Give the Chinese women's national team credit. If it does well at next year's world championship, which is being played in Harbin, China, it can credit this season's long training trip to Canada for the success; if the team does not fare so well, it at least can't be accused of not trying its best.
The entire team is spending a large part of the 2007-08 season in Alberta, playing boys teams and other women's teams from the WWHL (Western Women's Hockey League). Indeed, six Chinese players have also joined WWHL teams for the season, and the Calgary Oval X-Treme, a premier team in the WWHL, is acting as hosts to the Chinese women, offering facilities, ice time, and competition in the hopes of improving the skill level of the Chinese players.
The X-Treme is a veritable mini-Team Canada, featuring players such as Hayley Wickenheiser, Kelly Bechard, Gina Kingsbury, Carla MacLeod, Gillian Ferrari, and Colleen Sostorics, all multiple gold-medalists in IIHF competition. Furthermore, two forwards - Wang Linuo and goalie Yao Shi - are with the X-Treme for the season. Two other Chinese players have joined the Edmonton Chimos (Rui Sun and Bai Wei Yu) and Strathmore Rockies (Fengling Jin and Xue Ting Qi).
There are scarcely a couple of hundred women players in the nation of 1.3 billion people, leaving the team with few chances to gain experience within their own borders. As a result, they have taken a page from Canada's playbook. Leading up to the 2006 Olympic Winter Games, coach Melody Davidson had her women's team play nearly 50 games against senior boys' teams to prepare the Canadian women for the run to the gold medal.
But for the first time, the Chinese are being pro-active in their program on such a large scale, an important step in developing the World Women's Championship which needs more than an annual Canada-United States final to grow an audience outside North America. China has often been a comfortable second-tier nation, playing well against the Finns and Swedes, and they have had three fine showings over the years. At the World Women's Championship in 1994 and 1997 they finished fourth, their highest placing, and they also finished fourth at the 1998 Olympics in Nagano, Japan.
Certainly, there is a direct relationship between the country's hosting the World Women's Championship for the first time and this extra push to improve. The IIHF had originally awarded the WWC in 2003 to China, but that year's event was cancelled because of the SARS disease. This time, there is nothing but positive emotions building for Harbin in a year that Beijing will also host the world at the 2008 Summer Olympics.
Another part of the Chinese attempts to improve the team has been the hiring of Canadian Steve Carlyle as coach. Previously, the Chinese used only countrymen for the job between 1992 and 2002, but the coaches have had as little experience in world-class coaching as the players at playing. In 2004, China hired Czech Jan Votrbuba, and a year later Canadian Paul Strople (who had also previously coached women's hockey in Iceland), but 6th and 7th place results, respectively, left few encouraging signs.
Carlyle played professionally in the early 1970s, notably with the Alberta/Edmonton Oilers in the earliest days of the World Hockey Association (WHA). He was later an assistant coach with the X-Treme, a connection which influenced the Chinese decision to train with the WWHL. Ultimately, while he hopes to improve the team's performance at home for the 2008 WWC, Carlyle sees this as a larger stepping-stone to the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver. Given that the team failed to qualify for Turin 2006, he has a large job ahead of him, but training with and against many of Canada's best players can only help.
- Although the National Women's Hockey League (NWHL) suspended operations for this season, women's hockey is alive and well in Ontario and Quebec thanks to the efforts of several players, notably goalie Sami Jo Small and forward Jennifer Botterill. There are seven teams for 2007-08 in what is now called the CWHL (Canadian Women's Hockey League). For more information, visit www.cwhl.ca.
- There is still no resolution to the legal dispute marring the presentation by Adrienne Clarkson of the Clarkson Cup to Hockey Canada. It was the former governor-general's intention to donate a trophy bearing her name (in much the same way Lord Stanley had in 1893) which would unify all leagues and teams across Canada, giving everyone a single trophy to compete for, but since creating the commissioned cup, the artists have since demanded further compensation for public use of the trophy.
- Retired Team Canada captain Cassie Campbell has a new book out called "H.E.A.R.T.". In October 2007 she was inducted into Canada's Sports Hall of Fame, the first female hockey player so honoured.
- Cammi Granato, meanwhile, became the first woman to be awarded the Lester Patrick Trophy, given annually to those who have made a significant contribution to hockey in the United States.
- The Chinese women are not the only players going elsewhere for experience. Four Finns - Emma Laaksonen, Karolina Rantamaki, Nora Tallus, and Kati Kovalainen - have moved to Russia and are playing with SKIF Moscow in 2007-08. Three more Swiss - Stefanie Wyss, and the twins Julia and Stefanie Marty - decided to play college hockey, increasing the number of Swiss players in North America to seven.