Ice Hockey is by no means mainstream in China, but Beijing's winter sports proponents are steadily skating toward their goal of changing that fact ahead of the 2022 Winter Olympics. This weekend they scored big time: the Chinese capital's Kunlun Redstar club officially joined Russia's Kontinental Hockey League (KHL), the most prominent hockey league outside of North America's NHL.

The Beijing club is now slated to partake in the 2016-17 season of the KHL Championship, which begins in August. Kunlun will call Wukesong's LeSports Center (formerly the Mastercard Center) their home ice and will play in the 29-team league that features mostly Russian clubs but also teams from Finland, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Slovakia, and Croatia.

And though that sounds like fairly far away for the Beijing squad to travel for away games, the league also features two teams based in cities quite a bit closer to the Chinese capital: Vladivostok and Khabarovsk, both of which are near the border of China's northeastern Heilongjiang Province.

On Saturday, KHL Board of Directors Chairman Gennady Timchenko inked the deal at a Beijing ceremony attended by none other than Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin (the latter of whom was already in China for trade deals). The KHL's news site said: "The presence of both nations' heads of government at the signing ceremony illustrated the high level of official support for the inclusion of the club in the Championship."

ESPN says the new Chinese club must hurry to be ready by the new season's start on August 22. Despite that tight time frame, KHL spokespeople admitted that they still aren't sure which players will join Kunlun Redstar, or how to attract such talent. However, rumors abound that the team will rely heavily on Russian stars – like Ilya Kovalchuk, who was once a winger for the NHL's New Jersey Devils – more than Asian players.

However, they'll have to find at least some home-grown talent if they want to be in line with league regulations, which states that non-Russian teams must have at least five players from their home country, according to Wikipedia. As of the conclusion of last season, no Chinese player has taken part in the league, which features players from 18 nations.

Regardless of such hurdles, the new deal bodes well for not only the KHL – which is pushing to expand in Asia after continent wide economic woes stalled its prospects in Europe – but also for China, which hopes to popularize the sport domestically.

Those latter efforts have been slow but steady, according to a year old Reuters article, which points out that China's men's teams have yet to qualify for the Olympics (though hosting in 2022 will guarantee the team that honor for the first time).

The piece highlights some positive moves towards the sport growing domestically, such as the greater success of Chinese women's teams (who have qualified three times), and the fact that 100 men's teams have cropped up in the country's north.

However, that article's main focus was on the KHL's daunting competitor – specifically, how the NHL recruited its first player of Chinese descent, Song Andong, a sign of how the NHL could stay competitive against its Russian rival in a promising new arena.

Images: Hockey Wallpapers, Wikipedia, KHL

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