China, 2022 Winter Olympics present perfect opportunity to speed up global appeal of the sport

Chinese President Xi Jinping is checking in on the progress of his country's Olympic progress. Ding Lin/Xinhua via AP

In some ways, China represents all that is appealing to the National Hockey League about staying in the Olympics.

In a perfect NHL world, the Winter Olympics would be held in North America every four years and the league would enjoy the ratings bonanza it saw in 2010 when Canada edged the U.S. in overtime in the gold-medal game on Sidney Crosby's goal to close out the Vancouver Games.

And hockey was king. Thanks for coming out. Let's do that again.

But the world, and specifically the Olympic world, doesn't work like that.

Which brings us to Beijing and the 2022 Olympics.

This week league officials, including commissioner Gary Bettman and representatives from the NHL Players' Association, will be in Beijing to formally announce two preseason games for next fall. The games, likely to be played in Beijing and Shanghai, between the Vancouver Canucks and the Los Angeles Kings will represent the first NHL contests in the world's most populous country.

The Kings and Canucks will take the first of what the league hopes will be many excursions into the vast, untapped world, which, in the NHL's world, would immediately embrace the game, buy huge quantities of NHL merchandise and sign up to watch NHL games in hitherto unheard-of numbers.

Because there's nothing the NHL likes more than the quantitative.

Owners, in some ways a small-minded group interested only in their small piece of sports turf, look almost exclusively at the bottom line -- as in, what's in it for them?

That's why the fight over the Olympics has reached in some ways comical levels, with Bettman regularly warning that it's almost certain the league won't take part in next winter's tournament in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

"Almost" is the operative word, as Bettman continues to wait for the International Olympic Committee and/or the NHLPA to toss him and his anti-Olympic owners at least a small incentive that would lead to his announcing the NHL's return to the Olympic stage.

Because the one thing owners have never been able to wrap their collective heads around is whether the Olympics is good for business. But they do appear to agree that China is good for business. Or, rather, it has the potential to be good -- and maybe very good -- for business.

Bettman's presence in Beijing this week reinforces the notion that the league's eyes are firmly on the prize that China represents -- but to collect that prize, NHL players must be part of the Beijing Olympics.

The rest of the hockey world understands that as well. It's not rocket science. That's why Rene Fasel, head of the International Ice Hockey Federation, recently warned that the NHL can't count on popping in and out of the Olympic tournament. It seems clear that if the NHL had its way, it would skip the 2018 Games and return for the potentially big payout of the 2022 Games in China.

It's not just China's population that is intriguing; the country also represents a blank slate when it comes to the game.

From the owners' perspective, the NHL has little to show, at least tangibly, for its excursions to Japan for the 1998 Olympic Games, the first in which the NHL took part, or Italy in 2006 or Russia in 2014.

But China represents something completely different, and in the world of the NHL owner, that means something potentially profitable.

If it works -- and it could work -- it won't be just because the NHL shows up next fall and plays a couple of preseason games, or puts on a few clinics while they're there, or even continues to show up for the Olympic tournament every four years.

No, this is a big-picture kind of thing that will require significant commitment in time and resources from both sides.

According to the IIHF, China has 360 rinks (154 indoor). But its 1,101 registered hockey players is an infinitesimally small number given China's population of 1.37 billion.

There has to be a commitment from the Chinese government and the top sports people in China to help build the infrastructure to support a grassroots hockey explosion (or even a small boom).

The NHL will have to commit resources to support that infrastructure by helping to coach the coaches and administrators who might oversee a fledgling hockey culture in China.

It's the kind of grandiose plan that will need the support of business leaders in North America and China to make it a reality. It is the kind of plan with a million moving parts, a million things that could once again leave NHL power brokers wondering whether it was all worth it.

But if it's done right, it represents the kind of magic the NHL envisioned when the league first sent its players to the Olympics in 1998 and which has, in many ways, eluded the league.