STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Here's how China is preparing to host the 2022 Winter Olympics. The country's president vowed to get 300 million of his people on the ice, an initiative to encourage winter sports. That is why Beijing has quickly assembled a new professional ice hockey team, which turns out to be a challenge. NPR's Rob Schmitz reports.
ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: As the Beijing Kunlun Red Stars hit the ice to face off against a team from Moscow, tension is high. A win tonight is crucial to make it to the playoffs in the KHL, Russia's top professional hockey league and second only to the NHL in talent. But hardly anyone in the 15,000-seat Beijing arena understands the stakes. In fact, there's hardly anyone in the arena.
The vast majority of the seats are empty. Sixty-year-old granny Zhang Cuihua takes up three seats with bags of knitting supplies. Someone gave her free tickets, and she figured a hockey game was a good excuse as any to knit a sweater.
ZHANG CUIHUA: (Through interpreter) I haven't seen a hockey game in 20 years. I forget the rules. I can't figure it out. One team is Russian. But who's the other team?
SCHMITZ: That's your Beijing team, I tell her. She looks up from her knitting and squints through oversized spectacles.
ZHANG: (Through interpreter) Oh, but they're all foreigners. China's no good at hockey.
SCHMITZ: Kunlun Red Star is the first Chinese club to join Russia's premier KHL league. The team has 18 players from Russia, Finland, Canada and the U.S. There are a few Chinese nationals, but none of them can compete at this level and they rarely see ice time. In fact, while his teammates are playing below, Chinese player Rudy Ying is in the stands wearing a suit, talking to me about China's 2022 Winter Olympics bid.
RUDY YING: Once we got picked for that, I think a lot of people high up in the government or whatever realized that, like, we had to be competitive, at least, when the time rolls around. So a lot of initiatives were put into place, this being probably the most major one.
SCHMITZ: Team CEO Emma Liao says sponsors, many with close connections to China's government, have already covered the $30 million needed to run the Red Stars. Now comes the hard part - educating the public about the team and about hockey, for that matter.
EMMA LIAO: Nobody knows, like, really knows what is hockey. So our job is we need to educate the audience what is hockey, why it's so attractive and why you should come to watch the hockey game.
SCHMITZ: Few people have done this more than Mark Simon, a Canadian hockey coach who's worked for years to raise awareness about the sport in China. Simon is volunteering as an assistant for the Red Stars. He says he wasn't sure what to think when he first heard about the team.
MARK SIMON: Great idea - KHL, Russia, it's close. China, Russia, you know, the communist brothers and all this stuff, I mean, I get it. But I still thought, you know, it's early to expect that you're going to fill a, you know, NHL-size rink now is insane.
SCHMITZ: Simon says the Red Stars have already broken a KHL record for smallest audience size for a single game - 550 people.
UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting) Red Star. Go, go. Red Star.
SCHMITZ: That can make for an awkward game day experience when the team's 12-member cheerleading squad's cheers are swallowed by the void of a sparsely populated arena or when the PA announcer, who Simon complains doesn't know a thing about hockey, begins an exuberant cheer for the Red Stars just two seconds after the other team scores.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Chanting) Red Stars, Red Stars.
SCHMITZ: A group of men from Finland are amused. They say the game would be better if they were drunk, but tight security rules prohibit alcohol inside the arena. They're the only audience members I meet who actually bought tickets. Peter Solonen says he's never seen a hockey game with such good talent attract so few fans.
PETER SOLONEN: They still got something to learn (laughter). You don't see hockey anywhere else but inside the stadium - nowhere else. That is weird.
SCHMITZ: It may be weird, but for Red Stars player Zach Yuen, it's a dream come true. He was the first Chinese Canadian defenseman drafted by the NHL. And he's chosen to come here to play in his homeland.
ZACH YUEN: When I was growing up there, I never had a role model. And, you know, it would have been cool to have a role model to look up to just to, you know, just to know that it's possible.
SCHMITZ: Role models to kids like Yuan Zhongfan, who's practicing with his team in Shanghai. He's 8 years old.
YUAN ZHONGFAN: (Through interpreter) My mom wanted me to learn swimming, but I wasn't tall enough. There was a hockey rink nearby so we picked that.
SCHMITZ: Yuan tells me his dream is to play for the Chicago Blackhawks. I ask him what his parents think about this.
ZHONGFAN: (Through interpreter) They don't think it's possible because no Chinese player has made it to the NHL.
SCHMITZ: Yuan's parents haven't heard about Zach Yuen. And they don't know much about the Red Stars, who, as it happens, lost their big game and have likely lost their chance to make it to the playoffs. But China's government is dreaming big about hockey. And no matter how obscure this sport is today in China, if he works hard, this 8-year-old from Shanghai may someday get a shot at his dream, too.
Rob Schmitz, NPR News, Shanghai.
(SOUNDBITE OF STAGE KIDS' "12:14:16")
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.