China’s Rays race to Russian title
by Andy Potts|19 MAR 2020
The players of the KRS Vanke Rays from Shenzhen celebrate with the trophy after winning Russia’s Women’s Hockey League.
photo: Svetlana Sadykova / WHL
In most of Europe the season has been cancelled. Since this week also the season in Russian leagues has been either paused (KHL) or cancelled. However, last week one league ended in an ordinary way, although not with your usual champion.

Russia’s Women’s Hockey League has a new champion – all the way from the south of China! The KRS Vanke Rays, based in Shenzhen, completed their debut season in the league by going undefeated through the playoffs to wrest the title from defending champion Agidel Ufa.

To make that achievement still more impressive, the Rays had to contend with playing all their post season on the road due to the coronavirus outbreak back home. The team played its last home game on Jan. 23, defeating SKSO Yekaterinburg 6-1. Then came the four remaining regular season games before playoff action in Dmitrov and Ufa.

But the long stint on the road did nothing to hamper the team’s progress. Three wins and an overtime loss in those regular season games secured second place in the table, then KRS defeated Tornado Dmitrov – a nine-time Russian champion – in back-to-back games, setting up the showdown with Agidel.

The Ufa-based roster is stacked with Russian international experience – Russia’s captain Olga Sosina and experienced goalie Anna Prugova lead Denis Afinogenov’s team – and had won three out of four previous competitive meetings with the Rays. However, in the Grand Final, Agidel could not get near the team from China, swept 0-3 to suffer its first ever post-season loss since playoffs were introduced to the league in 2018.
The KRS Vanke Rays players and staff post for a team photo with the Chinese flag after winning Russia’s Women’s Hockey League.
photo: Svetlana Sadykova / WHL
There’s an international feel to the Rays’ roster. Alex Carpenter, 5-time World Champion and Olympic silver medallist with Team USA, led the team – and the league – in scoring. She joined the organisation at the same time as her Stanley Cup-winning father Bobby Carpenter joined the coaching staff of the KHL’s Kunlun Red Star in 2017 but, unlike her Dad, Alex has stayed for three seasons. Finnish goalie Noora Raty is another KRS player with huge international experience, including two Olympic bronze medals. Head coach Brian Idalski, meanwhile, arrived in China with a proven track record of developing female talent at North Dakota, where he nurtured the Lamoureux twins.

However, there are also Chinese Olympians on the team. The national team qualified for the 2010 Games in Vancouver and Rays captain Xueting Qi was part of that roster, along with current clubmates Shuang Zhang, Zhixin Liu, Liang Tang and Cui Huo.

After returning home from Ufa, Qi, 33, spoke to about the championship season.

“It’s so exciting,” she said. “This is the first time in my career that I’ve played on a professional team, in a pro league. I’m so proud for my team, for all the players. This time it was like a national club, representing China, so that made it special for me as well.”

Recreating a little piece of China in Ufa also made a difference – especially when it came to the final game.

“It was very difficult to play all the playoffs on the road,” Qi added.
We had to leave for Russia much earlier than planned and then stay for much longer. And of course, we really missed China. But we had to concentrate on our business.
Xueting Qi
Chinese Olympian, KRS Vanke Rays captain
“But then for our final game, we moved to a different rink in Ufa and transformed it into a little home,” Qi said. “We had all of our logos on the ice and around the arena. And even in the locker room, our staff picked up on even the smallest detail – a picture here, some words there – just like at home. We could really feel that this was our rink and we could go out and play our game.”

Home for the Rays is usually the impressive arena built in Shenzhen for the Universiade in 2011. At the start of the season, the Rays attracted crowds of over 3,000, setting new attendance records for the Russian WHL. And, at a time when China is eager for good news, the team’s success in Ufa made an impact back home.

“I think it was important for people in China,” Qi said. “When we won the championship, it made quite big news back home, a lot of people heard about what we did in Russia. I hope it can help to inspire people, to give them confidence and strength. In the playoffs we were wearing ‘#Chinastrong’ and ‘#Wuhanstrong’ patches on our uniforms. We wanted people to know that we were playing for China and we are always with them.”
KRS Vanke Rays captain Xueting Qi (right) and her teammates celebrate with the trophy.
photo: Svetlana Sadykova / WHL
While the Rays could call on a solid core of Chinese Olympic experience, there were also several younger local talents getting a taste of a higher level of hockey. Goalie Siye He, 21, and forwards Yufei Liu, Liying Yang (both 21) and Yunlin Pi (20) all featured on the team during the season with Yang contributing a couple of goals along the way. Qi believes that the experience will be crucial in helping to build a team to represent China in Beijing in 2022.

“This is really big for our Chinese players,” she added. “We have a couple of older ones, like me, who had experience from the Olympics in 2010, but there are some young girls too. Hopefully we can help the younger ones gain experience and learn, so we can improve together. 

“A lot of Chinese players can get good experience in this league. We’re all learning new tactics, new ways of playing and that helps all of us. In the future, the younger players can catch us up. It will all help in the future.”

And Qi herself could still play a big part in that future, perhaps forming an elite band of Chinese hockey players to feature in two Olympic campaigns after being part of Vancouver 2010.

“Vancouver was a great experience,” she said. “I got to see just how great some of these players are. We were able to see some real stars – men’s and women’s – and before I only got to see them on TV. Spending time around them was so exciting. The Olympic Games were very tough for us, of course. Every game you have to be well prepared, every game you need a great performance, to give 100%.”

Playing and winning in the Russian championship can only help with that preparation.

“This year, in this league, we saw some really great players too. The top players are so strong, mentally. Playing with them can really help the Chinese team to get that same mental toughness. If you want to get to the finals, to the medal games, you need that strength and togetherness.”
KRS Vanke Rays captain Xueting Qi in the dressing room after the game.
photo: Svetlana Sadykova / WHL
From the start of the season, it felt like the Rays were doing something special – big crowds in Shenzhen, adapted quickly to a new league. Was there a moment when you started to believe that you could win it all in your first season?

“I really trusted this team. Even at the start, when we lost a couple of games, we always had confidence. We knew we had some really great players, a good team and everyone around us gave us great support.”

In the final series you had impressive defence to close down a good, dangerous opponent. Did the team change its game a little bit for Agidel, or was it about learning from the regular season?

“We played Ufa before. They’re a really good team with good, dangerous players. But after a couple of games against them [in regular season] we learned a few ways to handle them. The whole team prepared for the final games very well, we learned from the previous games and we knew we could go out and play our game and give a good performance.”