Last week the Stanley Cup was in China, this week it’s the turn of the greatest player the game has ever seen, Wayne Gretzky. And while Gretzky isn’t among the very top echelon in terms of number of Cup wins — largely because he never played for the Montreal Canadiens — his name has been engraved on the trophy four times, thanks to a dominant five-year spell with the Edmonton Oilers from 1984 to 1988.
Gretzky will drop the puck at the NHL preseason game between the Calgary Flames and the Boston Bruins on Saturday afternoon at Shenzhen’s Universiade Sports Center, but that’s not actually the main reason he’s in China. Instead, he’s here as a global ambassador for the KHL — Russia’s sprawling Kontinental Hockey League — which has 19 teams in Russia, one each from Belarus, Finland, Kazakhstan, Latvia, and Slovakia, and one, since 2016, from China.
“The Great One” will also be in Shanghai on Sunday as the KHL’s Kunlun Red Star plays its home opener after four games on the road, though the team will move to Beijing — where it was formed two seasons ago — for the second half of the season. Gretzky has already visited the site of the first KRS-Gretzky Hockey School in northeastern Beijing, which will train players aged 8 to 17. Shenzhen will also see a school open soon, but the plan is to open as many as 30 centers across China over the next five years.
With the sport of hockey attacking China from many angles and at all levels, it’s clear that the drive toward the 2022 Winter Olympics is real, even if, as Gretzky pointed out, “For such a young country in the game to say it is going to win a medal is unrealistic and probably not feasible.”
One executive told me this week he’s leading a group of dozens of “potential sponsors” to the Bruins-Flames game next week in Beijing — further proof that winter sports is taking over from football as the key area for sports investment in China at the moment. Historically, China doesn’t like to wait around once plans are put in motion, but — here’s Gretzky again — “maybe 20 years from now, hockey will on a different level here.”
Sticking with winter sports, French ski maker Rossignol this week announced plans to crack the China market — sound familiar? — and in partnering with investment firm IDG Capital, which has amassed a sports fund of 20 billion RMB ($2.9 billion), it’s certainly taken a confident first stride.
Rossignol-sponsored teams won 72 medals at this year’s Winter Olympics, but you have to wonder why it’s taken the century-old brand so long to formulate a strategy for China given that Beijing won the bid to host the 2022 Olympics more than three years ago.
IDG bought a 20 percent stake in Rossignol in June this year, but the company has only just now announced vague plans to open its first stores in Beijing and Shanghai, despite claims from CEO Bruno Cercley that the firm has had a presence in China for 18 years. More worryingly, Cercley’s comments that the firm plans “to begin writing our story in China in the same way we have been doing for the past 110 years around the world” should give investors pause for thought.
Anyone with the briefest experience of the China market — let alone an entity with close to two decades of amassed knowledge — knows that localization is essential, so to insist on doing it the French way in China seems like a recipe for disaster.
There’s been a rush to proclaim Wang Xiyu 王曦雨 as the next Li Na 李娜 after the 17-year-old won the girls’ singles title at the U.S. Open last weekend, defeating France’s Clara Burel 7-6, 6-2 to become China’s first Grand Slam girls’ singles champion.
But before everyone gets too excited, let’s remember one of the last exciting female prospects to come out of China — Xu Shilin 徐诗霖 — who topped the junior rankings and won the gold medal at the Youth Olympic Games in Nanjing four years ago. Xu is now 20 — the same age as U.S. Open winner Naomi Osaka — but has yet to crack the world’s top 200, after arguably being given too much too soon by her sponsors as a talented teenager.
There’s still hope for Xu, especially given that Chinese tennis players tend to mature a little later than most, but Wang Xiyu — now the top-ranked junior, as well as world No. 237 in the senior ranks — as well as 16-year-old Wang Xinyu 王欣瑜 — the fifth best junior in the world — are in danger of overtaking her as the next generation of Chinese players prepares to turn professional.
The search for China’s next Grand Slam champion goes on, with the pressure now growing after Osaka notched another win for Asia, but, as I’ve written many times, there is a growing wave of players in contention, including world No. 78 Wang Yafan 王雅繁, who has been steadily climbing the rankings this year, while four other Chinese women are in the top 100. Which of the Wangs makes a major breakthrough is anyone’s guess, but it’s surely a question of when, not if.
Finally, this week, another female star has been making headlines on the global sports stage, as Wang Shuang 王霜 scored on her debut for French soccer giants PSG.
The iconic club’s ladies team has finished runners up six times over the past eight seasons, while also losing in four cup finals over the same period, before finally winning the French Cup last season. Wang, who’s now a regular with the senior Chinese national team having first played for the Under 17 side aged just 12, was signed in August on a two-year contract, with PSG hoping she could be the missing piece in the quest to stop rival Lyon’s run of 12 straight titles.
Wang is just one game into her PSG career, but she’s already made an impression. She scored a 30-yard stunner on her debut and also won a penalty as PSG raced into a five-goal lead before she was substituted just after an hour.
After scoring six goals at the recent Asian Games, including a hat trick in the quarterfinals, where China progressed to the final, PSG will be hoping there’s plenty more to come. Meanwhile, the national team will hope to put her reconnaissance in France to good use when the team plays in the World Cup there next summer.