Chinese women get ready for Russia
by Andy Potts|12 SEP 2019
The KRS Vanke Rays celebrate after winning a pre-season tournament in Beijing last month.
photo: Kunlun Red Star Vanke Rays
The coming season is set to be a voyage of discovery for the Kunlun Red Star Vanke Rays and incoming head coach Brian Idalski. The Chinese women’s team, a member of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL) for two years until it disbanded last season, has moved to Russia’s ‘Zhenskaya Khokkeinaya Liga’, or Women’s Hockey League. Idalski, best known for his long association with North Dakota in the NCAA, took over behind the bench in June for his first role outside of North America.

It’s a challenge that Idalski as relishing as the clock ticks down towards the Rays’ opening game against Biryusa Krasnoyarsk on 14 September, but there’s a steep learning curve in prospect as the Shenzhen prepares to host the eighth team in the championship – and the first from outside of Russia.

“It’s an exciting time for us,” Idalski said. “When I joined the club, this was a strong possibility even though it wasn’t confirmed until later. Now I’m looking forward to the challenges ahead.”

The early signs are positive, with the Rays winning a pre-season tournament in Beijing that included current Russian champion Agidel Ufa and a Chinese national roster. And, at a time when women’s hockey is debating the way to structure a professional championship in North America, Idalski likes what he’s seen of the KHL-backed Russian championship.

“I’ve been surprised with how well it works,” he added. “It’s been first class and I’ve been encouraged by the professionalism of the organisation. I was very impressed with Ufa when we played them in Beijing a couple of weeks back. They’re doing things in the right ways and they are very professional on the women’s side. I’ll be interested to go over there in the season and see how the game organisation works, but so far, I tip my hat to them!”

The excitement seems to be mutual. Georgi Kobylyanski, the KHL’s vice president for hockey operations, said: “We’re seeing increasing interest in the [Women’s Hockey] League from foreign teams and players, so we are delighted to welcome a new team from China. This is an important step for us as we look to broaden the league’s appeal. For the first time in the history of women’s pro hockey in Russia, we have an international league.

“The Vanke Rays bring experience of competing in Canada, so they will provide serious competition in the battle for the Cup.”

Agidel head coach Sergei Trudakov was impressed with what he saw in Beijing last month. “They have a skilful team with a lot of North American players. I think they will push the standards in our league even higher.”

However, the KRS project for men and women alike is also about developing Chinese talent as the Beijing Winter Olympics draws ever closer. That was a big attraction for the new coach.

“Now I’m a bit older, I’m looking for a particular type of job,” said the 48-year-old. “When I hear an organisation talk about successful and doing things the right way, that’s a resounding ‘yes’ with me. When we talk about building something, leaving a mark, being part of something special, that’s all a resounding ‘yes’ with me as well.

“It was a very easy decision for me once we sat down and had a conversation face to face.”

That desire to do more than merely play the game is also motivating the players Idalski and the Vanke Rays want to bring to China. For North Americans with Chinese heritage, a possible Olympic call-up is a tempting prospect, but Idalski stresses the bigger picture.

“I think all human beings have a drive to be part of something special,” he said. “For female hockey players, this is a chance to come over and make an impact. It’s not just on an individual level, with the opportunity to play at an Olympic Games; there’s also a chance to develop Chinese hockey, to develop Chinese players. It’s attractive for any number of players and I think our female players really embrace that.”

The Russian league, with its tighter rules on imports, could be the ideal testing ground for China’s potential Olympic stars.

“Russia is a better development league,” Idalski believes. “The CWHL was extra loaded last season. Because it wasn’t an Olympic year we saw all the top players coming back – Poulin, Decker, Jenner, Spooner. It was a super league, a really good product. The Russian league will afford us an opportunity to play and develop our national players, our heritage players.”

And, since coming to China, that group has given the coach cause for excitement.

“I really think they have a very good player pool,” he added. “The challenge is going to be having those different entities involved with that player pool combine and put it all together. That hasn’t happened yet but it’s a major conversation at the moment. 

“In a couple of years’ time I think people will be surprised at the quality of play and of our players. People forget that it wasn’t that long ago we saw China qualify for the Olympic Games in Vancouver. There are players that have come through the system, it’s not like we’re starting completely from scratch. There are some good players looking to get back into it, starting to train again in the hopes of making the team to represent their country at a home Olympics, which is an incredible experience for any athlete. It’s just a matter of getting together and putting the best team on the ice.”

Idalski’s opinions carry extra weight in the light of his hugely successful spell with the college program in North Dakota. He spent a decade behind the bench with the Fighting Hawks and nurtured several top talents, including the Lamoureux twins, Jocelyne and Monique, who played such a key role in Team USA’s Olympic triumph last year. From further afield, five Finnish graduates played Olympic hockey after honing their skills in Grand Forks. The Hawks’ program also developed Germany’s Tanja Eisenschmid, who made her Olympic debut in 2014. 

So when he picks out a Chinese player and references the Lamoureux twins, it’s something to take note of. Xueting Qi, now 32, was part of that Vancouver Olympic team. Since then, her playing career has wound down and in recent years she’s had a coaching role with the national team. Now, though, she’s back on the ice and hoping for a second chance at the Games.

“Snow, as we call her, has been terrific,” Idalski added. “I think the only players I’ve seen who shoot the puck like her, as consistently as her, are the Lamoureux twins.” She’s not the only Olympian on the roster: Alex Carpenter played with Team USA in 2014, scoring four goals on the way to a silver medal, and is expected to make a big contribution once again after top scoring for the team in the CWHL last season.

And there are younger players making progress too, Idalski adds: “We’ve got a good mix – lots of college experience, Chinese heritage players and a couple of other Chinese local players. It’s a hard-working group. We’re just getting started right now but it’s going to be an interesting season.”