By Kristina Rutherford in Shenzhen
By Kristina Rutherford in Shenzhen
On the ground for Year 1 in Shenzhen, as the Canadian Women's Hockey League tries to lay a foundation in the world's biggest market.

The announcer at Shenzhen Dayun Arena has finished explaining icing in Mandarin, and now it’s time for the English rendition. “The puck travels, untouched…” As the lesson continues over the P.A, a fan poses for a picture with a fist-pumping cutout of two-time Olympic silver medallist, Kelli Stack, high-fiving one of her cardboard hands before he takes his seat. There are at least 50 uniformed police officers here, along with a pink paper dragon and a figure skater who will perform a flawless long program between the first and second periods. Nearly 1,000 fans await the action, some holding red decorations to mark the Chinese New Year.

Down at ice level, the Vanke Rays are ready to go, sitting in their dressing room just minutes before the puck drops on a game that will be televised across China. Wearing all but their gloves and helmets, the Rays beat a drumroll, smacking their hands against their pants and pounding their skates on the grey rubber floor, while a teammate who won’t see a minute of ice time announces the starting lineup in Mandarin. Han Gao, whose English name is Kerry, yells out the final forward — “Turbo!” — and the Rays cheer as they spring to their feet.

Head coach Rob Morgan has a final message, and he’s been saving this one. Having already delivered a speech that only about half his players understood — featuring classics like “traffic in front” and “f—ing go!” and “right in her wheelhouse” — the Alberta-born coach has something else up his sleeve. The Rays are in the midst of a nine-game losing streak, and with the season winding down, they need at least three more wins to squeak into the playoffs. “Fah we nui!” Morgan says, pumping a fist. Players laugh and their brows furrow as they look at one another, wondering what that could possibly mean. Google Translate has let Morgan down, and his Mandarin accent is a whole other story. He clarifies: “Play hard!” As his players follow him out of the dressing room, some are still laughing.

The Rays take the ice for the second in a two-game set against the Calgary Inferno, who flew nearly 7,000 miles for four games against the two Canadian Women’s Hockey League teams based in the south of China. After blowing Vanke out in the opener last night, Calgary is getting more of a test from the hosts this afternoon. This one goes to a shootout, and Vanke’s star player, Cayley Mercer, can end it with a goal. The 24-year-old from Exeter, Ont., skates into the zone, fakes to her left and then wrists the puck over the glove of goalie Lindsey Post. The lamp lights, Mercer’s arms shoot up, her teammates spill over the bench and the crowd explodes, waving their red decorations. The win brings Vanke’s record to 10-13, with a little more than a month to go in the 2017-18 season.

“Some of the Chinese-born players couldn’t pass, some couldn’t skate to even keep up with the drill. I just thought: Oh. My. Gosh. What are we going to do?”

There isn’t a single Chinese-born player’s name under goals or assists on the Rays’ stats sheet after this victory, but if all goes according to a colossally ambitious plan, this inaugural pro season in Shenzhen will be Ground Zero for an initiative that sees China become a contender on the world’s hockey stage — and one day, a powerhouse. It’s beyond a tall order for a country that has never won a piece of major hockey hardware, especially since the sport’s ownership group in China, Kunlun Red Star (KRS), is hoping for progress virtually overnight. With the clock ticking towards the 2022 Olympics in Beijing, the most populous nation on earth is investing big-time and bringing in outside help with a lofty goal in mind: To win a medal in women’s hockey.

That’s why two sevenths of the CWHL’s 2017–18 franchises suited up for home games in the economic hub of Shenzhen, a coastal city with a Floridian climate that’s literally night to the rest of the league’s day. It’s why KRS has a deal to play in the CWHL through 2022; why investors are shelling out big dollars to provide the most professional atmosphere in women’s hockey and paying some of the best players in the game to be both teammates and mentors. It’s all in hopes of making China love hockey, and ensuring that one day soon the country can actually win.

The start of this ambitious plan, this pilot project year with the CWHL, was bonkers. Full of promise and dysfunction, a revolving door at the management level, frustration amongst players, and also, amazingly, significant successes. Only time will tell what the future of the game in this part of the world looks like, but one thing is certain: Professional hockey has arrived in China, and there is nothing else on earth like it.

KRS and Vanke aren't just bringing hockey into an underdeveloped market, they're also building a new model for the women's pro game.

Fog hung over the ice at Dayun Arena, making it impossible to see much through the surrounding glass. A few piles of slush had formed, yellowing in spots as though the ice had been marked by a dog. The cheap air conditioning, freezing and dehumidifying systems were no match for the summer’s sticky 30-degree temperatures, it turned out. The intention had always been to put a couple rinks in Shenzhen Universiade Sports Centre when the multi-sport facility was built in 2011, it’s just that no one had ever actually needed ice until the CWHL came to town.

And so slush and dog pee was the state of the home rink of the league’s two new franchises, the Rays and Kunlun Red Star, three months before the start of the 2017–18 season. “It was more like a rain forest than a rink,” says Red Star defender, Melanie Jue, a B.C.-born Cornell graduate, waving her hands in front of her face, pretending to cut through the mist. “Not ideal.”

For their first-ever team practices in that summer of 2017, both Red Star and the Rays flew four hours north to Beijing, where at least the ice was frozen. “The rink was run down, it smelled like gas,” says Mercer, a former standout at Clarkson University, of the Beijing facility. “But we could practice there.” Months earlier, she had been a top-three finalist for the Patty Kazmaier Award, given to the best player in college hockey, after leading her team to a second NCAA championship. Mercer had scored twice in the final, and was named MVP of the Frozen Four.

Her foray into professional hockey sees her set to earn $60,000 on a one-year contract as a sports ambassador in China, relied on not only to lead the Rays on the ice, but to mentor her Chinese-born teammates and help educate the population about hockey. All her expenses are taken care of. Mercer is one of nine former NCAA players from Canada and the U.S. with that deal on the Rays roster, and two of them have Chinese heritage (meaning, at minimum, a grandparent was born here, and that with a Chinese passport they could one day play for the national team). The 11 other women on the roster are a mixture of Team China players and some of the country’s most elite prospects.

When Mercer stepped onto that ice last summer in Beijing for the first time with her Rays teammates, she couldn’t help but wonder what in the world she’d signed on to. “Some [of the Chinese-born players] couldn’t pass … some couldn’t skate to even keep up with the drill,” she says, sitting on the couch in her apartment in Shenzhen in early February. Mercer’s brown hair is in a high braid and she’s wearing a team-issued grey CCM t-shirt and matching sweats, along with Canada sandals and socks. She’s a lean-looking strong. “I just thought: Oh. My. Gosh. What are we going to do?” she says. “‘OK, we have seven North American players, we’re just going to have to play every single second. This is going to be exhausting, but what else can we do?’”

As per the CWHL’s rule for its Chinese franchises, the teams could only dress seven import players in each game, including a goalie. For Vanke, that number included 24-year-old Elaine Chuli of Waterford, Ont., the best netminder in the University of Connecticut’s history. After graduating in 2016, Chuli had started working at an accounting firm, but she swiftly left that job behind after Morgan called to recruit her. Chuli admits she had a hard time at that first practice. “You’re waiting and waiting, and then [the Chinese players] don’t shoot it when you think they’re going to shoot it, and when it does come it’s — how do you say it?” she pauses, forehead wrinkled. “It’s off-speed … it’s more of a wrist shot you would see when you’re younger.” How young? Chuli figures maybe 13 or 14.

A former MVP of the NCAA Frozen Four tournament, Mercer was signed as a sports ambassador, relied on to deliver on the ice and teach the game off it.

Yu Baiwei, the Team China captain who goes by Berry, shakes her head thinking back to the first time she stepped on the ice with her Red Star teammates. While the Rays were the younger of the two teams, expected to go through growing pains, Red Star was built for success right off the bat, its roster headlined by perhaps the best goalie in the world, Finland’s Noora Raty, and Stack, a five-time world champion with Team USA. “I can see the North Americans are faster, stronger and have good hands. I need to learn everything — to skate, to shoot, to take slap shot,” says Berry, who’s one of China’s top defencemen. “The first time we practice is not good because we move so slow.”

But there were positives if you really looked, swears Red Star defender Jessica Wong. She represented Canada at the U-18 and U-22 levels, and came out of retirement for a chance to play pro and maybe even suit up for China in 2022. “There were definitely some girls that stood out to us in a good way,” says Wong, who’s 27 and grew up in Baddeck, N.S., a village on Cape Breton Island. “Obviously, we knew some of them weren’t going to be able to pick up a pass. But on the bright side, there were some good things. It was hard to see, but it was there. And that was cool.”

“I can see the North Americans are faster, stronger and have good hands. I need to learn everything — to skate, to shoot, to take slap shot.”

By the end of their first practices, each team had by necessity come up with a system to explain drills. For the Rays, Morgan drew each one up on the white board, running through it in English, and then Fang Xin, a 23-year-old known as Turbo on account of her speed, swooped in and repeated the instructions in Mandarin. “Some of them understand,” Turbo says, “some of them, no.” And then off they’d go and try the drill.

In other words, Charlie Conway and his band of Mighty Ducks with their cardboard equipment and fluttering wrist shots had nothing on China’s first two pro women’s hockey franchises, at least in the early days. “Cha-os,” Mercer says, grinning. “That’s how I would describe it.”

“I remember stepping onto the ice that first time and thinking: We have four years,” Jue adds, nodding her head. “Patience, patience, patience.

“If you can imagine what Noah’s Arc would’ve been like? I imagine it, and our first practice, the start of this whole thing, it was probably just like that.”

Lack of success at the international level has been discouraging for Chinese fans, but the CWHL gave some national team members their first real taste of victory.

Depending how you define success, China’s in hockey is either non-existent or worthy of a small footnote in a long book. The country’s interest level sits a shade above zero, with the IIHF recording just 1,101 players in 2017 in a nation of 1.4 billion people. As Morgan skates off the ice in Shenzhen after a short practice on the heels of a 20-hour travel day following a three-game series in Montreal, he points out, “they don’t even have a word for puck.” No, not in Mandarin. The word for hockey, translated directly to English, means “ice ball.”

The Chinese national teams haven’t exactly given the country a reason to care. The men’s team has never been a factor, and while the women have threatened major podiums in the past, they haven’t done so recently. Relegated to the third tier World Championships (Division IB) since 2011, they haven’t qualified for the Olympics since finishing second-last at the 2010 tournament.

There was a golden(ish) era for Team China’s women, though. It came in the ’90s, when they ranked fourth at the world championships twice, and fourth at the first Winter Games to host women’s hockey in 1998. This success was largely thanks to Guo Hong, the goaltender known as “The Great Wall of China.” “She retired, and there was no one after,” says Sun Rui, the former national team member who’s now an assistant coach for Red Star. “We have no other goalie in the system like her.” No players in the system, really, period: There were fewer than 300 female players total in China last year.

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Until only recently, the way the country ran its national program was to have the winner of the national championship compete as Team China, which is like bringing Team Alberta to the Olympics — if the best player in the world comes from Montreal, that’s too bad. And until this season, women had never played in a league, competed in playoffs or really fought for a roster spot. Play within China was limited to scrimmages between a few elite teams from different parts of the country.

The company seeking to change all this is KRS, which was founded by two wealthy investors and in partnership with the Chinese government. KRS is the one footing the bill to bring in outside help to figure out how to build a hockey power, and the reason the CWHL’s budget increased by $1.5 million in 2017 after partnering with China, bringing it to some $3.7 million in all. Vanke and Red Star have among the biggest operating budgets of any pro women’s hockey teams in history, especially considering KRS is funding the rest of the league’s trips to Shenzhen in addition to the operating and travel costs that come with its two women’s franchises. “To compete in the higher level, we want to know how other countries train and operate,” says the general manager of Shenzhen KRS, Song Zhou, through a translator. “Other clubs, they’re better than us — there must be a reason.”

In its quest for that insider knowledge, KRS hired Digit Murphy, the winningest coach in NCAA women’s hockey history, to lead the women’s program in China as head coach in chief, responsible for building the program. The 56-year-old is not only coaching Red Star in its inaugural CWHL season, she’s recruiting talent for Team China, trying to build up grassroots participation and interest and helping to educate KRS on how to run a hockey club.

“What we’ve done here is we’ve raised the bar for women’s hockey in the world — in the world — and we’re not even scratching the surface of what this country is capable of.”

Murphy calls China’s investment in hockey “earth-breaking” and “one of the greatest things that’s ever happened in my life” because of its potential global impact. She’s a sparkplug, a full-time promoter of the women’s game, and it’s her goal to build this program into something lasting and successful. “Our mission is to make the Chinese better, and playing in this league is just a part of it, a vehicle to achieve our success in 2022,” Murphy says. “What we’ve done here is we’ve raised the bar for women’s hockey in the world — in the world — and we’re not even scratching the surface of what this country is capable of.”

The plan for the next 10 years is ambitious, to say the least: To start a pro league, develop a grassroots youth system and build more than 200 rinks around the country. “Basically, every month you will probably see a city here open up a rink,” says Zhou, a former magazine editor who began working for KRS three years ago. “In Beijing, we have 5,000 kids learning to play hockey right now.” The GM believes the number of registered female players will grow more than 100 times its current size in the next decade, to roughly 30,000.

The notion that these seem like lofty goals for such a short amount of time makes Zhou laugh. “In China, sometimes it’s quite different,” he says. “We develop very quickly in some industries.

“For ice hockey, once parents think that this sport is very good for their kids and can help them bring up their physical activities, then they will just go play,” he says. “They will have no second thought.”

The winningest coach in NCAA history, Murphy was hired to guide the development of China's women's program at all levels.

The top forward in China doesn’t wear the same number as Gretzky or Wickenheiser or Crosby or McDavid, but No. 23, because she’s a huge Michael Jordan fan. Turbo also has a Steph Curry quote on her water bottle: “I can do all things.” Basketball was her first love.

Despite the fact Turbo grew up in Harbin, a northeastern city of 10 million that’s considered the birthplace of hockey in China, the sport wasn’t even on her radar when she was a kid. “Our school want to make a hockey team when I am young, but we don’t know what is hockey,” she says. But she started at age eight, because her dad thought it would make her stronger. No member of the family had ever played, though there was an outdoor rink walking distance from their house.

Ice time for hockey was sparse, even in Harbin. Berry, China’s 30-year-old national team captain, remembers there were just two indoor rinks in the city when she was a kid. “The first two years I played was just skating every day with the stick,” Berry explains. “We not use the puck because we don’t have too many space. One rink, maybe half arena you play hockey and half for figure skating.”

Turbo spent her summers playing with a ball and stick, because she didn’t live near any indoor rinks. But she loved hockey immediately, mostly thanks to the speed — which fits with her reputation today. She’s sitting on a bench after a workout, her short black hair still sweaty, pumping her arms and legs in the air as she talks about that pace. Turbo is wearing team workout gear, a headband and long green socks. After a ride on the stationary bike, she danced in the gym to make her teammates laugh. “In China, if you want to play hockey you need to stop school,” she explains, pinpointing the age that crossroad hits at around 14. “My father let me choose: ‘You want to keep study, or play hockey?’ I chose hockey, and I have not been to school since. It was a really hard decision; I was young, I study really well. My father want me to keep studying, but I know I want to play in Olympic Games.”

It’s a different decision than many of her teammates faced. After a compulsory nine years of school, students in China who don’t achieve high marks, around a 90-per cent average, are done with their formal education and can either go to work or pursue a sport. Turbo had the marks, but she chose hockey, heading to Harbin Sport University, where she first met many of her future national teammates. In 2011, the school began offering a four-year hockey program, which didn’t include any education outside of learning the sport. “Nobody really study, just play hockey every day,” Berry says of the school program.

Fang, known as Turbo for her speed, had to give up her education to pursue hockey, a difficult choice faced to one degree or another by all players in China.

Turbo and her university teammates would take the ice twice a day, once in the morning and again in the afternoon. In between practices they’d go to the gym. “It’s crazy,” says Rose Alleva, a Rays defenceman who was born in China, raised in Minnesota and schooled at Princeton. “They must have been so burnt out.”

There wasn’t any instruction beyond the basics, yet at the university, players’ days were so filled with hockey there was no time left for much else. Still, Berry didn’t know how to take a slap shot when she joined Red Star, and Turbo’s wrister didn’t have much mustard on it. As Mercer puts it, considering all those hours on the ice, “you’d think the development would be through the roof.”

Far from it. And that’s why Red Star defender Liu Zhixin gave up hockey a couple of years ago. With nothing in the way of elite-level coaching or competition, she knew she had to leave her home country to improve. “I think I won’t make any progress in this environment, so I quit,” she says, through a translator.

“I just want to watch Canada how to play the hockey. I know my level is not too high, but I really want to watch and open my eyes. I want to see.”

When Liu found out the CWHL was coming to China, she “cried happy tears,” she says. She came out of retirement in 2017, the same year Kunlun made her the 69th overall pick in the draft. “I just want to watch and then learn the high-level hockey, and watch Canada how to play the hockey, how to train to get better,” Liu says. “I know my level is not too high, is not the same as CWHL, but I really want to watch and open my eyes.”

She uses her fingers to pry her eyes wide and says: “I want to see.”

In her CWHL debut, on Oct. 21, 2017, Liu and the Red Star lost, 2–1, to Markham. Turbo’s debut didn’t go any better a week later, as the Rays lost 3–0 to Toronto. Still, both players count those first games as the highlights of their careers. “Is making history,” Liu says.

“The first step,” Turbo says. “Then we take another and another and another.”

Despite dropping their first game, Red Star proved they could hang with the league's best in their inaugural season.

Kelli Stack and Alex Carpenter enter the offensive zone, the two former American national team members who between them own nine world championship titles and three Olympic silver medals. It’s a two-on-two in practice, and they’re up against Bo Wang, who goes by Smile, and Wenzhuo Wang, known as Eminent, a pair of Chinese-born defenders who spend most games with blades to rubber, standing in the middle of the bench.

Stack blows past Smile and fires a pass over to Carpenter, who left Eminent in the rearview a while back. Carpenter rips a wrist shot top-shelf and all four players get back in line.

The whole play takes less than five seconds, but that’s all the time you need to register the discrepancies between Stack, who will lead the CWHL in points this season, and Smile, who will barely see the ice. It’s effortless speed compared to shakiness; a shot like a laser compared to a butterfly. Under no other circumstance would some of these Chinese players crack a CWHL roster or even get invited to tryouts. “But we’ve gotten every player into a game [by the end of January],” Murphy says. “Even Smile.”

“There’s little parts of the game that have slipped through the cracks for them, and for us it’s trying to help build those pieces up, those missing pieces.”

Though this Red Star roster may lack depth, in early February with little more than a month to go in the season, the expansion team is neck-and-neck with Montreal for the league’s top spot. Kunlun just got back from a nearly month-long road trip that saw their winning streak extend to a whopping 15 games, more than half the 28-game regular-season schedule. The Vegas Golden Knights have nothing on them.

After the Chinese-born players run separate skating drills at one end of the ice while the North Americans and Finns work on puck battles at the other, players pair up for the last 15 minutes of practice. Stack works with Liu on quick-release shooting against the boards, and then both players skate off the ice together.

This mentorship is a big part of the reason these import players are here, and why they earn the salaries they do. “There’s a fair bit of teaching involved,” says Mercer, who’s working with a handful of her Rays teammates this season. The biggest area in need of improvement among the Chinese players is shooting, which is why at this point in the season some are still getting lessons against the boards. “It’s not a snap shot — it’s long and delayed and it’s wobbling,” Mercer says. “Say they go down and they flip one in there and it hits the crossbar, they think it’s a great shot. We’re trying to explain to them that doesn’t necessarily mean it was good. It wasn’t hard, it wasn’t accurate, you didn’t pick to shoot there. We’re trying to teach them, put weight on your bottom hand, push your momentum towards the net, keep your head up — little details I can remember learning as a 10-year-old.

Led by three-time Olympic silver medallist Kelli Stack, Red Star strung together a 15-game mid-season win streak.

“It’s crazy to be like ‘OK we’ll break it down, we’ll go back to the beginning.’ But that’s what we’ve had to do with some of these players.”

Footwork, too, has been a work in progress, particularly with the defencemen. “Before it was, ‘OK, it’s hockey, we’re gonna go play, we’re gonna shoot some pucks and pass and that’s gonna be it,’” Mercer says. “There’s little parts of the game that have slipped through the cracks for them, and for us it’s trying to help build those pieces up, those missing pieces.”

That includes how to train and eat and live like an elite athlete. California-born Rachel Llanes is the strength coach and nutritionist who doubles as a winger for the Red Star, and she spent many of her early days here convincing her Chinese teammates to drink water, stop eating fried food for breakfast and start lifting weights with a goal in mind. “They were really soft at the start of the year,” Llanes says. “Like, they couldn’t do 10 push-ups. It was ugly.” Her hope is to have all these players on their own strength programs in two years’ time, a goal she calls “a long shot right now.” Hey, what goal around these parts isn’t?

But what has shocked these North Americans and Finns, now just five months in, is how quickly some players are catching on. Berry, who didn’t have a slap shot, scored with one already this season. Mercer now sees Turbo shooting in stride and keeping her head up and scoring regularly in practice. “It’s actually crazy how much we’ve seen them improve,” Mercer says. “Now we have three Chinese players — Turbo and Summer [Mighui Kong] and Elsa [Xin He] — and they’re a forward line, and they’ve come so far. You actually feel confidence with them on the ice now, and it’s really special.”

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Through 21 games of the inaugural season, Turbo’s line has accounted for five goals. “We have the power and the skill to fight against the North Americans,” she says.

The best part, if you ask her, is that after 16 years of hockey, she’s now seeing the game like an elite player and feeling confident as a result. “Sometimes, for example, I don’t force pass, you can give myself some time to control,” she says. “Patience. Is because I learn the technique also. Shooting and little skills I learned from North Americans. Back-door rebounds, read the puck.

“The best part for us is before when we play for national team, we always lost. If you don’t win, you don’t have confidence. Now we win the game, our teammates and coach give us confidence. This is so big for us.”

That’s how you get a nation of 1.4 billion interested in hockey, too.

“We need to win every game,” Berry says. “We need to let China fans see we can win so they can love hockey, they can know how to play hockey. If we always losing, I think nobody want to watch us play.”

The well-travelled members of Kunlun Red Star take the ice ahead of the Clarson Cup final against the Markham Thunder.

By 2014, Jessica Wong had to acknowledge she was done with hockey, even if she didn’t want to be. It took her a year to come to terms with the fact that she’d never play competitively again. She got a dog, which helped, and a job with Hockey Canada, which helped, too. “It was really hard, because that was my life,” Wong says. “When I left, it was at a point where I knew I wasn’t going to crack the national team roster.”

And then along came a second chance, or as Wong puts it: “The opportunity of a lifetime.”

Murphy called Wong last summer to tell her about the expansion to China. After asking “are you serious?” at least three times, Wong talked to her fiancé and family and decided to pack her bags and move to Shenzhen, which is just three hours away from where her grandma grew up, in Taishan. “I never could have imagined this would happen,” Wong says, something you’ll hear from nearly every player who moved to China to play. But Wong is perhaps the most surprised to be here, having retired at age 23 after representing Canada and winning World U-22 gold, and scoring the 2010 NCAA championship winner for Minnesota-Duluth.

“I enjoyed every time I played for Canada. But now it’s about growing the game for Team China.”

Her Olympic dream has been renewed, then, but in a different red jersey. “Wearing the Maple Leaf is something I’ll never forget,” Wong says, sitting behind a desk in rink-level room that’s otherwise empty aside from a plastic plant in the corner. Her dark hair is in a ponytail and she wears a KRS jacket and sweats. The team got back late last night from Boston, after winning three straight, and Wong had a goal and two assists in the series sweep. “I enjoyed every time I played for Canada,” she says. “But now it’s about growing the game for Team China.”

It’s players like Wong that China needs on its roster to have a shot at a medal at the upcoming Olympics, a smooth-skating, puck-moving defenceman who is on a nearly point-per-game pace through early February. That she’s potentially taking the place of a player who grew up in China with dreams of representing her country is an aspect of the job Wong finds hard, though. “It’s always in the backs of our minds,” she says. “But we want to continue to grow the game and if that means for some of us to play, then that’s what it means. If not, we’re going to be there at practice or off-ice, whatever that may be, to try and help them out as much as we can.”

Alleva, who was born in China before being adopted and raised in Minnesota, is in the same boat. “Since I’m Chinese, potentially I could be taking one of their spots, which is sad to think about,” she says. “You could tell in the beginning, some of them were excited for us to be here and some of them were like, ‘What’s going on?’”

“I think it took some time,” Wong adds. “Now I think they know we’re not here to just take over, we’re here to help them be successful.”

Wong and Alleva got their first chance to play with a team comprised entirely of players of Chinese heritage and Chinese national team members in the summer of 2017, in exhibition games against a couple NCAA teams. They lost a close one to Princeton. “It was a hard game for them to play,” Wong says of her Chinese-born teammates. “They played well. It was positive, right? You’ve got to be positive about some things.”

Wong believes the formula for success is here, and even as soon as 2022. “ I want to help this group out as much as I can. I have a big heart and I believe in these guys,” she says. “Is it going to take a while? Yes. It’s not an overnight thing. It’s going to be a process. But I think we’re on the right track. The girls have got to continue to want it, and right now, they do. They’re all in, they’re all here, they’re all improving.”

There are talented players graduating college every year with Chinese heritage, too. “We’re hoping that many other girls join and come at us who want to be on Team China’s roster — that’s what we want. That’s the only way we’re going to grow hockey,” Wong says. “I just hope I’m here a little while to help the goal come alive.”

Even in the doubt-filled early days, import players for both Vanke and Red Star saw real potential in even their rawest Chinese-born teammates.

The players for Shenzhen’s two pro hockey teams live in a five-storey building with their logos painted on the outside, along with near life-sized portraits of hockey players, dark ponytails hanging out of helmets. Inside, you’ll find not only their apartments, but a giant games room filled with pool and foosball tables, and another room home to a cafeteria and the teams’ chef and staff. No other team in the CWHL practices every day, let alone has this setup.

That some players in China likely earn close to, or even more than, the salary cap for the other five teams in the CWHL, which is $100,000 apiece, obviously doesn’t go over well with many of the players who live and train and work day jobs in North America while making a stipend between $2,000-$10,000. “We hear the comments,” says Chuli, the popular chirp being that teams who get this type of treatment should be a lot better than they are.

Any of the players involved in this China project will agree on three things: First, the professional atmosphere and the salaries provided by these teams are a massive step in the women’s game, an historic one, and hopefully all CWHL teams are one day on this same page. Second, they’re incredibly fortunate to be part of this. And third, this job can be a grind.

“I can’t believe we’re in China.”

There are a lot of tired faces in the crowd for lunch in the cafeteria, since players all landed after midnight last night following a 3 a.m. departure for the airport from Montreal. The Rays and Red Star are back in Shenzhen for a few weeks after a long stint living out of hotels. And while this bustling city has technically been home for five months now, much of that time has been spent on the road. Any player in this cafeteria could move out if given two minutes’ notice: They all live out of their suitcases. As Chuli takes a bite of her lunch she looks at her teammates and says: “I can’t believe we’re in China.”

While there’s a front office at ice level in the Shenzhen Universiade Sports Centre that’s full of people sitting at desks, none of them have run a hockey team before, and few around these parts are sure what any of them do. Players get texts at 1 a.m., informing them the next morning’s workout is two hours earlier than previously scheduled, causing half the team to show up late. They receive plane tickets the day before they take off. “The people who work under Billy [Ngok, the co-owner of KRS] don’t know anything about hockey,” says Llanes. “Why didn’t you hire hockey people like you did with the players, fly them in? Nobody in this country is qualified to be a hockey operations person, so we’re teaching as we go.”

That total lack of familiarity with the sport has led to a revolving door around here when it comes to staff. By January, KRS was on its fourth different president of women’s hockey, in a six-month span. One showed up to a practice wearing a fancy red dress, ready to go in case a wedding broke out. Llanes begins listing the different team doctors Red Star has had in five months. She gives up after five names.

“It’s so much more than just a hockey team or China. This is a global thing, and China’s taken the lead on it. What an amazing thing to be a part of, to get to be here from Day 1.”

It’s no different on the men’s side, where instant success is also expected, which is why Mike Keenan was fired less than a year into his head coaching gig with China’s KHL team, HC Kunlun Red Star. His interim replacement, Bobby Carpenter, lasted just a season, as did assistant Igor Kravchuk.

So while China has brought in outside expertise to steer this project, like Murphy and Morgan, it’s hardly all up to the North Americans. “It’s a rollercoaster in the fact that everything we do, we’re doing for the first time,” Mercer says. “Myself, the staff, the Chinese players, everyone is new to this. It’s been all over the place. We’ve had a hard time adapting.

“It would be great to have a schedule,” she adds.

“We’re going through the bumps now so that in Year 3, 4, 5, they’ll be rolling,” Jue says. “And it’s just going to be the pinnacle of women’s hockey. That’s one of the things I’m most proud of with this team: we’re a flagship, not just for women’s hockey, but for women’s professional sport in general. The way we’re treated, the resources we have, the backers and support we have – it’s phenomenal. And if we can get this thing to a place where it should be, it’ll be a really good model of how women’s sport should be handled.

“It’s so much more than just a hockey team or China,” she adds. “This is a global thing, and China’s taken the lead on it. What an amazing thing to be a part of, to get to be here from Day 1.”

The end of Year 1 saw plenty of change for the CWHL in China, but those players returning for another season are optimistic about the future.

When the first year of this ride drew to a close, Turbo led all Chinese-born players in points across the CWHL, with five goals and three assists in 28 games. Still, she didn’t get a shot at her first-ever playoffs. The Rays ultimately missed out on the post-season, finishing six points shy of a berth in their inaugural season.

The Chinese national team players who did get a taste of the post-season, like Liu, nearly won it at all. The Kunlun Red Star went on to lose in overtime to the Markham Thunder in the Clarkson Cup Final. A month later, Team China was back together at world championships, coached by Murphy and Morgan. China finished 20th, the worst result in women’s team history, and KRS made a coaching change in May based on that performance.

Neither Murphy or Morgan will be behind a CWHL bench when the 2018–19 season begins, despite all their efforts in Year 1. And their former teams won’t be there either, as the Rays and Red Star have been melded into a single outfit: The Shenzhen KRS Vanke Rays.

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Stack, the league’s top point-getter, chose not to return for another season. In part that decision is because she didn’t want to live far away from her soon-to-be husband. But it’s also because Murphy is no longer coaching, and because, as valuable as the experience was, Stack found last season frustrating. “It’s very hard to accomplish anything in China because of how they run things and all of the hurdles and hoops you have to jump through. Nothing about last season was easy,” she says. “There has to be 100 per cent buy in from the top leaders all the way down to the athletes, and there wasn’t.”

After writing her LSAT and getting into law school in Windsor, Ont., Mercer deferred. She’s back for another season, having also earned a raise after putting up 41 points last season, second only to Stack. And no, she doesn’t expect that all the kinks will be ironed out. “If we do this two or three more years, it’s never going to run completely smooth, and I’m kind of OK with that,” she says the day before flying to Hong Kong for training camp. Her ticket had come via email just minutes earlier.

Mercer will be joined by a lot of familiar faces: Wong, Jue, Turbo, Liu, Alleva, Raty, Llanes and Berry are all among those returning.

There are new players in the fold, including a pair of recent college graduates with Chinese heritage. Kim Newell was plucked off Wall Street, leaving her job as a financial analyst to be the Red Star goalie — and for a shot at the Olympics. She was named MVP when she played for Canada and won U-18 gold, and she also speaks conversational Mandarin.

“We arrived at the rink and it felt like you were in a Canadian rink, with kids all over the place. To think, 12 months ago, hockey never existed in this part of the country.”

Leah Lum just graduated from UConn, where she became the third player in team history to reach 100 career points. Both of her parents were born in China, though Lum hadn’t been there until earlier this summer. Summing up her connections to the country and grasp of the language she says: “Don’t speak it, don’t understand it, just look the part.” She’s thought about what it would mean to represent China, and she’s hoping she gets a chance, but first things first. “This next season’s going to be a good one,” she says. “I’m excited to build this team together.”

Morgan, who took a coaching job in the NCAA but will continue to help KRS in a scouting and recruiting capacity, travelled to Shenzhen earlier this month. “We arrived at the rink and it felt like you were in a Canadian rink, with kids all over the place playing hockey,” he says. “To think, 12 months ago, hockey never existed in this part of the country.”

Season 2 of professional hockey for the Shenzhen KRS Vanke Rays opens Oct. 13, on the road against the Furies. On Nov. 6, fans will get a chance to see their team live at the home opener.

Clarkson Cup finalists in their first season, Kunlun Red Star gave their fans ample reason to get excited.

Mercer is gassed at the end of a long shift and in the third period of a game that’ll see her log 29 minutes. She would lead the NHL in average ice time. As the Rays captain crosses centre, she dumps the puck in for a change, and hundreds of fans cheer — for an even-strength dump in.

A couple plays later, there’s an audible gasp as a member of the Rays takes a shot from an impossible angle and misses the net by two feet. This is Year 1 after all and fans are still learning. But with crowds in excess of 2,500 coming out to cheer on the Rays and Red Star, Shenzhen is easily home to the CWHL’s biggest fan base.

The Rays shake hands with their Calgary opponents after this game, and then gather at centre ice and throw up their sticks to thank the crowd. They skate off, then bound into their dressing room and gather around the logo in the middle of the black carpet, arms around one another, yelling and jumping. Defenceman Qinan Zhao will soon be given the team’s hard hat as the hardest worker of the game, after a weekend that saw her score her first CWHL goal, on a quick-release shot that she learned earlier this season from her Manitoba-born teammate, Ashleigh Brykaliuk.

But first, the team’s victory song.

The Rays go quiet until the music kicks in, then they’re eyes-closed singing and jumping as they belt out, with conviction, the words to a tune Natasha Bedingfield released more than a decade ago: “I’m just beginning, the pen’s in my hand, ending unplanned,” they sing.

Every player sings every word, including four Rays who don’t understand more than a couple of English phrases. They don’t need a grasp of the language to agree on the sentiment as they all sing together: “The rest is still unwritten.”

Photo Credits

Design by Drew Lesiuczok.
VCG/Getty Images; Xinhua/Zou Zheng/Getty Images; Kunlun Red Star Media (2); VCG/Getty Images; Kunlun Red Star Media; VCG/Getty Images (2); Chris Donovan/CP; Kunlun Red Star Media; VCG/Getty Images; Chris Donovan/CP.