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.
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 IIHF.com 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.
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.”
“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.”
“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.”