Bobby Orr was in Boston, set to drop the ceremonial puck alongside Milt Schmidt. Later, in a suite, Zhou met the man that had introduced him to hockey.
It was emotional then. It feels almost emotional now.
“It was quite exciting,” Zhou said, through a translator. “I almost burst into tears. Because Bobby Orr was my idol since [I was a] child.”
Zhou has become a towering figure in the bid to introduce hockey to China, using his O.R.G. Packaging to bring the NHL to his home country. That includes this week when the Bruins and Calgary Flames play two preseason games in China, the 2018 O.R.G. NHL China Games, with the first at Universiade Sports Center in Shenzhen on Saturday (2:30 a.m. ET; NHLN, SN) and the second at Cadillac Arena in Beijing on Wednesday (7:30 a.m. ET; NBCSN, SN).
Zhou sat in the stands at Universiade Sports Center in Shenzhen while the Bruins practiced below him. He has spent the first half of practice talking with Bruins president Cam Neely and CEO of Delaware North Charlie Jacobs, after meeting with NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and Bruins players Charlie McAvoy, David Pastrnak and Brad Marchand near the ice.
The relationship between Zhou and hockey started when he was 11 years old, when he was at a sports school. He played hockey competitively as a goalie until he was 18, and continues to play twice a week when he’s in Beijing.
“I used to be a [soccer] player,” Zhou said. “When we were practicing, a hockey coach came to us and asked, ‘Would you like to join us in hockey?’ I was able to skate at that time so it was quite easy for me to get into ice hockey.”
That moment has reverberations that have led here, to these relationships with NHL teams, to his position in trying to enable the League to establish a foothold in an extremely attractive market halfway around the world.
“A huge influence,” said David Proper, NHL executive vice president of media and international strategy. “He’s one of our partners, O.R.G. and Bloomage and Tencent, these are partners that have gotten in with us very early and were very committed to wanting to grow the game here, for no other reason than they wanted to grow the game. That was great. They’ve given us a lot of guidance, they’ve given us a lot of help, they’ve given us a lot of support.
“He’s just very dedicated to the cause and very much a friend of the NHL. I can’t say enough good things about him.”
Hockey is something that has become even more interesting to China’s government since Beijing was named the host of the 2022 Winter Olympics, with the desire to be competitive in sports like hockey. Zhou is more than happy to help marry the two interests.
“It was kind of like a dream come true,” Zhou said, of getting the NHL to come to China for preseason games, which they did in 2017 with the Los Angeles Kings and Vancouver Canucks, and are doing again this year with the Bruins and Flames.
But that’s not all he’d like to see. Zhou would like to bring an NHL regular-season game to his country. He hopes, too, to someday see a China-born player in the NHL. Perhaps, he said, that could be achievable in eight or 10 years.
Whether that happens remains to be seen, but it’s clear that he has a vision for how hockey can affect China and affect children in China.
“It’s the love of the ice hockey that I would like to see from the kids,” he said. “The game of hockey will help the kids to build up their team spirit, the patience and the spirit of sports.”
Zhou and O.R.G. Packaging have deals with the NHL, the Kings, the Washington Capitals and the Bruins, but it’s the Bruins who are the closest to his heart, courtesy of Orr. Zhou first attended a Bruins game in 2013.
Part of the deal with Boston included players coming to China, starting in 2016 with Pastrnak and former Bruins forward Matt Beleskey, followed in 2017 by defenseman Torey Krug and goaltender Tuukka Rask, and this offseason with forwards Danton Heinen and Sean Kuraly.
Pastrnak, in particular, struck a chord. Zhou signed him to a personal endorsement contract with O.R.G., where the forward represents Want-Want Milk.
“We don’t have to talk about his hockey abilities,” Zhou said. “That’s apparent. He’s a young guy, he’s positive. He’s a perfect representative.”
And it doesn’t hurt that he wears No. 88, with the number eight considered lucky in China.
It has been, for Zhou, a lucky accident that he’s here, that he had that coach suggest hockey to him all those years ago, that he already could skate back then. And that’s what he reflects on, as he sits in the seats at an arena in Shenzhen, watching NHL players, thinking of all the children in China who might watch them this weekend and feel the same thrill he still does.
“It reminds me whenever I see the kids on the ice about when I was a kid playing hockey,” Zhou said. “It makes me happy to see the kids, the things that [hockey] can do for the kids, especially for the kids’ future.”