Los Angeles Kings, Vancouver Canucks embrace opportunity to break the ice in China

Goalie Darcy Kuemper, center, and the Los Angeles Kings will face off against the Vancouver Canucks in front of a host of potential new fans this week in Shanghai and Beijing as the NHL plays its first games in China. Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images

There's little mystery as to the top item on the tourism docket for the Vancouver Canucks and Los Angeles Kings during their visit this week to China, where they will play the first sanctioned NHL games in the world's most populous country.

"I think the Great Wall would be No. 1 on a majority of guys' lists," Kings forward Anze Kopitar said.

Teammate Alec Martinez concurred. "The one thing I said I wanted to see was the Great Wall," said the defenseman. "I know that's pretty cliché, but it's the truth."

The idea behind the trip is to give the country a taste of NHL hockey, the players a sense of Chinese culture and the league a chance to promote its product to a vast, untapped market of nearly 1.4 billion people.

The teams will face one another in two preseason games, one on Thursday at Mercedes-Benz Arena in Shanghai and another at Wukesong Arena in Beijing on Saturday. And although a trip to the Great Wall is among the planned outings, odds are that after the trip, players will have a greater appreciation of China and its culture beyond that historic landmark.

"It's a very culturally rich place, and that's what we're most excited about ... I am for sure," said Canucks defenseman Erik Gudbranson.

Although the New York Islanders opened an office in Harbin in 2005 -- and selected Andong Song, the first Chinese-born draft pick in NHL history (6th round, 172nd overall) in 2015 -- pro hockey hasn't made much of a footprint in China until recently. In the summer of 2016, Edmonton Oilers center Connor McDavid became the first active NHL player to visit China on official business when he took a trip to Beijing that was sponsored by Canadian sports nutrition company BioSteel. Later that offseason the Boston Bruins sent forwards Matt Beleskey and David Pastrnak to host clinics for youth hockey players. The Kings also sent alumni on a separate trip the same summer. The Kunlun Red Star, the KHL's first Chinese-based team, played its debut season in 2016-17.

"They have the KHL team in China now, but there has never been a North American NHL game there. It's hard to [know what to] expect," Canucks goaltender Jacob Markstrom said. "Hopefully we get some good fans at the game and the atmosphere will be good."

The Kings and Canucks are curious to see how the locals respond to a largely unfamiliar game, what the game atmosphere will be like and how it will differ from home.

"From a hockey aspect, I'm walking into the unknown -- but that's what makes it so exciting," Gudbranson said. "You don't know what to expect. I'm sure they're going to be very gracious to us and have [arenas] filled with excited people."

China has just 154 indoor rinks, according to the IIHF website, but the players don't seem concerned that the practice or playing conditions might not be up to par -- though both teams skated through foggy ice sessions in their first practices at Mercedes-Benz Arena on Tuesday.

"I imagine the ice conditions will be pretty good [for the games]," Martinez said. "I don't think this is the first-ever sheet of ice there."

While experiencing the culture is one of the aims of the voyage, both teams are also in the swing of training camp, so position battles and bonding will also be a big part of the trip.

"For me, being on a new team, I think it's about having everyone together -- being able to get to know the guys on and off the ice, get that team chemistry," said defenseman Michael Del Zotto, who signed with the Canucks as a free agent in July. "I think it couldn't be more perfect timing for that."

Some players plan to seek out culinary adventure during their time in China. "I really like Mongolian beef, so it'll probably be on my menu at some point," Kopitar said.

Most have a basic understanding of North Americanized Chinese food but are cautiously planning to branch out and sample some of the real thing.

"I'm not a huge food buff, so I like the traditional stuff here [in North America], obviously pastas and chicken and steaks and stuff," said Canucks forward Bo Horvat. "I'm not sure what to expect there, but I might try a couple of cultural things."

In order to combat the language barrier, some players have turned to technology to brush up on Chinese. Although they'll only be in the country for a few days, learning key phrases will help them get around during their free time.

"I got a little app to learn a little bit of [Chinese] and hear the correct pronunciations," Gudbranson said. "I should have started way earlier, but the first one you have to know is 'Hi, how are you?' and 'Thank you.' And 'Where's the washroom?' is a good one to know."

Since the flights across the Pacific were lengthy -- and both Beijing and Shanghai are 15 hours ahead of Los Angeles and Vancouver -- jet lag has been an issue. But the Canucks chartered a 777 that resembled a cruise ship more than an airplane for their trip to Shanghai. And players say they'll try to combat the fatigue by making sure they slow down when their bodies need a breather.

"It's going to be a little different to get used to," Horvat said. "I think sleep is a big part of it, getting your rest, not staying up too late on the plane and trying to get a full recovery when you get back."

Said Gudbranson: "The trick is to set the clock to [local time in China] immediately when you step on the plane."

The time-zone differences could make it tough for players to communicate with family members who stayed back home.

"We kind of just play it by ear. We'll figure it out, but it is what it is, right?" said veteran Kings forward Dustin Brown. "Whenever I have time and [my wife] is around, it's probably going to be late at night for me and early morning when the kids are up."

Traveling so far for what's essentially a promotional trip during training camp will pose a number of challenges for the players. But they understand their duty to use this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to grow hockey in another country, help the league's business -- and get in some sightseeing before the grind of the season starts.

"It's another opportunity to see another culture," Martinez said. "I know they really love sports in China too, so hopefully they take a liking to hockey as well."