CWHL expands to China

After KHL, Kunlun sends women’s team abroad

06.06.2017
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The last time the Chinese women’s team competed at the top level was at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver. U.S. player Kelli Stack (behind the net) will be one of the players joining the new Kunlun Red Star women’s hockey team in the CWHL. Photo: Matthew Manor / HHOF-IIHF Images

TORONTO – Chinese ice hockey club Kunlun Red Star launches a new women’s hockey team that will play in one of the best women’s hockey leagues in the world, the Canadian Women’s Hockey League.

It is one of several teams the club will create and send abroad for the upcoming season after having formed a professional men’s team for the Russian-based Kontinental Hockey League one year earlier that reached the KHL playoffs and recently hired Mike Keenan as new head coach.

The KHL team will be joined in Russia by another men’s team in the second-tier league VHL based in Harbin for the upcoming season and a junior team is planned in Russia’s junior league MHL.

For women’s hockey Kunlun will travel the opposite direction as its new women’s hockey team will compete in the CWHL. Also a girls’ team is planned to compete in North America.

The historical announcement for women’s hockey was made on Monday night at a historical place, the Great Hall of the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto. The Kunlun Red Star women’s team will be based in Shenzhen, a city of over 11 million inhabitants next to Hong Kong. The venue will be the 18,000-seat Shenzhen Dayun Arena. The arena opened in 2011 and hosted basketball and gymnastic events. It will also host Miss World beauty contest in December. The KHL team played its games in two other cities, Beijing and Shanghai.

The agreement between the CWHL and Kunlun Red Star spans five years until and including the Olympic season in 2021/22.

“It is a very historic moment for Canadian women’s hockey and for women’s hockey across the world. The CWHL is extremely happy that we will be expanding to six teams and that sixth team will be in China. It’s an opportunity to grow the game for women, which is important for all of us,” said Canadian Women's Hockey League Commissioner Brenda Andress.

“The sport of hockey has to use its voice to continue to recognize that women do have a voice and that the men who support us also have a voice. Kunlun Red Star has the same passion of growing the game as we have. This partnership will not only change women’s sports but also the new program in China for the Beijing Olympics in 2022.”

For the Chinese sport authorities it is another step of their new “2022 China Ice Hockey Action Plan” that focuses on the national club Kunlun with top men’s, women’s and junior players competing in major hockey countries abroad such as Canada, Russia and the United States.

“It is a big day as North American women’s hockey is now linked up with more than 1.3 billion people in China. We have our own league in China and Kunlun Red Star has three women’s teams and we are very happy to join the CWHL and broaden our horizon to make ice hockey a very popular game in China. We are hoping and we are confident that the Chinese national team will one day make it to the top of the world,” said Kunlun Red Star chairman Xiaoyu Zhao. “It is our mission to develop a strong base of female players for our national program in the lead-up to hosting the Beijing Winter Olympics in 2022.”

Kunlun Red Star will join four teams from Canada – Brampton Thunder, Calgary Inferno, Montreal Canadiennes, Toronto Furies – and the Boston Blades from the United States in the CWHL.

With the addition of Kunlun, the regular season will be extended from 24 to 30 games for each club. Each team will travel to China to play a three-game series while Kunlun will have trips to North America for a couple of games.

It is also planned to set up a Kunlun Red Stars girls’ team that could play games in North America in the cross-border Junior Women’s Hockey League in partnership with the Providence College as potential host.

Having one year of experiences as the club started from scratch for the KHL adventure last summer will be helpful for the new challenge in women’s hockey. In the Russian league the team travelled as far as Zagreb, Croatia, more than 7,600 kilometres (4,700 miles) away from Beijing. A direct flight from Beijing to central Europe takes 10 hours.

With the women’s hockey team, the organization will go a step further across the Pacific Ocean. A non-stop flight from Toronto to Hong Kong takes longer than 15 hours for the 12,500 kilometres (7,800 miles).

A lot of travel money will have to be paid in a league that has managed to cover travel and equipment within North America but where players haven’t been paid. Zhao confirmed at the press conference that the team will pay to play in the league. The CWHL hopes for new sources of income with the vast Chinese market while partnerships should cover the travel costs. But it’s not just about the money. The CWHL will be present in a country where 120 million people watched the Olympic gold medal game in Sochi 2014 and reportedly 22 million people watch the current Stanley Cup finals on TV, more than in Canada and the United States together.

After the KHL operating on two continents – beside Kunlun there are also two teams from the Russian Far East in the league with Amur Khabarovsk and Admiral Vladivostok – the CWHL will be the first hockey league to operate cross-ocean. Previously the NHL has staged a few season openers in Japan as well as in several European cities but having a team based across the ocean on either side is a historic premiere.

Commissioner Andress isn’t too worried about logistics and costs.

“Our national team and other national teams travel all around the world to play hockey. The next step for us is to do the same thing,” she said. “We will work together with the CWHL Players’ Association to make sure that when the players go to China for this experience that there’s a lot of great things to see, there’s great hockey, they will play in a great facility and get top professional treatment that allows us to continue this partnership.”

While the roster of the new team has yet to be announced and will be determined at the next CWHL draft, it will be built with core players of the Chinese women’s national team with the addition of international stars. In addition, the club called players of Chinese descent from all over the world with an exposure camp taking place in the next two days in Toronto.

Former Boston Blades head coach Digit Murphy will serve as head coach for Kunlun, recent Yale University head coach Rob Morgan will serve as associate head coach. Former Chinese national team star Rui Sun, who recently coached the U18 women’s national team, will serve on the team staff as deputy sports director.

There have been rumours already before last night’s announcement with the naming of the two coaches as well as potential players joining the Chinese team such as Finnish national team goalie Noora Raty and American forward Kelli Stack. The latter player was confirmed by her presence at the press conference on Monday night. Stack represented the U.S. in two Olympics and six Women’s World Championships but is not part of the centralized U.S. women’s national team that will compete at the 2018 Olympics in PyeongChang, Korea. She will join Kunlun after two years with the NWHL’s Connecticut Whale. Raty announced the same day in social media to leave her men’s professional team in Finland to join Kunlun and will be present at the camp in Toronto this week.

“This is a major milestone for the Chinese Ice Hockey Association after having launched the 2022 Olympic Winter Games action plan,” said Zhili Wang, Vice President of the Chinese Ice Hockey Association.

“This is a great way to promote Chinese ice hockey. The Chinese Ice Hockey Association will give the full support to Chinese clubs competing at the international level. With China hosting the 2022 Olympic Winter Games, we want to offer a great event but also help develop winter sports including ice hockey. And we are confident that we will have a very good women’s hockey team in 2022. This is also one of our reasons why we join the CWHL.”

The CWHL, which was founded in 2007, also hopes to activate Asians living in Canada for the women’s game. Last season three CWHL clubs had Japanese women’s national team players on their rosters including Nachi Fujimoto and Sato Kikuchi in Boston, Akane Hosoyamada and Aina Takeuchi in Calgary, and Sena Suzuki in Toronto. This contingent of Asian players will experience a significant boost with the arrival on Kunlun Red Star.

A player of Chinese descent present at the press conference was long-time U.S. national team player Julie Chu of the Montreal Canadiennes. While she could be a perfect fit for the new team, she wasn’t announced (yet?) as a reinforcement for Kunlun but was glad about the news nevertheless.

“It’s huge news for the CWHL. I grew up in Connecticut and I was probably the only Asian to play hockey there. Now thinking about the grassroots levels and to continue to grow the game in a place my father was born and where I’m tied to is really special. It’s going to be special for all the Chinese girls and young hockey players,” Chu said.

Hockey in China is nothing new. First games were reported in 1915 and the country took part in the first Winter Spartakiade Games in 1935. The Chinese Ice Hockey Association was founded in 1951 and joined the IIHF in 1963.

The men’s national team debuted in IIHF competition in the C-Pool in 1972 with a 4-3 win over Bulgaria and a third-place finish just behind Austria and Italy but before countries like Denmark and Hungary. Since then the team moved from 18th in the world to currently 37th.

The women’s national team started in 1992 and got fourth-place finishes at the 1998 Olympics in Nagano and the IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championships in 1994 and 1997 but has since dropped to 18th place in the World Ranking.

Hockey was traditionally centred in the northern Heilongjiang province that is bordering with Russia in cities like Harbin and Qiqihar but has more recently reached other cities including Beijing. But while other countries grew and professionalized their programs and had exchange abroad, Chinese hockey remained in its box as Zhao put it.

That’s something he wants to change with Kunlun Red Star that after its move to Russian men’s hockey one year ago goes even some miles further with the new women’s team in the CWHL.

MARTIN MERK

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