China’s Olympic dream

Kunlun women’s GM talks of building toward 2022

14.09.2018
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Guided by Kunlun Red Star general manager Rob Morgan, the Chinese women's national team will blend in North American-trained talent to compete at the 2022 Beijing Olympics. Photo: KRS Vanke Rays Shenzhen

The Chinese women’s national team hasn’t come near an IIHF podium since finishing fourth at the 1998 Olympics. Kunlun Red Star’s job is to change that.

Of course, Kunlun – a second-year Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL) franchise based in Shenzhen – also hopes to capture a Clarkson Cup after losing last year’s final in overtime to the Markham Thunder. But fundamentally, it exists to develop and accelerate the growth of the Chinese women’s national team heading into the 2022 Beijing Olympics.

Kunlun has been officially rebranded this season as the Shenzhen KRS Vanke Rays after merging with Vanke Rays, another Chinese club which played its lone CWHL season in 2017/18. That’s apparently all part of the long-term master plan.

2022 will be here before we know it, and China’s stated goal is to capture a women’s hockey medal. That’s a tall order, even for the world’s most populated nation (1.4 billion). It currently has just 177 registered female players. Meanwhile, the United States and Canada have met in five out of the six Olympic women’s hockey gold medal games, and outside of North America, only Finland, Switzerland and Sweden have ever won bronze.

China finished fifth out of six teams at the 2018 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship Division I Group B, two tiers below the top nations. So how will the Chinese shoot for the top?

KRS has brought back elite ambassadors like Finnish goalie Noora Raty, a 2018 Olympic all-star and CWHL Goalie of the Year, and American forward Alex Carpenter, a four-time World Champion who scored the gold-medal winner in 2016. Yet while they’re teachers, role models, and on-ice catalysts, they won’t suit up for China in 2022.

It’s easy to see that while continuing to develop domestic talent is vital, incorporating naturalized players will also be a big key to making China competitive. The Twitter profile of Rob Morgan, who doubles as KRS’s general manager and the director of scouting and player development for the Chinese women’s national team, lays it out: “Chinese North American players direct message me.”

“I’m so excited,” said Emma Kee, a 17-year-old Shattuck St. Mary’s forward from Cincinnati who has participated in multiple Olympic development camps. “I called my grandparents and they’re really big on supporting China and playing for your ancestors and your roots. Just going to the Olympics itself is an unreal imagination. I grew up dreaming and writing little diaries about it. It would be amazing.”

We recently caught up with Morgan, a Medicine Hat native who coached Vanke last season, during Kunlun’s development camp at the University of British Columbia (UBC). That was the main women’s hockey venue and secondary men’s hockey venue at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.

Update: Morgan has just accepted a job with Long Island University (LIU) Brooklyn to become their inaugural women's hockey coach. He will continue as a scout for China.

What are your objectives at a camp like this?

This is the third camp now that we’ve run. We’re identifying as many prospective Chinese North Americans as possible who could play for China in the Olympics and are going to make us better. Each one is more intense.

It’s to evaluate them, but at the same time, it’s also to educate them. We’re only going to get a short period of time with them until we get to that centralization year. Each time we’re together, they’re hearing the same message in terms of our style of play in the D-zone, the offensive zone and special teams. If we can connect with them four times throughout the year – our goal is to run four camps each year – then by the time we get to determine who will be invited to centralization, we’ll have a good handle on it, and they’ll know how we want to play the game.

Although we’re currently playing in the Canadian Women’s Hockey League, when we eventually get to 2021/22, there’s no doubt that the team for that year will be all Chinese, whether they’re domestic Chinese or Chinese North Americans. It has to be, because we’re getting ready for the Olympics.

Can you break down the decision to create the Shenzhen KRS Vanke Rays and establish a second affiliated team based in Harbin?

Here’s the Readers Digest version. When we initially started this, when [2017/18 Kunlun and Chinese national team coach] Digit Murphy reached out to me, she wanted me to be her associate head coach. We were only going to have one team. Then folks above us, in the government, in Kunlun, and in the Chinese Ice Hockey Association, said: “If you’re only going to have five, six or seven Chinese nationals on your team, what’s going to happen with the rest of them? Where do they go?” Because there weren’t as many Chinese North Americans available.

I’m in this meeting and [team founder] Billy Ngok asked: “Could we do two teams? Can we be competitive with two teams?” I said: “Absolutely. There’s no doubt in my mind.” We wanted one team to have a legit chance to get to the championship game, and that was Kunlun Red Star. On the other team, Vanke Rays, we strategically placed certain Chinese nationals that had to play a lot. Kunlun had more North Americans, both non-Chinese and Chinese North Americans. They were stronger.

When we got through the year, although both programs did very well, there were enough Chinese players that weren’t playing that people thought, “Well, they didn’t play in the games that much, so we didn’t accomplish what we wanted to accomplish.” Not really, because every one of those players, without a doubt, was way better, because of how they had to practice, who they had to compete against in practice day in and day out. Training now like elite athletes are training at the North American level. Learning from them in terms of, “Here’s how you should be fueling your body with the right foods.” Although in the eyes of some it wasn’t a success because Team China didn’t win the World Championship [Division I Group B], I was there. We could have won. That’s hockey. It didn’t happen.

Anyway, this year we’re going to end up with probably eight Chinese North Americans on our team. We’ll have our six-plus-one non-Chinese. The rest of the team will be made up of China’s best players. And the remaining players are going to play for Harbin. It’s almost like a farm system or a feeder. If we happen to have players who get injured, we can now have players that are on our reserve list. We didn’t have a reserve list last year, because there weren’t any Chinese players we could draw from.

The other thing is, Harbin will play a competitive schedule that is not out of their league. We had some players on our team that didn’t belong in the CWHL last year. Now you have the right players playing. Then you’ve got other players who are chomping at the bit. They’re hungry – they want to get there. They don’t want to play against lesser competition.

How competitive will KRS be this season?

Are the other CWHL teams going to be stronger? Without a doubt. Not only do you have the Canadian Olympians coming back, you also have all those top players who graduated from college this year. You have Americans that have come into the Canadian Women’s Hockey League, like Brianna Decker, Kacey Bellamy and Hilary Knight.

But Kunlun also gets a boost, because for instance, we now have Leah Lum, who was a very good college player with UConn. We have Kim Newell, in addition to Noora Raty. Two great goalies. Kim Newell was involved with Team Canada [2013 U18 Worlds gold] while she played her college hockey, and then after she graduated, she went to Wall Street. She didn’t ever think she’d be back playing hockey again.

The mix of non-Chinese players we have, we think it’s the right mix. At the same time, we have to still put Chinese nationals in positions where they’re going to get better. Our blue line is pretty much all Chinese except for one player. That’s really good. For the next four years, they’ll be playing against the best that are out there. That’s preparation for the Olympics.

Were there lessons that you took away from the fifth-place finish in Division I Group B in April?

Without a doubt. Statistically, we had the fewest goals against. Our defensive team play was outstanding. Even transitioning up the ice, we were able to get the puck into the opponents’ end. But we need to be more creative.

China, for years, has never won a World Championship. A lot of its play has been very structured. When you overstructure the game, you’re taking away part of the game. To score goals, you need to be creative. We’re trying to get that creativity to be more of their identity as a team. That’s probably the biggest challenge with the Chinese national team. The North Americans, they get it. They understand that the positions are interchangeable and play that way, more so than how China’s been playing over the years.

Yes, you’ve got to defend and have great goaltending, but you’ve got to score goals. If you can’t score goals, you’re not going to win.

Bob Deraney spent 19 years as the head coach of the Providence Friars women’s hockey team. He also worked as an advisor with the 2018 U.S. Olympic women’s selection camp. How did you choose him as Digit Murphy’s successor as the KRS coach in June?

We had a number of candidates that reached out. We put the feelers out in terms of who would be interested. It’s not easy to leave your family if you have family, but it’s definitely rewarding for sure. It just so happened that while we were going through the process and interviewing other candidates, the change at Providence happened. I didn’t call right away, because I knew Bob would need some time. But probably within three or four days, I was on the phone to him because out of all the candidates, in my opinion, without a doubt he was the best coach.

He’s got experience at the international level with USA Hockey. He’s had a tremendous amount of success at Providence over 19 years as a coach. Philosophically, there are a lot of similarities there, in terms of how you communicate with your team. So I think he’s going to do a great job for us. I know he’ll do a great job.

What do you say to people who are sceptical about China’s Olympic hopes?

We definitely can’t predict the future. We can only focus on what we’re doing right now. As long as we keep getting better every day, we’re going to be one hell of a lot better by the time the Olympics roll around.

There are all kinds of examples in sport that you can draw on where the underdog found a way to win. At the start of last year, who would have thought that the Vegas Golden Knights would get to the Stanley Cup final? I’m not sure too many people picked them. Maybe this is, as Digit put it once, “China’s great miracle.” It could well be. But we’ll just focus on getting better each day and be ready when it eventually happens.

LUCAS AYKROYD

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