Alex Ovechkin will travel to China as an NHL ambassador next month

The NHL won’t be hosting preseason games in China this September as it has for the past two years, so the league is doing what amounts to the next best thing in its continued efforts to grow hockey’s footprint in the country of 1.3 billion. It’s sending Alex Ovechkin.

Ovechkin, who has been relaxing and preparing for the upcoming season at home in Moscow this summer, will travel to Beijing on Aug. 4 and spend the week in China, the NHL announced Thursday. The 33-year-old Washington Capitals captain, a Stanley Cup champion and one of the game’s biggest personalities, will visit youth hockey clinics and participate in business development meetings during his visit.

David Proper, the NHL’s executive vice-president of media and international strategy, said the decision to approach Ovechkin about becoming the NHL’s first active player to make an individual trip to China as an ambassador for the league was an easy one.

“There’s no better person to show how great hockey is than Ovi, an all-around great representative for the NHL,” Proper said in a phone interview. “We are going to make sure that he gets to spend time with some of the youth that are playing the game in China, letting them see one of their heroes up close. … Ovi has that kind of personality that’s very engaging with people. He has an ability to interact and really make people feel comfortable.”

The NHL has made a concerted effort to tap into the Chinese market over the last few years, striking a leaguewide partnership with China-based O.R.G. Packaging and broadcasting games on China Central Television (CCTV). In 2017, the Los Angeles Kings and Vancouver Canucks played a pair of preseason games in Shanghai and Beijing. Last year, NHL legend Wayne Gretzky travelled to China to participate in a youth development and training program ahead of preseason contests between the Bruins and Flames in Shenzhen and Beijing. The Stanley Cup made its first visit to the country last September.

“Good on the NHL for realizing (the game is increasingly popular in China) and they’ve stepped in,” Gretzky said last August. “They were over there last year and they’re really trying to put a bit of an imprint of our game and our sport in China, and it just helps make our game bigger.”

In May, the league announced that there would be no preseason games in China this year “due to logistical challenges resulting from the multitude of events occurring in China during the same time frame.” David Abrutyn, Ovechkin’s longtime agent, said he and the NHL’s leading goal scorer since he entered the league in 2005 had been discussing a possible trip to Beijing, which will host the 2022 Winter Games, for a couple of years.

“I think Alex realizes that unlocking and accelerating the international growth of the game is probably key to the future of it,” Abrutyn said in a phone interview. “Alex has always taken great pride in giving back to the game. In D.C., he spends an awful lot of time in the youth community, and similarly back home (in Russia) during the summer from the time he first came into the league. There’s nothing like being able to give kids an experience to touch the game.”

“It is a huge honour for me to be an ambassador for the entire Washington Capitals organization and the National Hockey League for this special trip to China,” Ovechkin said in a statement. “I think it is very important to spend time to help make people all over the world see how great a game hockey is. I can’t wait to spend time with all the hockey fans there and I hope to meet young kids who will be future NHL players.”

Ovechkin’s visit is also an opportunity for the Capitals to increase their presence in China. The team has had a partnership with O.R.G. Packaging for three years and hosted 25 youth Beijing Hockey Association players in conjunction with the Beijing-based company in 2017. In April, Monumental Sports and Entertainment announced a deal with China-based Alibaba.

“We’re honoured to participate in this and be a part of it with Alex and the NHL,” Jim Van Stone, the president of business operations for Monumental Sports and Entertainment, said in a phone interview. “I think it really goes a long way toward helping us to grow our brand in China and Asia as a whole, and it allows us to build some connectivity with our fan base in China. … I think we’re on the beginning of a long road to build the presence of hockey in Asia. The early returns are fantastic and there’s a really big opportunity to have a huge presence there.”

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