The NHL is making headway in China, and since it’s the Year of the Pig, well ...

When the NHL took the Los Angeles Kings and Vancouver Canucks to Beijing and Shanghai in 2017, China fell a little bit in love with hockey.

The NHL’s 2017 China Games were part of a series of international excursions that also took teams to Finland, Sweden and Switzerland. Some NHL teams (including the Boston Bruins) returned to China for some exhibition games in 2018.

During this year’s Stanley Cup playoffs and the conference final games, China has been particularly tuned in to the Carolina Hurricanes team for one very interesting reason: Hamilton the Pig.

The 90-pound mascot’s mascot (Stormy is the Main Pig, of course) became a fan favorite — and some believe, good luck charm — when his owners Kyle Eckenrode and Karoline Briggs started taking him to tailgate with fans before home games against the Washington Capitals in Round One of the playoffs. His popularity has soared as the team chalked up wins, with profiles in The Washington Post and USA Today, and live spots on national television programs airing on NBC Sports Network and Canada’s SportsNet.

During Round 2 against the New York Islanders, the Hurricanes printed T-shirts with a sketch of Hamilton declaring this the Year of the Pig.

Now you understand China’s interest in Hamilton.

2019 is, after all, the Chinese Year of the Pig.

We asked David Proper, the NHL Executive Vice President of International and Media Strategy, about the NHL in China and the country’s affection for Hamilton.

Q: What made the NHL decide to take hockey to China?

A: Our goal has always been to grow interest in the sport of hockey and take the NHL to our fans. The Chinese sports market is simply huge, and the fans there have shown a particular love of new sports competition. Additionally, the Chinese government is committed to growing the popularity of winter sports in China, having declared the national goal of creating 300 million participants by 2022. The convergence of these factors has created an unprecedented potential for us to grow the worldwide interest in hockey, perhaps exponentially.

Q: How much has interest in hockey/the NHL grown since this started? Are kids there learning the sport?

A: We are still relatively new to the market, but the early indications of the growth of interest in our game have been very promising. Over the past 12 months alone, followers of our social media accounts have grown over 225% and are steadily climbing. Further, the commitment of the government and local business community in developing a hockey infrastructure has been nothing short of amazing, with some projections showing the development of as many as 650 rinks in China by 2025. With interest levels in hockey high and growing, and the rapid proliferation of rinks throughout the country, our expectation is that more and more kids in China will take up the sport. As that growth occurs, we will continue to lend support to the Chinese hockey community, and seek to make connections to that next generation of hockey fans.

Q: During the Stanley Cup playoffs, can you tell if there’s one team that has become particularly popular in China?

A: The storylines that come out of the Stanley Cup Playoffs tend to transcend geographic boundaries. We believe the same unpredictability and intensity that excite fans in North America also carries through to the Chinese audience as well.

Q: How much of Carolina’s popularity is due this being The Year of the Pig?

A: Sharing images and video of Hamilton via social media in China can only elevate the awareness of the Carolina Hurricanes, and the Year of the Pig connection is a fun way for fans to connect and follow the Hurricanes’ run in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

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Brooke Cain is a North Carolina native who has worked at The News & Observer for more than 20 years. She writes about TV and local media for the Happiness is a Warm TV blog, and answers CuriousNC questions for readers.