the NHL has sought the NBA’s advice on China.

“Our overall message to the NHL is to be diligent and patient,” said David Shoemaker, chief executive of NBA China, in an interview. “It takes a long time to crack this market.”

The NBA first aired its games on China Central Television in 1987.

“Our success today is a product of the popularity of the game and, I think, a long strategy of showing games and getting fans completely engaged in the game of basketball,” Shoemaker said.

The NHL on Tencent, by comparison, last year drew on average 50,000 to 60,000 online viewers per game, Zhao Guochen, general manager of Tencent Sport, said in an interview.

“Not every league can be as broadly known as the NBA,” he said. “Some sports are born niche.”

In a country as big as China, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. “In August, we did a Tour de France broadcast and were surprised to find that millions of people watched it,” Zhao said. “So it really doesn’t matter if a sport is a ‘niche’ sport. There will always be an audience.”

Making money from that audience is another matter. In China, “most games are free to watch,” Zhao said.

Still, the NHL is beginning to build a base of viewers and, perhaps as important, sponsors. Among those greeting the hockey stars Wednesday night was Miles Mei, a 13-year-old preparing for his debut during the exhibition game as the on-ice mascot for Want Want China, the country’s biggest seller of flavoured milk. Its logo is a chubby boy in a singlet. Miles will add skates to the ensemble, and has planned a few tumbles for comic effect.

“All I’m going to do is say hi and fall down and go around and go, like, ‘Drink this milk,'” he said.

Miles, a goaltender, is the kind of player the NHL wants to see more of in China. He began playing two years ago, thrilled by the speed of the game.

“I like how it’s fast and there’s the checking,” he says.

But he also offers a window into the unique challenges hockey faces in China. His under-14 team in Shanghai has dwindled to just three players. The rest have either flown to North America to pursue the sport there, or have been pulled from organized sport by parents who want their children to focus on their studies.

At the same time, hockey has made great strides in recent years, propelled in part by a Chinese government push for winter sports as it prepares to host the 2022 Winter Olympics. Hundreds of arenas are under construction or development, new leagues are quickly taking root and schools across northern China are beginning to teach hockey to their pupils.

“When I was younger, we didn’t even have games broadcasted on TV. We had to bring back tape from the U.S. and Canada when we went over there to play tournaments,” said Andong Song, the first mainland Chinese-born player drafted into the NHL. “It’s definitely pretty surreal that the NHL is playing two games in China, and I think it’s a very big step for Chinese hockey.”

The league, for its part, remains modest about its current place in China.

“We’re still learning,” Westgarth said. The NHL has spent more than two years on its China project, “and a lot of that just getting educated and understanding the market,” he said.

They have settled on a two-pronged strategy, “both helping the development of hockey, but also building the NHL brand.”

As for the unsold tickets less than 24 hours before the puck drops in Shanghai, Westgarth was sanguine.

“I think we’re looking to have a full barn, as we like to say,” he said.

“But I think it’s going to be a phenomenal event with a lot of people enjoying the game no matter what.”

The Globe and Mail, September 20, 2017