Yu gets to go back
by Andrew Podnieks|25 AUG 2023
Baiwei Yu is the only player on Team China with top level WW experince, going back to 2007.
photo: IIHF / CIHA
When Baiwei Yu played her first game for China at an IIHF event, on April 4, 2007, she could not have known how the women’s hockey landscape would change in the coming years, or that 16 years later she would be fighting with her team for a chance to play at the top level again.

That inaugural game was a 7-0 win over Kazakhstan, playing in only their third top-level WW ever, and it turned out to be China’s only win of the tournament. Still, it was enough to give them a 6th-place finish and a return to the 2008 WW, which was held in Yu’s hometown, in Harbin, a long-delayed first women’s event in China after the 2003 WW was postponed because of SARS.

Playing at home, China avoided relegation by defeating Germany, 4-2, on the final day of relegation play. It was a sensational win before 1,984 spectators at Baqu Arena. Trailing 2-1 late in the game, the hosts scored three goals in 82 seconds, the last coming at 19:20, to secure the win and send Germany down to I-A. 

In 2009, the last time China was in the top pool, they weren’t so fortunate, losing both games in the relegation round and going down to Division I for 2011. Yu played in all 12 games during this three-year stretch, as well as five more games at the 2010 Olympics. A defensive defender, she never earned a point, but she became one of the team’s top blueliners and a steadying force. That 2009 team had some of the most well-known players in China’s history—Xueting Qi, Fengling Jin, Rui Sun—but 14 years later Yu is the only one still playing for the national team.  

Indeed, the history of the national team is also the personal history of Yu’s career. She played in WW-I in 2011, and when the IIHF split the division into I-A and I-B the next year, China had dropped to I-B. No matter. Yu continued to play in I-B in 2012, and every year at every Women’s Worlds from then til now. 

After covid came a unique 2022 season. China was still playing in WW-I-B but finally, after a decade, placed first and earned promotion to I-A for this year. At the same time, because they hosted the Olympics, that same team played in Beijing at the highest level and among the world's best talent. Yu was on both teams. In fact, she scored the final goal in that 6-2 win over Poland on the final day of I-B that got the team promoted, and she averaged better than 22 minutes a game at the Olympics.

Yu and Rui Sun alternated as captain from 2011 to 2015, but starting in 2016 Yu was the team’s full-time leader, a role she has handled every year since. Once China was awarded the 2022 Olympics, the national program took their development ambitions to a new level. Part of that included entering two teams in the Canadian Women’s Hockey League, Kunlun Red Star and Shenzhen KRS Vanke Rays. Both played in 2017-18, but after one season the teams combined rosters. After one more season, the CWHL folded. Yu played for Red Star in 17-18 on a team backstopped by Finnish goalie Noora Raty. The team lost to the Markham Thunder in the Clarkson Cup finals. 

When KRS teams later joined the Russian league, Yu followed, keen to keep her game sharp through league play. And now that China has earned promotion back to the top, back to where Yu last played in 2009, the only question remains is whether she will continue to play another season. Back then, China played Canada, Sweden, Switzerland, and Japan. There are only three players left from those teams for Yu to renew rivalries with—Marie-Philip Poulin and Rebecca Johnston from Canada, Sara Grahn from Sweden—but to return to the top would be a monumental achievement for the 35-year-old from Harbin.

You just have to believe she’ll be in Utica for one more go of it.