Why are the Bruins going to China? A billionaire goalie who loves Bobby Orr, for starters
His sports hero is Bobby Orr. He loves watching the Bruins on TV. His preferred form of exercise is playing goalie in twice-weekly pickup games.
Zhou Yunjie is an honorary Bostonian.
But he stops pucks in Beijing, where cans made him a billionaire. The chairman of metal container giant ORG Packaging owns around 30 factories, vineyards in Australia and Bordeaux, France, a fencing team in Beijing, and a soccer club in France.
Hockey is his passion, and he wants to put sticks in young hands all over the world’s most populous country. He is not alone.
The NHL is holding a pair of preseason games in China for the second year, with Zhou’s ORG as the chief sponsor. Following last year’s Kings-Canucks games in Shanghai and Beijing, the Bruins and Flames will land Wednesday in the southeastern city of Shenzhen, near Hong Kong, and play there Saturday (2:30 a.m. in Boston). They’ll fly three hours to Beijing for a game next Wednesday (7:30 a.m.).
If anyone on either team speaks more than a few travel-handy phrases in Mandarin, they have not made it public. China’s knowledge of hockey is similarly limited. The reasons for the trip, however, are easily translatable.
The NHL, which first barnstormed Europe in 1938 and landed in Japan in 1976, has yet to put down roots in China, a place with nearly 1.4 billion people and a growing middle class. The Chinese government is all-in on winter sports in advance of the 2022 Beijing Olympics. As international trade goes, this was a notably straightforward deal.
For Zhou — “Mr. Joe” to NHL players and staff, “James” to those into wine and soccer — business and pleasure are blending nicely.
He first played hockey as an 11-year-old in a Beijing sports academy. Orr’s heroics made him a Bruins fan. He came to admire No. 4 while reading newspaper accounts of the 1976 Canada Cup. Orr, with a torn-up knee, was the MVP in his country’s gold-medal effort.
“He was leading the team with a broken leg,” Zhou recalled last week in a phone interview, speaking to the Globe through a translator.
Zhou tended goal for a Beijing travel team until age 18, when he shipped off to university. After working in a government post, he became an entrepreneur. He began bottling beverages at home with his mother in 1991, at 30. Three years later, they produced their first set of cans. Their big break, a deal with Red Bull, followed in 1996. Zhou reportedly became a billionaire in 2015.
Three years earlier, he dropped in at TD Garden while on business in town. Watching the game rekindled his interest in hockey. He reached out to the NHL about bringing the game to China. Around the same time, China was angling to host for the 2022 Winter Games. They secured the bid in July 2015.
Zhou struck a deal with the Bruins. In February 2016, ORG sponsored a visit by a team of Chinese players. Forwards Matt Beleskey and David Pastrnak, along with former goalie Andrew Raycroft, taught camps in China that July. Torey Krug and Tuukka Rask (2017) and Danton Heinen and Sean Kuraly (2018) did subsequent summer exchanges.
“The first thing I would like to accomplish is to import the hockey culture to the Chinese youth players,” said Zhou, who also has partnerships with the Los Angeles Kings and Washington Capitals. “To let them know more about ice hockey through the NHL.”
Now comes the Bruins’ first trip abroad since 2010, when they opened the season against the Coyotes in Prague, after exhibition tuneups against a UK all-star team in Northern Ireland and a Czech side in Liberec. Players are wary of the 16-hour flight, but seem excited about everything else.
“You’re in a routine and then you’re flying halfway across the world, dealing with a time change, different food,” said Heinen, who will not make the trip. “It’s something to push through, but you’re lucky to be able to have these opportunities through hockey.”
China, per International Ice Hockey Federation data, has 12,060 registered players. In a nation so vast, that is a mere handful of bricks in the Great Wall. When it won the Olympic bid in 2015, it had 610.
It built more than 50 rinks in the last year, and now has more than 200. There are now 70 in Beijing, Zhou said, with about 2,000 youth playing the sport. KHL’s Kunlun Red Star team, which arrived in 2016, was China’s first major pro club. It functions as a development program for China’s men’s and women’s national teams, neither of whom have had much success on the world stage.
The men, who reached as high as No. 15 in the world in 1981, have never qualified for the Olympics. They are currently 33rd. The women, Olympic qualifiers in 1998 (fourth place), 2002, and 2010, are 20th.
According to the NHL, the Chinese government plans to involve 300 million people in winter sports by 2022, providing 1 million youth with free or subsidized access to winter sports facilities, and aims to construct between 500 and 650 rinks nationwide (others say 200 is feasible).
It is an ambitious plan, but the confluence of government and business interests are a powerful accelerant, even in a nation long smitten with soccer, basketball, and tennis.
“I believe by 2022, there will be many Chinese kids who will be capable of playing school hockey or college hockey in the states,” Zhou said. “There will be many junior players here in China ready to play worldwide.”
In 2014, state-run China Central Television began carrying the NHL, more than 25 years after the forward-thinking NBA gave CCTV the rights to its games. In 2015, the New York Islanders — who in 2004 established a satellite office in the icy city of Harbin, at the direction of Shanghai-born co-owner Charles Wang — made defenseman Andong “Misha” Song the first Chinese-born NHL draft pick (sixth round, 172nd overall).
Song, who left Beijing for Ontario at age 10, played at a New Jersey prep school and spent a year at Phillips Andover before joining the USHL’s Madison Capitols for two seasons. He is a freshman at Cornell, hardly guaranteed a future in the game.
Hopes, however, are high.
When it won the Olympic bid, the Chinese placed Song, drafted weeks before, front and center at a celebratory news conference, next to basketball icon Yao Ming. The implication was clear: someday, Chinese hockey will have its own legend.