Impact Analysis: First Chinese Citizen Drafted in NHL History
Updated: Jun 7, 2019
Last weekend, we saw history made as Song Andong became the first Chinese-born player to be drafted in the NHL. Born in Beijing, Song moved to Canada aged 10 to pursue his dream of playing ice hockey and quickly became a key player on his school’s team. His dreams were realised last weekend as Song was picked by the New York Islanders with the no. 172 pick in the 6th round. His selection represents a huge opportunity for himself and the NHL in China.
Ice hockey and the NHL are way behind their Western counterparts in China. According to the International Ice Hockey Federation, China has 610 registered players of the sport, while there are only 80 full-size rinks nationwide. Meanwhile, basketball and European football pitches are readily available throughout China, with an estimated 20,000 football-themed schools set to be open by 2017. Online, the NHL Weibo account, China’s version of Twitter, has less than 3,000 followers and even failed to acknowledge the landmark moment for Song Andong. America’s major sports have all targeted Chinese social media as their tool to connect with fans; the MLB has around 4x more followers than the NHL, and the UFC has almost 50x more followers. Given, that last weekend’s draft was watched by an estimated 2.5 million people in China, the NHL is failing at the first hurdle in China.
However, Song Andong’s selection can be the turning point that changes how the sport is perceived in China. A lot of parallels can be drawn between Song and famed athlete Yao Ming’s career in the NBA. Yao Ming spearheaded the sport in China for eight years during his time at the Houston Rockets where he influenced millions of Chinese to take an interest in the sport. It’s too soon to put such heavy pressure on Song, but many in China have already begun their own dreaming. Yu Tiande, China’s Ministry of Sports Ice Hockey Chief, believes that his selection will lead to many parents caring for the sport and supporting hockey players. China can expect an increasing number of fans to watch the four live NHL games per week on state broadcaster CCTV, while existing grassroots hockey schemes in China, such as the New York Islanders scheme in Heilongjiang province, can expect to see an increase in uptake.
The timing of Song’s selection falls with China’s bid for the 2022 Winter Olympics, with many believing that this is likely to have a positive impact on their bid. Despite winning only 3 gold medals at the last Winter Olympics and finishing in 12th place overall, China has been investing heavily since announcing their bid, with new ski resorts, transport links, and accommodations set to be built in and around Beijing. Song is now a potential poster boy for the bid, and he has come just at the right time with less than one month to go.
Song was obviously delighted with the move as his family cheered on his selection in the 6th round, but there are even bigger ramifications for the sport of ice hockey in China, with Song acknowledging that it’s tremendous how far the sport has grown in China. Nobody quite knows just how big ice hockey can get in China, but with ice hockey’s Yao Ming set to drive the sport forward, anything is possible.