Zhou Yunjie is not the sort of person who needs to bow to other people very often.
He is a Chinese billionaire, a magnate of beer kegs and Red Bull tins who owns a vineyard in France, hobnobs with a Hungarian Olympic gold medalist fencer and gets into debates with his staff about how many factories he actually owns – they say 27, he says 29, spread across three countries.
But when it comes to slapping pucks, the kind of thing he once did with Justin Bieber, Mr. Zhou knows better than to put on airs as a Chinese person.
“We have to confess that when it comes to hockey, the NHL is our teacher,” he said. “And right now, we need to hire a very good teacher, so that we can learn how to get better faster.”
The NHL is about to make a historic push into China, a market where it has lagged far behind other professional sports leagues. On Thursday, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman will take the stage in Beijing to formally announce a pair of exhibition games in China later this year. The NHL has plans to invest in youth training and wants to help build Chinese hockey leagues; other organizations, including Hockey Canada, have similarly become active suddenly in the world’s most populous nation.
But what seems like an abrupt tack toward China has been years in the making, in part thanks to the prodding of Mr. Zhou, who began goaltending as an 11-year-old in Beijing in the 1970s, and is now signing a three-year deal to be the league’s strategic partner in China.
It’s a country that can today count only a few thousand hockey players – but stands ready, he believes, for astounding growth over the next decade.
“We can set our target at five million people playing hockey,” Mr. Zhou said in an interview Wednesday at a fencing club in Beijing that, his staff proudly says, is the only one in China to include a cavernous wine cellar in its basement, stocked with hundreds of bottles of his own Sunshine Creek brand of sparkling brut.
Mr. Zhou – or Mr. Joe, as he is known to the players who have met him – has big plans. He is in negotiations for his own rink in Beijing, which could be used to build a new generation of hockey players, establish an NHL museum and host exhibition games. His company, metal-can-making giant ORG Packaging Co., will be the presenting partner of the NHL China Games 2017, a pair of matchups between the Lose Angeles Kings and Vancouver Canucks planned for this September in Beijing and Shanghai.
Each of those games will be preceded by an intensive week of hockey activities; Mr. Zhou also wants to bring an NHL truck tour to China, with displays of league history.
“What I hope to do with the NHL is to jointly work on promoting the sport in China,” he said.