One of the best female goalies on the planet is moving to China to help the country try to become a hockey powerhouse.
Noora Raty, who in April led Finland to a bronze medal at the IIHF Women’s World Hockey Championship and took home the Best Goalie award, has signed a one-year contract that will see her backstop the CWHL’s new China-based team, Kunlun Red Star.
The 28-year-old, who was the first female goalie to suit up in Finland’s second-tier men’s pro league, believes this is her most important role yet.
We caught up with Raty to talk about her new gig and what it means for the future of women’s hockey.
Sportsnet: Do you feel like a professional hockey player for the first time in your career?
Raty: [Laughs.] Well, not at this moment but I’m sure it’s gonna hit me in the fall when I get things started. My contract doesn’t start ’til August.
When you were asked to sign with the Red Stars, what was that conversation like?
It was kinda weird. I was working out and my college coach, Brad Frost, texted me. He was like, “Yeah, they’re starting this pro team in China.” I was like, “OK, that sounds fun.” Once I heard the details, I was all in right away.
What details drew you in?
Really, the amount of support they get from the men’s side and the whole country of China and the Chinese Hockey Federation.
Have you ever seen a women’s hockey team run like this?
I don’t think so. Let’s say there was a female team under an NHL organization. I don’t think the female players would be sitting at the same table with the owner. In Toronto just after the announcement, we went out for dinner and we saw all the [Red Star] owners and the whole organization there. We now know the faces behind the names. And the men’s side and the women’s side work really closely together, and the whole organization is under one umbrella. [Red Star men’s head coach] Mike Keenan, [Phil] Esposito, [Bobby] Carpenter and those guys, they not only help on the men’s side but they’re advisors on the girls’ side too.
Were you concerned about facing tough enough shots at practices with this team?
Yeah, I mean I played men’s pro for the past three seasons, so if I played with girls I want it to be challenging enough. I think our team’s going to be pretty good, and since we play in the Canadian league, that’s some good hockey.
Can we talk finances?
We really can’t tell many of the details. All we can tell is we’re not hired as an athlete, we’re hired as ambassadors. I’m an ambassador for the sport in China and for the Kunlun Red Star team. I’m not actually paid to play, but that’s just kind of my side [job]. What we are paid to do is actually grow the game in China.
Is it the most you’ve ever been paid for a season in your career?
Oh yeah, I think it will be. Right now, I pretty much end up even. I’ve been able to cover my expenses with what I’ve been getting from the men’s team, but I think now I can even save some money.
What will you save for?
Hopefully I’ll someday be able to buy a house. Since I’m working in the USA [coaching] I need to pay for my retirement and all that kind of fun stuff. [Laughs.]
I read an article that was translated from Finnish in which you said something along the lines of “this contract pays back 20 years of financial losses.” Is that right?
That was more me being sarcastic, but I guess in a way it’s true. I’ve never made money off playing.
This ambassador role, as I understand it, is a way to get around the fact some players are making money and others aren’t.
I’m not sure about the details. I don’t know how many international players we’ll have, but I don’t think it’s just me and Kelli [Stack, a forward on the U.S. national team]. I think everyone who’s outside of China, I’m sure they’ll pay them something. I think that’s the new model they want to bring into the sport, kind of like businesses hiring players as ambassadors, and that way they’re giving them a chance to play full time, too.
What does being an ambassador look like?
We’ll go to schools and talk to students there and then maybe get them on the ice, skate with them, maybe meet with sponsors, all that kind of stuff. Not a bad job. In China, it’s all about getting the games on TV. I think the men’s games were on TV last season. When you have a billion people in the country, then your ratings will be pretty good.
Is this the most important role of your career so far?
Yeah, I think so. I like the fact it’s not just playing, that you have a bigger purpose in helping the youth, too.
What do you know about your new home, Shenzhen?
I know they don’t get any snow in the winter, so that’s a plus. It’s like Florida in the U.S., so there’s no snow. It’s [temperatures in the] 70s and 80s year-round. I saw some pictures of the rink, and it looks super nice, I think it holds 18,000 people. They’re building a whole new gym, too. Shenzhen is one of the wealthiest cities in China, so I think we’ll be treated pretty good.
How’s your Chinese?
Aah, zero Chinese. [Laughs.] Maybe I’ll download an app, learn my name or key words here and there. I’m hoping a lot of people speak English there because it’s a business centre.
Being the lone team based in China, your travel schedule is going to be pretty rigorous.
Yeah, but I go between the U.S. and Finland all the time, so to me that’s pretty normal, those overseas flights and dealing with the time difference. I think it’s nice that when we come to Canada, we stay for a month or a month-and-a-half — it’s not like we stay for a week. Then we go back to China and stay there for a longer time. That way you’re not always dealing with the jet lag.
What do you expect out of the Red Stars’ fan base?
I actually have no idea. I hope they get a lot of people to come to our games. If the rink holds 18,000 people, then if you get 200 in the stands it looks pretty empty. I know they have a marketing team working on putting our team out there and making sure that people know we’re there playing a high level of hockey. I know in Canada they have a lot of Asian people living there so hopefully those people will find our team when we’re in Canada.
What do you expect this team to do for women’s hockey?
I think it’s showing a new model — how to run a team. What I hope the most is that they’re able to get more kids involved in hockey in China. They have over a billion people. If they can start growing women’s hockey and get the kids involved in the game, I think they’ll be a powerhouse in five to seven years. If they decide to do something and put all their effort into it, it’s only a matter of time until it happens.
China is aiming to win a medal in women’s hockey when they host the 2022 Winter Games. And you have decided you want to help them?
[Laughs.] Well, right now my plan is not to play ’22 anymore. If I can be helping them win that medal, then good. But I don’t know, maybe I will feel conflicted if I decide to go for ’22. Who knows? I’m just happy we can get another country that can push and be a good competitor at the highest level.
Women’s hockey needs that.
Yeah. It would be nice to get one more country in the mix that could really push. I think that competition makes the other countries better, too.
Maybe at the 2022 Olympics it’ll be China against Finland in the gold medal final. And you can say you helped both teams get there.
Exactly. I can take pride on both sides. If I end up going to China in ’22, it’s like, “Well, I helped them get this far.” I guess you just keep your national team and your job separate. [Laughs.]
And win gold and silver medals.
The Interview: Kelly Gruber on Pablo Escobar, ADHD and the '92 World Series
Former Blue Jays third baseman, Kelly Gruber, sits down with Sportsnet to talk about the '92 World Series and growing back his famous flow.