Noah Clarke added two goals for Manchester (7-5-3-1).
Justin Pogge and Jean-Francois Racine made 24 saves for Toronto (5-10-1-1).
Noah Clarke added two goals for Manchester (7-5-3-1).
Justin Pogge and Jean-Francois Racine made 24 saves for Toronto (5-10-1-1).
Capitals owner Ted Leonsis and Chinese billionaire Zhou Yunjie.
There has been an explosion of interest in winter sports in China and Zhou Yunjie wants to work with the NHL as a conduit to that market. The feeling is mutual.
LOS ANGELES – High above the ridiculousness that is the NHL All-Star Game, a 55-year-old Chinese billionaire looks on from his suite at the Staples Center. It’s the ultimate juxtaposition on a couple of levels. Chinese billionaires don’t often attend hockey games and this game doesn’t really represent anything remotely close to NHL hockey. At one point, an associate who hands out wooden business cards that cost five bucks each, pulls up a clip on his smart phone of a goalie making a diving save.
“I goalie,” the Chinese billionaire says proudly.
Meet Zhou Yunjie, the chairman of a company called ORG Packaging based in Beijing. In 2016, he was ranked No. 271 on Forbes’ China Rich List with a net worth of $1.2 billion, up from No. 348 the year before. When you’re this rich and accomplished, people call you Mister. So most people in North America refer to him as Mr. Zhou (pronounced JOE). And if he hadn’t already existed, there’s a good chance the NHL would have tried to invent him.
A billionaire whose goal is to grow hockey in the world’s most fertile and unexplored market? Are you kidding? With the 2022 Winter Olympics going to Beijing, there has been an explosion of interest in winter sports in China, a market that is continually grasping the concept of sports as a form of entertainment. And Zhou wants to work with the NHL as a conduit to that market.
“We are looking forward to future cooperation with the NHL,” Zhou told THN.com through a translator during all-star weekend. “I would really like to work with them.”
And the feeling is mutual. Deputy commissioner Bill Daly recently returned from a trip to China where he had meetings with seven different governmental and private sector companies in three days. ORG already has partnerships with the Boston Bruins, Washington Capitals and Los Angeles Kings. In fact, the Bruins will be holding their second ORG Night Sunday when they host the Montreal Canadiens and Zhou will be on hand to conduct the ceremonial faceoff. ORG was a sponsor of the World Cup of Hockey, had board advertising at the All-Star Game and currently has a deal with young Bruins’ star David Pastrnak. Daly told THN.com that the NHL and ORG are “in an advanced stage of discussions,” to have ORG on board as a league sponsor.
“Hockey is the No. 1 sport on ice. It’s marketable and there’s a big market there."
“We are thrilled with the relationship we and our clubs have established with Mr. Zhou and the interest he has shown, and the investment he has made, in the NHL,” Daly said in an email to THN.com. “Certainly it is helpful to have that relationship as we attempt to broaden and deepen our ties with the Chinese business community. But what we are finding is Mr. Zhou is not alone in his interest in hockey. There seems to be a real appetite in the Chinese business community to associate with the North American sports business. And we think we can be a beneficiary of that.”
The NBA has had a foothold in China for more than two decades now. This past year marked the 10th edition of the China Games featuring preseason games between two NBA teams, something the NHL hopes to replicate next fall with exhibition games featuring the Kings and Vancouver Canucks. The NBA is now a huge part of Chinese culture, aided by the fact that homegrown 7-foot-6 center Yao Ming had a Hall of Fame career with the Houston Rockets. Zhou Qi, a 7-foot-2 forward who was drafted in the second round last June by the Houston Rockets, is currently playing in the Chinese Basketball Association and hopes to follow in Ming’s footsteps.
As is the case with most non-traditional hockey markets, there is almost no grassroots connection to the game and that is a huge obstacle. But even that might be changing. The Chinese government is trying to build between 200 and 300 indoor rinks in the next couple of years and, funded by Zhou’s company, young Chinese players have been making pilgrimages to both Boston and Washington to do skill development with NHL teams. Two dozen young Chinese players just completed a 12-day camp at the Capitals practice facility and 25 more will spend the next couple of weeks working with the Bruins.
Zhou said there are currently about 2,000 kids and 100 clubs playing in the Beijing area, a number he said will grow with more state sponsorship of the game.
“People’s lives in China are getting better and they are turning to the concept of competition in the sports into entertainment,” said Richard Zhang, president of Ocean 24 Sports and Entertainment, who helps Zhou put together his deals in North America. “Hockey is the No. 1 sport on ice. It’s marketable and there’s a big market there. That’s why (Zhou) is putting his energy into this.”
It all started with a lunch meeting during the World Cup. Judd Moldaver, an agent with the CAA Agency that represents Pastrnak, thought it would be a good idea for Kings president of business operations, Luc Robitaille to meet Zhou. The Kings’ parent company, AEG, owns the Mercedes-Benz Arena in Shanghai and the MasterCard Center in Beijing.
The two hit it off over their lunch in Toronto and that led to Robitaille inviting Zhou to come to all-star weekend. And the best part of it all? Robitaille also invited Zhou to play goal in the celebrity all-star game that was held the day before the main event.
“He loves the game and he loves Bobby Orr,” Robitaille said. “He really enjoyed himself in the game and I think he and the guys got a big kick out of it.”
Zhou has been on Forbes’ billionaire list for two years now and is described by the magazine as a self-made billionaire. He founded his company along with his mother in 1984, starting with four employees. Almost a quarter of a century later, ORG is a publicly traded company that has about 4,000 employees and boasts Red Bull, Coca-Cola, Budweiser and Campbell’s Soup as some of its major clients. ORG is China’s leading producer of three-piece cans, which are used primarily for food, and two-piece cans, used for soft drinks and beer.
Zhou started playing hockey as a goalie in Beijing when he was 12 and has had a fascination with the sport ever since. He regularly watches NHL games and is interested in hockey not only as a business venture, but in growing the game in China on the grassroots level. According to the International Ice Hockey Federation, China currently has about 1,000 registered players, which means a hockey player is literally one in a million. With that kind of potential for growth, Zhou is using his partnerships with NHL teams to expose young players to the kind of coaching they need to become elite players.
“With people like that wanting to push the development of the game with us, it’s absolutely phenomenal."
Zhou has arranged for current and former Bruins to go to China to conduct hockey clinics in the summer and this coming summer, Capitals coach Barry Trotz and several alumni players will be making a trip to hold another camp. Zhou has also arranged for players from the Beijing Primary School to attend camps in both Boston and Washington. This week, the Bruins will host 25 players and the Capitals recently wrapped up a 12-day session with 24 players ranging in age from six to 12 that finished with a scrimmage against a group of local players at the Verizon Center between periods of the Capitals game against the Bruins Feb. 1.
“I was definitely pleasantly surprised,” said Dan Jablonic, the hockey director at the Kettler Capitals Iceplex. “I wasn’t sure what to expect, whether it was going to be a learn-to-skate, learn-to-play clinic, but they all could skate really well. I would say the majority of the players had ‘B’ or ‘A’ level travel skills and there were actually two players who were top players, who were definitely ‘AA’ or ‘AAA’ players.”
What Jablonic found with the players he coached was they had a very good handle on individual skills. He found a group of kids that listened well, worked very hard and kept their attention focused even at the end of the second of a two-a-day session.
“To see how well these kids listen was really a coach’s dream,” Jablonic said. “At the end of a two-a-day when most kids are really out to la-la land, these kids stayed focused and would sit and take a knee and listen and watch, even when they were tired.”
Where they are lacking, Jablonic said, was in game concepts and the team game, something he attributed to the fact that so many of the young players receive the bulk of their coaching in one-on-one settings. Jablonic said the one player he classified as a AAA player had tremendous individual skills, but found himself turning the puck over in game situations because he was trying to do too much on his own.
“We tried to get them to understand the concept of them really giving the pass and going to the open area and understanding that you might be skilled, but you have to utilize the other four players who are out on the ice with you to become a better player,” said Jablonic, who played at the University of Minnesota-Duluth and the ECHL before playing briefly in Sweden. “That’s a part of their game that was a little bit of a weakness, but they were willing to learn that. I was surprised at how well they moved the puck over the course of their time there and became willing to pass the puck, get it back and utilize the whole ice.”
And this is where the cultural differences might be something of an obstacle. As is the case in North America, a good number of former players have seen an opportunity to make a living as skills coaches in China and they have been coming from Russia and other former Soviet countries. There are even some Canadians coaching there. It has led to what Jablonic calls, “almost a figure skating model” where coaching is much more focused on the individual. That could change if the government does manage to build all those rinks and makes the game accessible to more people.
But development takes time. Lots of it. The Sunbelt states producing top players is a relatively new phenomenon and kids not having places to play is a barrier to development. Two years ago, the New York Islanders drafted Andong Song in the sixth round. Song was born in Beijing and began playing hockey there, but moved to Canada when he was 10 and now 20, is playing for the Madison Capitols of the USHL, where he has played 33 games with no points. Players who are willing to go to the lengths that Song and his family have gone to develop as hockey players might be the key to that development, at least in its infancy stages. Jablonic said that a number of players who took part in the most recent camp are already making plans to come back this summer for a deke and score school.
“I think it would be great for Hockey Canada and USA Hockey to help them with the proper development model,” Jablonic said. “I don’t agree with what they’re doing right now. You hear some of the coaches talk about it who were with this group and they were saying certain guys come in and they’re identifying players so early and if that coach has a group of really good mites or squirts, that doesn’t predict how good those kids are going to be as bantams and they’re excluding a bigger pool of players.”
There are critics of the development model over here that might complain about the same thing happening, but the difference here is the massive pool of players. But in terms of building the game, that’s where the NHL might come in. At least that’s what Daly found when he visited there.
“What I sensed was a real welcoming and open attitude to having us there, having us do more things there, making our games more available and accessible there,” Daly said. “They were very encouraging of us bringing our teams and games to China, helping and supporting the Chinese youth hockey infrastructure and assisting them in building a national program. In every one of the meetings I had, it was mentioned that while hockey doesn’t have as much exposure as basketball in China, our game was very popular with the Chinese youth and teenagers who were fascinated by the skill and pace of hockey played at a high level.”
So perhaps hockey isn’t just a unique fascination of one of the country’s billionaires, though having someone like that advocating for the NHL and the game certainly doesn’t hurt. As Daly pointed out, building and growing winter sports there is a priority at the highest levels of government. Hockey can’t help but benefit from that, but the NHL has to be there to showcase its product in more than just pre-season games. That will require it to send players there for the 2022 Olympics, which could be good news for those still holding out hope for 2018 in Pyeongchang. If the International Olympic Committee draws a line in the sand and says no Beijing without Pyeongchang, that could be enough to prompt the NHL to rethink its position.
Zhou, meanwhile, will keep pushing. He has had a number of meetings with both Daly and commissioner Gary Bettman and the two of them held a breakfast meeting during the all-star festivities to discuss business opportunities. And if the NHL is looking to maximize revenues, it could do worse than turn its efforts to a country with 1.4 billion people.
Or as Robitaille said: “With people like that wanting to push the development of the game with us, it’s absolutely phenomenal. It’s a great market and at the end of the day, if you grow the game, there’s more money for everyone.”
Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog and Matt Duchene
Avalanche GM Joe Sakic has been chatting with Bruins GM Don Sweeney, but is also following his team on an Eastern road trip as he looks to rebuild his roster.
Since early-December, the Colorado Avalanche have been a fixture in the NHL trade-rumor mill. Mired at the bottom of the overall standings, they need a roster shake-up. GM Joe Sakic could attempt to trade a core player, such as center Matt Duchene or left winger Gabriel Landeskog, in hopes of landing a young, skilled defenseman.
Trade chatter over the past month linked the 24-year-old Landeskog to the Boston Bruins, who need scoring depth at left wing. One rumor had Bruins GM Don Sweeney rejecting Sakic's asking price of a package with promising defenseman Brandon Carlo as the centerpiece.
On Sunday, the Landeskog-to-Boston chatter flared back to life. Fluto Shinzawa of The Boston Globe reports Sakic was spotted chatting with Sweeney in the TD Garden press box during the Bruins 4-0 win over the Montreal Canadiens.
If the Bruins want Landeskog, Shinzawa believes the price tag is a player, a draft pick and a prospect. Shinzawa thinks Sakic could still insist on Carlo as part of the return.
Terry Frei of The Denver Post reports Sakic was also expected to watch Monday's Beanpot final between Boston University and Harvard. Four Bruins prospects, including promising defenseman Charlie McAvoy, took part in that game.
The Bruins aren't the only team Sakic will follow this week. Frei reports the Avs GM will remain with his club as they swing through Buffalo to meet the Sabres and Carolina to play the Hurricanes. He notes the Hurricanes have considerable depth in young defensemen, including Justin Faulk, Jaccob Slavin, Brett Pesce and Ryan Murphy.
While the Anaheim Ducks aren't on Sakic's current scouting list, they could be another trade possibility for the Avalanche. Eric Stephens of the Orange County Register suggests Landeskog could be a good fit for the Ducks, who lack scoring punch at left wing. Like the Hurricanes, the Ducks are loaded with young blueliners.
While Cam Fowler was the subject of trade rumors earlier this season, Stephens considers him too valuable to the Ducks playoff hopes. Other options include Shea Theodore, Brandon Montour or Josh Manson.
Duchene, meanwhile, might interest the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins. On Saturday, Sportsnet's Nick Kypreos reported there's talk Penguins GM Jim Rutherford could take a run at acquiring the 26-year-old center, who can also skate on the wing. Kypreos' colleague Elliotte Friedman said Rutherford told him he's willing to do whatever it takes to win.
Rutherford's made blockbuster moves before, including his acquisition of winger Phil Kessel from the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2015. That deal, however, took place in the offseason, when he had more salary cap space to work with. With Duchene carrying a $6-million annual cap hit through 2018-19, the Penguins pressed for cap space and the Avs' high asking price, that deal could be almost impossible to pull off by the trade deadline.
Kypreos said the Hurricanes could also be in play for Duchene. Sitting 20th in goals-for per game (2.60) and power-play percentage (17.2), they would benefit from adding a proven 30-goal scorer. Along with their depth in good young defensemen, they also have plenty of cap room to take on Duchene's cap hit.
The Ottawa Sun's Bruce Garrioch also speculates the Hurricanes could pursue Duchene. He also thinks the Nashville Predators could make a push. Like the Hurricanes and Ducks, they have depth in young defensemen to tempt Sakic.
Garrioch reported Senators GM Pierre Dorion admitted having trade discussions with Sakic. While Dorion didn't say if they talked about Duchene or Landeskog, he said a deal wasn't realistic between the two clubs because the Avs sought too much in return.
St. Louis Blue defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk also remains a hot topic of discussion as the March 1 trade deadline approaches.
Earlier rumors about the 28-year-old rearguard claimed he preferred to be dealt to an Eastern Conference team, preferably in the American Northeast. However, Kypreos said Shattenkirk is open to being dealt to an Eastern Canadian team such the Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens.
Garrioch reports the Leafs, Bruins and Tampa Bay Lightning have all made pitches for Shattenkirk. He believes the Bruins are the only club with the ability to sign the blueliner to a long-term deal.
Mark Zwolinski of the Toronto Star, however, doubts the Leafs will get into the Shattenkirk sweepstakes. He cites the cost of re-signing him (at least $6-million annually), the Leafs unwillingness to part with one of their prized young players, and the eventual cost of re-signing young stars such as Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner.
Shinzawa notes the Bruins had interest in Shattenkirk at the 2016 NHL draft. Given their depth in promising young defenders, however, they might not be as keen on him as they once were. The cost of re-signing Shattenkirk could also be a sticking point.
Teams with interest in Shattenkirk apparently prefer a “sign-and-trade” scenario, rather than acquire him as a postseason rental. They don't want to part with assets at the trade deadline for a player who could depart in July for free agency.
Rumor Roundup appears regularly only on thehockeynews.com. Lyle Richardson has been an NHL commentator since 1998 on his website, spectorshockey.net, and is a contributing writer for Eishockey News and The Guardian (P.E.I.).
For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.
MORE FROM THE HOCKEY NEWS:
Illustration by Ben Shannon.
In the war to secure talent, agents are going after kids before they even hit their teens. Is it time to curb the chase?
There is a boy playing minor hockey in Toronto you haven’t heard about yet but probably will before too long. Then again, he could be out of hockey in three years or become a marginal player in junior or college hockey. We have chosen to not publish his name. But he’s very, very good. He’s attending an elite hockey academy in Toronto and is thriving a year above his age bracket for one of the top Triple-A organizations in the Greater Toronto Hockey League. He’s big and he’s skilled and he has lots of promise.
He’s also just 12 years old. And his family has been getting calls from player agents. The same agents who represent multimillionaires playing in the NHL have been contacting the parents of a 12-year-old kid. And he’s not the only one. Players, particularly in Canada’s biggest city, have become accustomed to being contacted by agents during their bantam years, (ages 13 and 14) and some of them already have representatives.
“He’s the one people think is ‘The Next One,’” said Anton Thun, a longtime player agent of M-Five Sports, of the player in question. “People think he might be the next Connor McDavid or John Tavares. Numerous agencies have spoken with the family and, quite honestly, we have spoken with the family. We’ve gotten information into his hands to let him know we exist. We’re not going to let other agencies come into our backyard and take the best player.”
Said another agent who requested anonymity, “It’s brutal and it’s getting out of hand. I don’t want to do it, but if I don’t, I’m going to be out of business. Now it’s not about who wins the battle, but who gets there first.”
Whether the NHL Players’ Association, which certifies and regulates player agents, is prepared to do something about it remains to be seen. Setting age restrictions was a hot topic at the NHLPA’s meeting with agents in the summer, and the union has since sent out a missive to agents to determine whether it’s an issue that needs to be addressed. And as the self-appointed pseudo-governing body for agents, it appears the NHLPA is the only institution that can save the agents from themselves on this one.
“The matter of the age restriction regarding recruiting is something that is somewhat on hold while the Hockey Summit discussions regarding draft age, development are ongoing,” said an NHLPA spokesman in an email, referring to the Hockey SENSE meetings that took place this summer, the second of which spent a good chunk of time focused on youth hockey.
As a group, the agents want to have age limits put on them when it comes to contacting prospects. For one, it levels the playing field for everyone. And it also means they can spend their time doing more productive things than chasing bantam players around cold local arenas. And lastly, the agents want this for the same reason Pat LaFontaine and his group are looking into a 19-year-old draft. The longer they give players to develop, the less chance there is for a mistake to be made by everyone involved.
“Back in the 1980s, we recruited 18-year-old kids,” Thun said, “but now I’m being asked to go watch a hockey game where there’s a 13- or 14-year-old kid.”
The only problem is that if one or two rogue agents chase after kids barely in their teens, everyone is forced to do it or risk missing out on the best players. It’s pretty much the same principle that guides the salary cap in the NHL. There’s no age limit on when U.S. college teams can recruit players, and there have been examples of kids barely in their teens committing to programs – albeit making commitments that are not binding when it comes to choosing between major junior hockey and the NCAA. The WHL has a bantam draft, and there is always talk the OHL might follow suit. So young kids are being expected to make monumental decisions, including whether they need an agent or family advisor.
But like so many other things it does well when it comes to dealing with young players, Sweden appears to have come up with a great way of dealing with this problem. There are about 50 agents/recruiters in Sweden, and they have an agreement with the Swedish players’ association that they cannot approach or be approached by any player prior to Jan. 1 of the year he turns 16. That coincides with the first time they have an opportunity to be selected for a national team. Every fall, the country holds its annual TV Puck tournament featuring the best 15-and-under players. That’s basically the first time elite players are identified, and by January, they can make contact with an agent. Agents who directly or indirectly contact players prior to the set date are first warned, then fined, then risk having their licenses revoked.
And the agents are also working with the Swedish Ice Hockey Federation to try to put sanctions in place that penalize players whose (often overaggressive) parents reach out to agents or sign an agreement with one.
“If I get a call from a parent looking for an agent, the first thing I ask, ‘So, you don’t have an agent?’ ”said longtime Sweden-based agent Claes Elefalk of CAA. “The second question is, ‘How old is he?’ And if it’s before Jan. 1 of the year he turns 16, I have to say, ‘Oh, we have a rule that means I need to hang up the phone immediately and you can only call me back the first of January.’ I’m not allowed to even speak for five minutes or send an email or anything. I must say it has been working really well in Sweden.”
Eric Staal. Image by: Graig Abel/NHLI via Getty Images
Eric Staal on life in the NHL before the 2004-05 lockout, and which human body parts he has autographed.
What was your favorite NHL team growing up?
The Leafs. I grew up in Thunder Bay, and it’s mostly Leaf Nation up there, too.
Who did you model your game after?
One of my favorite players was Joe Sakic, because of his clutch ability and because he played at both ends of the rink really well. He’s a good all-around player but was clutch.
Your ‘welcome to the NHL’ moment?
My first year was before the 2004-05 lockout, so any time I got near the net I took about eight cross-checks and slashes. I had a lot of those moments my first year at 18. It was a lot more physical before they changed the rules after that lockout.
First splurge purchase after signing an NHL contract?
I bought a Cadillac Escalade my first year once I knew I was staying and signing in Carolina. I needed a car, and my parents helped me, and I went and got one of those. It didn’t have spinning rims or anything like that, but it was nice.
What’s your favorite way to score?
I like to score from anywhere, but the fun ways to score are the one-timers or a sweet play. But most likely for me scoring, it’s going to be a quick-release shot. It’s going to be five-hole or low blocker. Those are my go-to.
What’s your craziest fan interaction?
I’ve signed people’s body parts. This one guy in Carolina, the whole team that won the Stanley Cup, he had everybody’s name tattooed to him. So he went around and basically got everybody that was on the team to sign, I think it was his leg or his calf or something, and he ended up tattooing everyone’s signature to his body. Hey, whatever you want to do. That was interesting.
Best thing about being an NHLer?
The fact I get to play a game for a living. How many people get to say they play a sport for a job? If I didn’t have this for a job, I would love playing beer-league pickup hockey with my buddies, because I love the game. I get to do that and get paid to do it, so there’s nothing better than that.
Worst thing about being an NHLer?
Travel. When you have a wife and kids, it’s hard being away. It’s hard for your wife when you’re busy and the kids are in school and hockey and everything else. It’s no fun being away. You always want to be around and be a part of everything, but the reality is we play 41 games on the road. That’s the hardest part.
– With MATT LARKIN