Having started a mini firestorm by simply offering what was in many Chinese papers and bbs' (about the possibility of Gary Payton coming to China), I wasn't going to post about Claude Lemiux until it was confirmed and now that it has been, I find that I'm already too late, as his buddy Doug Wilson recently offered him a contract.
Its rare that I have a chance to talk about hockey and China in the same breath. The Asia Hockey League, which is what Lemiux had his brief experience in, is made up of 7 teams in Japan, Korea, and China and fails to garner much attention, even in the countries where it is played (in his league debut, the 43 year old Lemiux played in front of 500 people in Korea, probably the smallest crowd he's played for since he was 12).
The China team, the China Sharks, is backed by the San Jose Sharks, who moved the team from Beijing to Shanghai this season. The current squad plays out of the Songjiang University City Arena, not a good idea if they want to attract a crowd, but even in Beijing they played outside of the 5th Ring Road.
Hockey in China is basically non-existent, there are few places to play (outside of the northeast) and even fewer players. That said, there is a lot of optimism, the Sharks (SJ) talk about how the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA) only became viable less than 20 years ago. Others talk about how China's soccer team is ranked in the 80s [actually its in the 90s] in the world, while the hockey team is in the 20s [though I didn't know there were more than 10 countries in the world who play hockey].
What will make hockey take off in China? It's not going to be easy, though a serious winter sports program is starting to be developed, especially as there are nascent hopes of hosting the Winter Olympics. China never before had a strong field hockey, beach volleyball, or boxing program, but the Olympics showed what China can do when they put their minds (and money) to it. Charles Wang, owner of the New York Islanders, did what he could to promote the game in his homeland, but
Harbin bid for the 2010 and 2014 Olympics, both weren't serious bids, though I can see Harbin trying again in 2018 (or even Changchun taking a run at it), and if it receives backing by the government, the city could put together a serious bid. Though, Harbin borders Russia, the host of the 2014 Games, so one wonders if the IOC will want to go in that direction. Also, many feel China will bid for the 2018 World Cup, I don't see the IOC and FIFA granting them both events. A Winter Olympics in China would bring about a focus on winter sports and is the only hope hockey has of growing seriously in China.