Since retiring from the NHL in 2010 after a 17-year playing career, Derek Armstrong has dedicated much of his time to coaching youth hockey.
Working with children in his home country of Canada, he often stresses having fun to ensure that they fall in love with the sport and become lifelong hockey fans, regardless if they become the next Sidney Crosby or Jack Hughes.
Armstrong has been taking that same approach in teaching hockey to children in what many across the NHL feel is the league’s biggest market for growth: China.
“It’s not much different than coaching hockey in Canada – the kids are all hard workers, and they can all skate – which is obviously important,” said Armstrong.
Armstrong has traveled to China six times to help coach hockey as part of the Los Angeles Kings’ efforts in the country – Armstrong spent six seasons with the Kings during his NHL career.
Last year, the Kings launched the first-ever hockey development initiative for any NHL team in China with the Beijing Jr. Kings, a program for kids aged eight-to-10 years old. It was also the Kings’ first hockey development program owned and operated outside of Los Angeles. In 2017, the Kings played the Vancouver Canucks in the first NHL games in China.
This August, the Kings held the first Beijing Jr. Kings Camp, a five-day camp that saw the team host 30 children aged six through 14 that featured both on- and off-ice training and games led by Kings’ alumni and coaches.
The team’s efforts in China have been bolstered by its partnership with Beijing-based ORG Packaging, which has quickly become one of the biggest boosters of ice hockey in the country while looking to copy a bit of what has made the Kings successful in their home state – a place that many once felt ice hockey could or would not work.
“The Kings are very unique – it’s Southern California, it’s warm and sunny; many call it a ‘non-traditional hockey market’,” said Richard Zhang, the president of Ocean 24 Sports and Entertainment Corporation, a sports marketing agency that works with ORG in regards to its hockey relationships.“But to grow the game and find success in a non-traditional market you have to be creative, and that’s what the Kings have done and that is what we want to do in China – attract new fans and grow the sport.”
In addition to its partnership with the Kings, ORG Packaging also has team level deals with the Boston Bruins and the Washington Capitals. It also has a league-level deal with the NHL, heavily supporting the league’s efforts to grow the sport in China as well.
Josh Veilleux, senior vice president of corporate partnerships for AEG Global Partnerships, said that while the company is technically considered a sponsor, that he views the relationship as “more about doing something different and something that can have a big impact.”
“Our overarching desire is to grow the game of hockey – that’s what we have tried to do across the board here in Los Angeles and California,” Veilleux said. “With ORG, they want to grow the game in complete partnership with our efforts.”
Growing up in a hockey family who lived just outside of Boston, Veilleux compared to where China is now in terms of exposure to ice hockey as not far off from where Southern California had been in the past.
“I remember when I moved here 13 years ago, coming from a place where every town had a rink to here where there weren’t varsity hockey programs,” he said. “It changes your mindset in terms of having to grow the game in a different way when you’re competing with a lot of different things – it’s a similar mindset that we’re trying to have as it relates to China.”
Those involved all admit that hockey does have a lot of room to grow in China, where the NBA is by far the most popular sport. The NBA estimated that of the more than 1.3 billion people who live in China, 640 million of them watched some sort of NBA programming during the 2017-2018 season, and more than 300 million play the sport.
While it’s unclear how much traction the sport of ice hockey has gained in recent years, efforts are continuing. The league first brought two exhibition games to the country in 2017, repeating that in 2018, and it has a deal with the NHLPA to host games in the country in six of eight years. The NHL has broadcasting and streaming deals with CCTV and Tencent.
This year, while efforts to play exhibition games ahead of the 2019-2020 season were postponed due to scheduling conflicts that arose with the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, the NHL and the Washington Capitals worked together to send Alex Ovechkin to the country as a league ambassador.
With the NHL’s efforts to grow in China, there is a brand-building benefit for the Kings to be this deeply involved in the country as well.
“The more we can do to get our brand to become more than just domestic and nationally known and ultimately become international, we see that as a whole new way of fandom starting,” Veilleux said.
Still, he noted, the Kings are not losing sight of the ultimate reason for this effort.
“It’s all about the growth of the Beijing Jr. Kings, and getting that group from 40 to 100 to 500 over the next few years,” Veilleux said. “We know everything we’re doing might be baby steps, but from our long-term viewpoint it’s all about constant growth and progress.”
The Kings are looking to further bolster the Beijing Jr.
Zhang said ORG is still working with the teams and the league to build a “base, a foundation” for the sport in China.
“For hockey to grow, people need to learn and they need to understand it first – that will come through camps like this and when they can experience NHL games,” Zhang said.
That will come through deeper activation with ORG’s team partners, potentially bringing more players and coaches over to help grow the game in China on a year-round basis, as well as developing grassroots promotions in schools and residential areas.
From Armstrong’s point of view, he sees the same opportunity for the sport.
“You can’t go over for one week and expect things to change – we need to be pushing the game, and pushing the growth of it,” Armstrong said. “Once you play the sport of hockey, you tend to fall in love with it, so we just need to find the kids who want to play.”