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.