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CWHL’s historic expansion into China off to a strong start

TORONTO — Minghui (Summer) Kong is still wearing all her equipment, minus the helmet. The Vanke Rays captain smiles and adjusts a headband in her black hair as she considers what her team has just done.

It’s minutes after her Rays played in their first official game in franchise history, minutes after Vanke earned its first win in franchise history, and Kong, who grew up more than 9,000 kilometres from here, in Harbin, China, doesn’t need the help of the translator standing beside her to explain the emotions surrounding this moment.

“The first game to win felt very, very good,” Kong says, smiling. “Our team had pressure…” she continues, before trailing off in Chinese. The translator picks up the rest: “She feels excellent because we fight until the last second.”

The Rays did, and in the process, while dominating the Toronto Furies 3-0 on Saturday at MasterCard Centre, the China-based CWHL team made history in so many ways.

The first Rays goal ever was scored by Hanna Bunton, a former standout at Cornell University who banged home a rebound 14:51 into the first period after her linemate, Cayley Mercer, dangled through nearly the entire Furies team to set things up. Bunton was excited to get that first goal, sure, but as the Belleville, Ont.-born winger put it, “Everything we’re doing is for the first time.”

That’s a good way to look at the CWHL’s expansion into China in general, really. This has never been done before, this melding of players from North America (nine on the Rays roster) with Chinese players (11) to help grow women’s hockey in the nation home to 1.3 billion people in time for the 2022 Olympics in Beijing.

And now both of the CWHL’s China-based expansion teams have wins. On Saturday in Calgary, the Kunlun Red Star also picked up their first two points of the season, with a 4-3 win in overtime.

At MasterCard Centre, Toronto pressed and had a lot of chances late in the third period, but the Rays held on to preserve the shutout. When the buzzer went, players mobbed their goalie, Elaine Chuli. The Waterford, Ont., native now sports a sparkling 0.00 GAA and a perfect save percentage, and she was exceptional Saturday night, making 23 saves.

Chuli is another recent NCAA graduate on this young Rays team, along with other standouts that include Mercer and Bunton, who each had a goal and an assist in the team’s opener. Rays head coach Rob Morgan says he expects it’ll take some time for this team to grow, but he’s also already seen incredible improvement in a few short months, especially among the Chinese-born players.

Bunton’s eyes grow bigger when she thinks about the first practice with the Rays, this past summer.

“If you guys saw them when we first stepped on the ice to now, it’s crazy,” she says. “So much improvement. [The Chinese players] work so hard. They just watch us and they want to learn from us.”

After a recent practice, Manitoba-born defenceman Ashleigh Brykaliuk, who played for Minnesota Duluth last season, took a few of her teammates through a lesson in quick-release shooting.

“Now, every day after practice, they’re all working on the exact same shot,” Bunton says. “The little things that skills coaches taught us in Canada, they don’t have that [in China]. It’s been really fun to help them with little parts of their game.”

Bunton led Cornell in scoring in her senior year, and was named the 2017 Ivy League Player of the Year. For her, it was an easy decision to pack up and move to China to play hockey after she graduated from college.

“I thought, ‘Why not?’ It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” she says. “How many people get to say they’re helping a different country reach their dreams?”

Bunton had never been to China before she moved to Shenzhen last summer to start practicing with the team. She had a few “What are we doing here?” moments when she first arrived in Shenzhen and couldn’t communicate with anyone. She’d get in a Taxi and then couldn’t tell the driver where to take her. “You lose your independence,” she says. “That’s been the most challenging thing.”

But when it comes to communication with her teammates, Bunton says it’s going a lot more smoothly than she anticipated.

“At first there were five or six girls I could not communicate with — we would look at each other, smile and walk away,” she says. “Now you can communicate with everyone, to an extent. And we have little [language] lessons sometimes, so I’ve learned a handful of phrases.”

She rattles off some of the words she’s picked up from teammates, which includes “hockey” and phrases like “How are you?” and “Thank you.” “I’ve got the basics,” Bunton says.

The Chinese national anthem, however, is a work in progress. While it played Saturday, nearly half the team wasn’t singing along, because they couldn’t. “That’s next on the list,” Bunton says. “We should probably all learn it.”

It’s safe to say there will be hundreds more lessons for this young Rays team this season, as they continue to have firsts in the CWHL. In Saturday’s 3-0 victory, all the Rays points were recorded by players from North America, so they’re waiting for that first goal and assist from a Chinese-born player.

This will be a season of learning for this young expansion team, but the good news for the Rays is, they’re off to quite the start.

And, if you ask the team captain, this is only the beginning. Says Kong, before she walks off to join her teammates for a post-game stretch: “We will get better and better.”