The NHL is staging more exhibition games in China this fall, hoping to make further inroads in establishing hockey as a sport in the world's most populous nation.
The Boston Bruins and Calgary Flames will face off Sept. 15 in Shenzhen in southeast China and then again Sept. 19 in Beijing in the second incarnation of the China Games.
The Los Angeles Kings and Vancouver Canucks played preseason games in Shanghai and Beijing last September, the NHL's first foray there.
China represents an as-yet untapped resource for the NHL, especially ahead of the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.
Commissioner Gary Bettman has so far been noncommittal about the NHL going to the 2022 Games after skipping South Korea this year, but the work is already underway in China, where the NBA has had a presence for decades.
"I think there is an enthusiasm to grow the sport, first at the grassroots level, but I think bringing games there and bringing NHL teams there and NHL players helps kind of support the story from the top down, as well," deputy commissioner Bill Daly told The Associated Press by phone Wednesday.
"It's really a two-pronged approach where you're trying to build hockey infrastructure in a society that's never really had any and then in order to drive that, you're bringing hockey at its highest level so that people can appreciate what the sport can look like."
Growing youth hockey and bringing NHL games to China is the plan, but from the league's perspective, it's not a three-pronged approach tied to Olympic participation.
"I was there in the spring and we had lots of discussions with officials at all levels to talk about the development of hockey and how we can work together, and those are things that we're working on," Bettman said last month.
"Not once did we get asked about the Olympics in 2022. I'm not sure if we're helping develop the game particularly at the grassroots level and giving them our software, if you will, whether or not we play for two weeks makes a difference."
The league is working with local authorities to develop hockey programs as the government of the country with a population of 1.3 billion aims to have 300 million participants in winter sports by 2022. The Bruins made visits each of the past two summers to participate in hockey camps.
"Over the past three years we have collaborated with (businessman Zhou Yunjie) on growing the game both within the Chinese community in Boston and with youth hockey players in China," Bruins president Cam Neely said.
"We look forward to continuing these efforts by bringing Bruins hockey to China with these two preseason games."
Shenzhen's location close to Hong Kong, its burgeoning population and its world-class facility that's home to the two China-based Canadian Women's Hockey League teams made it a natural fit along with Beijing for NHL preseason action. More cities are in the running in the future, which could at some point include regular-season games.
"Part of it is exposing the sport in different major cities throughout the country," Daly said.
"These games over the next number of years are going to hit different locations, and we'll see what's worked well and what can be improved and it's very much kind of a learning process for us."
Hockey in China is one big learning process, and the NHL is in the early stages of its assistance.
China is ramping up its hockey programs with an eye toward the 2022 Olympics, but that doesn't mean the NHL is a sure thing to go. Daly said the league sees hockey in China and the NHL at the Beijing Olympics as mutually exclusive.
"Our philosophy is one that isn't necessarily connected to the other," Daly said. "I don't think the fact that we want to grow our presence in China and grow hockey's presence in China necessarily means we have to be in the Olympics. But it doesn't necessarily preclude us from being there if ultimately we want to be."
Bettman noted that Germany reached the gold medal game at the non-NHL Olympics in February, and wondered if staying out would actually be beneficial.
"Maybe the Chinese would have more success in 2022 in being competitive if we're not there," Bettman said. "A lot of variables to be considered."
One of those variables that could help the NHL return to the Olympics for the sixth time would be the Chinese government pushing for it. Sochi was an example of that.
"I think it could happen, but even if that was something that they weighed in on, I'm not sure at the end of the day that would be a determining factor for us," Daly said.
"I think there are a whole host of factors. It's not just about kind of the conditions under which we go. It's all the other things that are associated with Olympic participation, including what's happening back here in North America."
Sports Deputy Editor for Newsgathering Howie Rumberg in New York contributed.