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US and China find harmony on the ice as professional hockey makes inroads in world's most populous nation

Key Points
  • The O.R.G. NHL China Games highlight the latest step in collaboration between the NHL and the world's most populous country as the league looks to capitalize on millions of potential new fans.
  • The NHL's work in China coincides with increasingly tense U.S.-China relations that have seen both nations place steep tariffs on each other's goods.
Kevan Miller #86 of the Boston Bruins skates with the puck against the Calgary Flames at the Cadillac Arena on September 19, 2018 in Beijing, China. 
Brian Babineau | National Hockey League | Getty Images

On September 19, as the game clock ticked down to zero in a face-off between the National Hockey League's (NHL) Boston Bruins and Calgary Flames, thousands of raucous fans cheered and waved towels, decked out in black, gold, red and white that formed a sea of clashing team colors.

That particular contest, in which the Bruins romped to a 3-1 victory over the Flames, was not played at TD Garden in Boston or the Scotiabank Saddledome in Calgary. Instead, the game was actually played at the Cadillac Arena in Beijing, as part of American professional hockey's collaboration to promote ties between the world's most sports-crazy country and its most populous nation.

The Bruins-Flames game was the latest in a partnership between O.R.G. Packaging, a Chinese company run by billionaire Zhou Yunjie, and the NHL. For several years, Zhou has spearheaded a push to bolster professional hockey in China — an effort supported by the NHL, which is eager to capitalize on building its brand abroad, and capitalize on millions of potential new viewers.

The effort comes amid a growing trade war between the U.S. and China, which has strained diplomatic ties between the globe's two major superpowers.

"Unlike our efforts in Europe — where there is already a well-developed hockey culture and infrastructure — in China, we recognize the need to build that infrastructure and culture from the grassroots level up," Bill Daly, the NHL's deputy commissioner and chief legal officer, told CNBC in an email.

Daly added that the Chinese government is backing the initiative, and promoting hockey with "significant government resources" ahead of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics.

This event, held for the second consecutive year, is the brainchild of Zhou, who according to Forbes is worth over $1 billion. According to the NHL, the packaging tycoon is a former hockey goalie and lifetime enthusiast of the sport. The combination of passion for hockey, and vast sums at Zhou's disposal, is helping to grease the wheels of hockey's growth in China. Zhou could not be reached for comment by CNBC.

About three years ago, Daly others in the NHL were introduced to Zhou, who was set on boosting hockey's allure in China. Around that same time, Zhou and O.R.G. Packaging brokered a sponsorship deal with the Bruins that places his company's logo along the boards at TD Garden.

O.R.G. Packaging also sponsors the Los Angeles Kings and Washington Capitals, according to statements from those teams' websites.

While we currently don't anticipate [the trade war] hampering our continuing efforts to grow hockey in China, we also recognize there may be certain matters that are beyond our control.
Bill Daly
NHL Deputy Commissioner
BEIJING, CHINA - SEPTEMBER 23: Madam Zhao and Zhou Yunjie present Jake Muzzin #6 of the Los Angeles Kings with the MVP trophy after the pre-season game against the Vancouver Canucks at Cadillac Arena September 23, 2017 in Beijing, China. The Kings won 4-3 in a shootout.
Jeff Vinnick | National Hockey League | Getty Images

The NHL's work in China coincides with increasingly tense U.S.-China relations that have seen both nations slap steep tariffs on each other's goods in a worsening trade dispute.

Daly told CNBC he does not believe the spat — which has roiled markets and may be taking a toll on China's growth — will affect the NHL's work in China, or the country's desire to invest in hockey. However, he acknowledged that the league could be affected, even as it remains politically neutral.

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"While we currently don't anticipate [the trade war] hampering our continuing efforts to grow hockey in China, we also recognize there may be certain matters that are beyond our control," Daly said.

O.R.G. Packaging is not the only Chinese company helping to promote the NHL in the country. The league also has an event partnership with Bloomage International, in order to showcase the league's best stars in China, Daly said. According to the NHL, the deal contractually obligates the league to host preseason games in China for six of the next eight years.

In 2017, the league also signed a contract with Tencent that grants China Central TV (CCTV), the nation's state television network, broadcast rights to 10-12 NHL games per week, according to the Associated Press. Daly confirmed that to CNBC, described it as a "long-term media partnership" that's resulted in a greater media presence in the Chinese viewer market.

Besides giving Chinese hockey fans the ability to watch more games, the NHL is working to provide young athletes in China with the training they need to play the sport. Daly said that the league, in conjunction with the Chinese government, sponsors ball hockey programs in Beijing schools, coordinates learn-to-play events and coaching clinics, and educates aspiring referees on how to call the game.

With training programs, television and sponsorship deals in place, Daly said fans should expect to see more Chinese players in the NHL.

"We do anticipate ultimately having Chinese nationals playing in our league," Daly said. "In fact, we expect that it will happen sooner rather than later."