In early 2016, Chinese packaging company O.R.G. began sponsoring the Boston Bruins of the National Hockey League (NHL). Both the team and its new sponsor stated their hopes that the partnership can promote further interest in hockey in the Chinese community and grow the sport’s role as a bridge between the US and China. The league is already making new connections to China, as in June of 2015 Andong ‘Misha’ Song became the first Chinese-born athlete ever to be drafted in the NHL’s 99 years of existence. Song, age 19, is one of several Chinese youths who have come to the US in the past several years to develop their hockey skills after first picking up the sport in China. Because ice hockey is relatively new in China, access to equipment and experienced coaches is limited so some aspiring young players enrolled in American high schools in New England and elsewhere to develop their skills. After being compared to Yao Ming, the Chinese player who inspired a wave of interest in basketball when he started his NBA career, Song’s selection by the New York Islanders generated excitement among fans back in China. Song is at the forefront of what is hoped to be a surge in high quality Chinese hockey players on par with athletes from countries like Russia, Canada, and the US that are heavily represented in the league.
The upcoming 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing have spurred popular interest and athletic development in winter sports. Recently, many rinks have been built in major cities across China, promoting winter sports such as figure skating and ice hockey. Canadian TV channel CBC has also been contributing to the wave of Chinese hockey enthusiasm by broadcasting NHL games in Mandarin. The possibility of a Beijing-based hockey team joining Russia’s KHL could also lead to greater numbers of professional caliber players in China, which might in turn lead to more Chinese internationals joining the NHL in years to come.
Sports diplomacy is a major cultural bridge between the US and China, as well as the rest of Asia. American football is also on the rise in China, with multiple leagues getting started in the last few years. At least one US university has also begun a Chinese language broadcast for all of its football games to promote interest among its large Chinese student community.
Lian Eytinge is research intern at the East-West Center in Washington and a student at the University of Southern California.