the Gauntlet

Sportspinions: San Jose Sharks look for Yao Ming of hockey

NHL team purchases rights to everything hockey in China

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Sepetember 18, 2008 will be remembered as the day the mysterious China Shark first appeared in the city of Shanghai and changed sporting life there forever.

Never heard of the mythical sea creature? Well, to be quite honest, neither had I before that fateful day. In fact, prior to the Olympics I had never given China all that much thought in any capacity- which is especially depressing given that I am a political science major. As it turns out, there is actually a lot going on over in their corner of the world.

Watching the Olympics and following the media circus around the event, it would appear that the People's Republic of China is a booming civilization and is destined to be the next great centre of commerce.

The question on the lips of investors everywhere-- and one which should be answered within the relatively near future-- is whether China will capitalize on its seemingly vast potential and become the dominant market everyone thinks it should be. This burning query brings me back (in the most round about way) to the China Shark or, more specifically, the China Sharks, as there are 23 of them.

The China Sharks are a professional hockey team based in the grammatically incorrect "Asia League Ice Hockey," or ALIH for short.

The China Sharks are simultaneously unremarkable and fascinating for a host of reasons. During their most recent season-- where they were based out of Beijing-- they suffered through an absolutely abysmal year, finishing 50 points out of first place and concluding the campaign with a measly three wins.

They feature a few import players (most notably career minor-leaguer Wade Flaherty to man the pipes), but, on the whole, their team is comprised of what basically amounts to the Chinese national team. What makes the China Sharks remarkable-- and hockey in general in China-- is who owns them.

In 2007 the parent company of the San Jose Sharks, Silicon Valley Sports & Entertainment, purchased the lone ALIH franchise located in China and began an ambitious plan to not only revitalize the team, but the sport as well. While the product on the ice has thus far been very disappointing, the concept remains intriguing on many levels.

Hockey was essentially a dead sport prior to the creation of the China Sharks by SVSE. Now, the sport is making small inroads in the population-rich country and the dividends may be seen both in the pockets of SVSE and on the ice as well.

You may recall that it was not all that long ago that basketball was a sport that was a North American game played by Americans and Canadians. Now, thanks in large part to the presence of China-- spearheaded by the play of Yao Ming-- basketball is a true international sport and is thriving in the People's Republic of China. SVSE and the China Sharks are hoping that hockey can become the same sensation. It was in this vein that SVSE took things one step further Sept. 18, when they announced that the China Sharks would be moving from Beijing to Shanghai for the upcoming season and that they had purchased the rights to all of hockey in China. Yes, you read that correctly. SVSE now owns the right of first refusal to any and all rinks, hockey merchandise and essentially the game.

It is mind-boggling to think that one singular company could control the rights to a game in any given country and yet this is the new reality of our world.

It is a high-risk proposition to be certain, although it could pay off tremendously in the upcoming years if SVSE is able to coerce five per cent of the 1.3 billion citizens of China to dream of playing in the NHL-- or, as I am sure they are hoping, the San Jose Sharks.

The San Jose Sharks may just be at the crest of a new economic frontier for sports and the game may be better for it in the future. Only time will tell if this business venture produces the ice hockey version of Yao Ming, but it will certainly be an interesting story to follow as it evolves and the hockey landscape changes globally.

So next fall when you hear that the Calgary Flames have acquired the rights to all of hockey in Belgium don't be all that surprised. At least then there might be a place for Anders Eriksson to keep playing.