Shenzhen, which played its first two seasons in the now-defunct Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL), triumphed despite having to dodge the looming global coronavirus pandemic. That meant the road trip of a lifetime. The world’s best-financed pro women’s team left China in late January and stayed in Russia until 11 March, when they defeated defending champion Agidel Ufa in the finals.
The Rays were founded by billionaire Chinese industrialist Billy Ngok to help develop Chinese women’s hockey as the nation prepares to host the 2022 Beijing Olympics. They are the sister club of the Beijing-based Kunlun Red Star of the KHL. Originally also known in 2017/18 as Kunlun Red Star, they amalgamated with the Vanke Rays (likewise Shenzhen-based) after that season.
IIHF.com interviewed five members of the Rays organization who led the way to glory in 2020.
Noora Raty is one of the world’s best women’s hockey goalies. The 31-year-old Finn, a four-time Olympian, shone as her nation earned historic IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship silver medal on home ice last year in Espoo. After playing men’s hockey for three years after the Sochi Olympics, Raty signed a contract with the KRS organization in 2017/18.
Megan Bozek owns the hardest shot in women’s hockey, clocked at 141 km per hour (88 miles per hour). The 29-year-old American defender is a 2014 Olympian and four-time Women’s World gold medallist. Bozek, Raty’s former University of Minnesota teammate, joined the Rays for 14 of their 28 games this season.
Melanie Jue has appeared in every game in team history (84), sharing that distinction with Xueting Qi (nicknamed “Snow”). The 32-year-old native of Richmond, Canada played four years at Cornell University through 2009/10. Jue spent seven years coaching with the Pursuit of Excellence program in British Columbia and Lindenwood University before making her 2017/18 comeback as a heritage player, a prospective 2022 Chinese Olympic team member. She plays both forward and defence, but stuck with D in 2019/20.
Brian Idalski coached Shenzhen to the title in his debut with the club. The 49-year-old former minor-league defenceman from Michigan previously coached the University of North Dakota’s women’s team for 10 seasons, with stars including Jocelyne and Monique Lamoureux and Michelle Karvinen. UND abruptly cut the women’s program in 2017 in a budget crunch.
Claire Liu is Shenzhen’s general manager. Born and raised in China, she completed her post-secondary education in the U.S. and joined the KRS organization in 2017. The 34-year-old Liu has approached her job primarily from a business standpoint, as she mostly went to basketball and baseball games while attending New York University.
Everyone came to the organization in a different way.
In 2017/18, the team reached the CWHL final, but lost 2-1 in overtime to the Markham Thunder. Nonetheless, it was an important building block. That run involved other American stars like Kelli Stack, Zoe Hickel and Shiann Darkangelo. There are many layers to bringing international players to Shenzhen, a coastal city of 12.5 million in the Guandong province, as Claire Liu appreciates.
LIU: When I recruit players, I always share the background of why we’re building this team up. First, there is not any professional league or hockey tournaments in China. And since we’re the host country for the Beijing Olympics, we are responsible to develop our Chinese players and also some of the heritage players, preparing them so that eventually they will play in the Olympics. We cannot use the traditional ways. Historically, China will put all our Chinese players together and train, but we want to change that way. We want to come together with the heritage players, with the high-level North American players and international players. They are hired as ambassadors. They are not actually just hired as professional players. So we want them to be able to do this role, not only play hockey, but also help to grow the hockey in China.
JUE: Coming from Chinese roots, I’m first-generation Canadian. I was raised very Chinese. I know all the customs. There’s a huge amount of pride for me to be a pro women’s hockey player in China. I also think being a pro women’s hockey player in general right now is such a luxury. We’re one of the very few teams where we have a salary that we can live off of. I feel super-fortunate and incredibly grateful for the opportunity. I think as I’ve continued to play over these last couple of years, I realized how lucky I am to be in this position.
Life in Shenzhen has offered many advantages for the Rays. They play at the gleaming, 2011-built Shenzhen Dayun Arena and are housed in a five-storey apartment building with on-site catering and a games room. The weather is often around +25 Celsius. Local delicacies range from seafood hot pot to Cantonese pudding in the mostly Mandarin-speaking city.
JUE: We’re lucky we’re in the Longgang District, which is about 40 minutes from downtown Shenzhen. I spoke Cantonese before I went there and it’s sort of like French and Spanish between Cantonese and Mandarin. I can get by. I can order food. I can have small conversations with the taxi drivers. If I’m lost, I can get home!
RATY: My fellow goalie Kim Newell is fluent in Mandarin. It’s really nice to have her understand both sides, English and Mandarin. Our assistant coach, Sunny [Rui Sun], played in the Olympics too. She was a star forward. She speaks really good English, so usually she’s the one translating the drills for the Chinese players. Brian explains it in English. Snow [Xueting Qi] played in the Vancouver Olympics, and her English is really good too. So Sunny, Snow, and Kim give us a good balance between the English-speaking and Chinese-speaking players. A lot of Google Translate, too! It’s kind of nice when you use WeChat. You can just press "translate" and it actually translates really well between Chinese and English.
LIU: There are not a lot of hockey fans in every Chinese city. It’s mainly just in the north part, in Beijing, in Shanghai, and in Shenzhen. In Shenzhen the first year, there were only a couple hundred people coming out to see our games. Some people didn’t even know that hockey was played on ice! After three years, at each game, we’ll usually get an average of 3,000 fans coming out to cheer for us. They know who our players are, and they sometimes make signs cheering for specific players.
BOZEK: We had 2pm home games there some days. And at a 2pm Wednesday home game, you’d think that nobody would really show up. But we had 2,000 to 3,000 people in the stands. So they’re interested in seeing professional sports and seeing women’s sports. I think it would be great to keep growing it there.
The Rays went through an early adjustment period in in the eight-team WHL. They finally heated up with an 11-game winning streak that ran from 23 October to 18 January, including breaks.
LIU: For the CWHL, our limitation was six plus one: six players and one goalie who are international. Other players had to be Chinese or heritage players who could prove that they had Chinese heritage, came from a Chinese family. For the WHL, their rule is different. You must have at least 10 Chinese players and the rest of the players can be international players.
IDALSKI: I know people in Russia were super-excited about us being in the league and the opportunity to compete against the North Americans. I kind of understood some of the things they were talking to me about, because those kids played against each other since they’re 15. So you’re constantly facing the same people. To have some more imports and have us in the league was an opportunity for them to gauge and compete against Megan Bozek and Alex Carpenter. It was pretty exciting for them and something that I thought was good for the league.
RATY: Most of the Russian teams have one really good line. Most of those players are on Team Russia and there’s a lot of skill. But then after that first line, there’s a big gap. It drops down. Then you get these young up-and-coming players who are like 15, 16 years old. You can really tell the difference between a post-college player who’s over 20 and a 14- or 15-year-old who is just getting started with her career. So I don’t know if the age gap is a good thing. I mean, it’s a good thing that there’s young players involved, but the overall quality of the league maybe suffers a little bit. Whereas in the CWHL, I liked the fact that everyone was mature and it was more of a women’s league. Russia is more of a mix of the young and up-and-coming and very experienced players.
RATY: They pulled out all the Team China girls from our team that were born in Harbin. They actually trained and played in Minnesota the whole season. A lot of the girls who saw ice time or were on our team the first two years were not on the team anymore. So we had a whole new group. I think we had one goalie and one D from the team that played in the CWHL. And then everyone else was new. Some of the girls who played on Team China in the 2010 Olympics, they came back out of retirement and joined our team. It was kind of nice to have the older, experienced players too. And then they brought up some of their U18 Chinese players to play with us. I would say about half of them saw consistent ice and half of them really didn’t play much the whole season. In the end, your boss is putting so much money into it. They want to win. I think that’s the direction it’s headed. You just play to win. Then, if you have a good lead, you try to develop the Chinese players.
IDALSKI: Early on in the year, we played what we had. We had a smaller roster. I got on board in the middle of June. We came together in August for a tournament with no practices. A lot of people got thrown into the fire right away. As we added some players throughout the year, that dynamic changed. So it’s just a very interesting dynamic, to be honest with you. It’s something I hadn’t dealt with in other stops in my career. You know, they want to be successful and win, but at the same time, you want to develop players. So luckily for us, we’d gotten in some games and were really hitting our stride in the middle of the season, and I was able to play everybody. We were doing really well. So score-wise, I was able to just roll four lines and give lots of people opportunities.
Especially for the new American members of the Rays’ organization, the opportunity to experience different cultures in both Russia and China was particularly rewarding. Bozek made her debut on the road on 13 November in a remote city known to NHL fans as Alexander Syomin’s birthplace.
BOZEK: We flew to Siberia for my first game. We arrived in Krasnoyarsk the night before and played the next day at about 3pm. It was fun to be out there with a whole new team. I had known some of the players throughout college and whatnot. Everyone was just very welcoming. It was a really cool thing to say that I had played in Siberia.
IDALSKI: I grew up with the 1980 Olympics. I’m a Detroit kid. The Russian Five. I had a certain view of what Russia was going to be. I was blown away. I thought the people were fantastic. Yeah, I could probably do without the trip to Siberia, but I got to see Pavel Datsyuk play in a 4,000-seat arena, and he’s throwing backhand sauce side board to side board. It was such an intimate setting and such an awesome crowd with the drums and the flags, which we don’t get in the United States. It was more like what you see with soccer teams in Europe. I thought that was unbelievable. You spend time in Moscow and you go to Red Square. In St. Petersburg, I went to two ballets. I see all the history and go through the streets there and it was surreal. I’m a bit of a history geek anyway. The whole experience was so cool.
BOZEK: In China we had these dumplings. I’d never really had dumplings before, but they were phenomenal. And bubble tea. That’s a very popular item there. Obviously in Russia, you’re having borscht, but just trying their Americanized food, too, was pretty cool. What they think is Americanized, whether it’s a burger or steak, every restaurant was different. It was fun to try those things as well.
IDALSKI: My wife came over with me. It was very cool to have her experience some of that stuff with me and be there through that journey. I wouldn’t have done it if I’d been by myself and she’d been back home for four or five months. I think that would have been too difficult. We were lucky in that regard. One son’s playing junior hockey, one’s working, the other two are older. I have grandkids, so my wife got to come back when we’d go into Russia and she would go visit and see everybody and then she’d come back for the month or so we’d be in China.
Limited to five regular-season games, Raty would step up her mentorship of Newell, who has a chance to be China’s starter at the 2022 Olympics.
IDALSKI: When everyone else reported, Noora was still filming the show and didn’t have access to her phone. She was really completely off the grid for over a month. So by the time she’d finished that show up, she was like, "Hey, I legitimately haven’t done anything in two months." And she didn’t start playing games for us until after the Four Nations tournament that ended up getting cancelled [in Sweden]. So she didn’t really join us and start playing until the end of November. Then we went on a break and then came back after Christmas in January. She was there through the stretch and the playoffs. Both of our goaltenders, I kind of split the two early on in the first half when Noora wasn’t there.
RATY: I really took Kim under my wing this year. Every day we got on the ice 30 minutes early and we would run drills that Kim wanted to work on. I think her game’s evolved a lot. Before I could see she was sliding for a lot of plays and she wasn’t really tracking the pucks all the way in and out. So this year, we really slowed down her game and were like, “Always get there on your feet instead if you can get there,” because she’s such a good skater. So I don’t see a reason why she should be spending too much time on her knees when she’s moving. She’s always been super-technical, but she took two years off from hockey, so that kind of hurt her when it comes to reading the plays and making decisions on which technique to use when. I think she kind of realized a lot of things.
JUE: Kim’s great. She’s an intellectual. I think we get along really well. She’s been a really good balance for me, because when you surround yourself with a bunch of hockey people, sometimes the conversation isn’t exactly the most diverse, I guess. Kim and I, we get into some pretty hot topics.
As the season wore on and Shenzhen continued to vie with Agidel Ufa for first place in the WHL, leadership became more and more critical.
IDALSKI: Our leadership group, without a doubt, was Alex Carpenter, Big Liu, [24-year-old Richmond, BC-born forward] Leah Lum, and Snow.
JUE: Noora’s always been one of my favourite hockey players. Being her teammate has been amazing. Boze has a ton of experience under her belt. She’s a great hockey player. Seeing the way she holds people accountable and her standards, it’s pretty fun for me to see. For me, having the perspective of both a coach and a player, she brings a ton to the table. And same with Noora. I like that both of them aren’t afraid to challenge the status quo. They question what happens. As someone who’s coached, I love when players feel that they can speak out for the rest of the team. It’s been pretty cool seeing the way that they work, the way they care about their teammates, and the wealth of knowledge that they bring to the team.
Finishing second in league scoring as Carpenter’s linemate, Rachel Llanes (21+21=42) had the WHL’s most impressive breakout season. The 29-year-old Filipino-American forward, born in San Jose, had previously won the CWHL title (2015) and NWHL (2016) while playing in Boston. Llanes was originally brought to the KRS organization to serve principally as a strength and conditioning coach, but found a new gear when encouraged to focus more on her offensive game this year.
Meanwhile, veteran Jessica Wong, who won a U18 silver medal in 2009 with Canada, flourished as Bozek’s defence partner.
IDALSKI: Alex and Rachel played really well together and stayed together. We rotated in different wingers throughout the year, but those two just were a really good fit. Rachel does a great job of moving her feet without the puck to get to spots and has a great motor. Alex just sees the ice so well and has the ability to slow the game down and make plays and make people around her better. I thought that this was something that worked really well for us throughout the whole year. Those two really carried us in stretches scoring-wise.
JUE: Rachel Llanes, she’s been a tremendous resource for me in the last three years. She really helped me fix my body and get it back to playing shape. The first couple of months in my first year were a bit of a struggle.
BOZEK: Playing with Jessica Wong really helped. I got a number of games in with her this year and she is a phenomenal hockey player. Just knowing what she liked to do, if I were to rush the puck, she would stay back and vice versa. So we worked really well together. I think reading off of each other and knowing that one of us could rush the puck and one of us could shoot the puck, all of that in between us really helped.
IDALSKI: The organization acted relatively quickly, because after that message, we huddled with the support staff and our team doctor, trainer and GM Claire Liu. We said: “OK, what is it? Where is it?” We addressed the whole team: “Listen, Wuhan is more than a fair distance away. They’re hoping to contain it.” At the time, we thought it wouldn’t be that big of a deal. We were also starting to come up on Chinese New Year. It progressed from there to within a week: “Let’s start looking at going to Russia a little bit earlier.” We had four games in February. We planned to go to Russia around the second week of February anyway. We bumped that up by a little bit. Then it progressed over Chinese New Year: “Pack your bags. Get your stuff. We’re leaving in two days. Players who were out for Chinese New Year in China will come back. Anyone who’s out of the country is going to meet us in Russia.”
LIU: We had to spend more money training in Russia. Buying the plane tickets within two days is not that easy and all the prices went up. So we needed our leaders and founders to agree and approve that.
JUE: I packed all my stuff because I don’t have a whole bunch of stuff anyway. I anticipated not going back to Shenzhen. The only thing I left were my golf clubs, which was a crucial mistake! But it only means I get to buy new ones.
RATY: I think we didn’t understand at first how serious it could be. We were like, “Oh, there’s this virus in Wuhan.” We heard some people had died or gotten really sick. So it could spread around China, so it was just better for us to leave the country and not come back. But fine, it’s not going to get out of China! I come home and I didn’t give it much of a second thought. I was like, “OK, cool, I’ll go home for Chinese New Year and then go to Russia. It’s probably going to be fine.” Then I got home and I talked to people: “Yeah, I came home for a couple of weeks because there’s this virus in China.” And they were like, “Oh, wow, OK, a virus. OK.” Didn’t even pay attention. Then a month later, everyone was freaking out about it because it spread out to Europe and then it came to the U.S. It kind of happened really fast.
While a road trip of nearly two months in Russia might sound daunting, spending most of that time in the cosmopolitan city of St. Petersburg, which hosted the 2000 and 2016 men’s Worlds, was actually quite nice. The Rays stayed at a Marriott hotel downtown and finished off their season in February with four wins over two Russian teams, SK Gorny Ukhta and Dynamo St. Petersburg. They then moved on to the Moscow-area town of Dmitrov, where they swept Tornado Moscow Region in two straight games in the first round of the playoffs.
Raty, who took over as the starter during the playoffs, used her exotic experiences on her reality shows to put things in perspective.
RATY: Living in the jungle in the middle of the Philippines without any luxuries or anything for a month, well, I did it for two weeks. Even on the Farm, you’re living in a bubble for a month. You have no connections with the outside world. Living in a hotel or living on the road is so easy compared to that. It definitely puts your life into perspective and what’s important in life.
IDALSKI: When we go to play games normally, we’d be in Russia for two to three weeks and play four to six games. This was just longer. Earlier in the year, they were hosting an international curling event in Shenzhen. So they needed the rink. And so we played four games in Beijing, so we had an earlier test where we were on the road for about a month. We went to Russia and then came to Beijing and then went to Russia again. So we had kind of gone through it a little bit earlier in the year. I think that helped us a little bit. We were like, “Hey, we’ve done this. We were successful through that stint. We actually started to play really well and a lot of things started to sync together for us.” So it wasn’t outrageous. Control what you can control. We’re professional. This is something we have to deal with. You can either make the best of it and overcome it, or you can complain about it and make it a negative. Luckily for us, I think we were pretty united.
RATY: It wasn’t like they put us at these average three-star hotels. They put us in the best hotels they could find in town, and they provided us every single meal every day. There’s always different options on those meals too. So that’s really a lot of money. And Russia is not cheap. Although I think actually the living costs and food costs and daily things is really, really low. That probably saved them a couple of bucks instead of us being in the U.S. or Canada, where doing this would be five times more expensive. Still, I can’t thank them enough for providing us with an environment to actually finish the season, even if we couldn’t play the playoffs at home. I think it all turned out great. Some of our girls are coming out of college and they haven’t really seen the real landscape of women’s hockey. They haven’t experienced what a grind it can be in some other leagues or with some other teams. I think it’s easy to start taking things for granted or complain about the little things. But once you see the big picture, you just have to be thankful.
BOZEK: In Dmitrov, we stayed at a really cool resort, about 40 minutes away from the arena, but that was OK, because we only had to drive to the arena once a day. It had skeet shooting there. There was a spa, which we attended often, with massages and steam rooms and saunas. So that was really nice to take a step back and enjoy that.
Jue had some home-cooked meals courtesy of friends of ex-Salavat Yulayev Ufa and NHL netminder Ben Scrivens, whom she knew, along with his wife and fellow goalie Jenny Scrivens, from their Cornell years. Idalski enjoyed a surprise encounter with a former star from his favourite team, the Detroit Red Wings.
For the team as a whole, Claire Liu took the special step of renting Salavat Yulayev Ufa’s practice rink and converting it to their “home rink” for the finals. It paid off. The Rays swept Agidel Ufa in three straight games, with the concluding 4-2 win coming on their adopted ice. It was pure exuberance as the Rays became the first Chinese club ever to win a pro title.
LIU: Our equipment manager Steph Klein actually did a great job. She had a lot of suggestions. She’s been with us for three years. We talked about making some logos and stickers that we could put in the locker room, so it would look like our own locker room, the KRS locker room, not some room that was just rented. Also, there were some words that we wanted to show to the players to encourage them. Not only terms in English like “Passion” and “Work Ethic,” but also Chinese words for the Chinese players. We wanted the players to feel that they were home, even though they were in Russia.
IDALSKI: In Ufa, Bob Hartley’s team, Avangard Omsk, was there on a KHL road trip. So [former Detroit Red Wing and 1997 and 1998 Stanley Cup champion] Slava Kozlov is coaching on his staff. And I’m talking with one of the assistants, talking with one of our girls at breakfast. He kind of asked me about me and I’m like “Oh yeah, I’m a huge Detroit fan. I didn’t even know Slava Kozlov was on the staff. He introduces me to have breakfast with Kozlov, and our girls are like, “Wow, you kinda had a man-crush on him. Who’s that?” And I’m like, “Oh my goodness, you guys don’t even know who that is.”
BOZEK: We studied a lot of film on Ufa and had a good scouting report on them, just knowing what their top line liked to do and their goalie’s tendencies. We were determined to win. We had a great group, a very skilled group. And I think we were going to do whatever it took to win.
JUE: They’re coached well. I think in comparison to the rest of the Russian league, they’ve got a ton of really good talent. But if you look at our roster, we’re pretty stacked. Especially bringing in big guns like Boze and Wongie for the stretch, I think that was super-helpful. I think our talent really rose to the top there, pushing us forward to the wins. Olga Sosina, she’s got one of the best releases. Alena Mills, she has unbelievable vision. It was definitely a challenge, but I think we were pretty well-equipped to handle them.
Overall, Agidel’s best outing came in Game Two, as they outshot the Rays 49-33. Raty put on a performance reminiscent of her 1-0 triple overtime win against the Calgary Inferno in the 2018 CWHL semi-final, where she made 66 saves. Sosina and Yekaterina Lebedeva spoiled the Finn’s shutout bid with under five minutes left, but that was as close as Agidel would get.
RATY: I got into one of those states that goalies always want to get into. I got a couple of good saves at the start and kept building from it. I remember saying: “I need to go sit down. My body’s overheated. I’m dehydrated. I’m too tired for this. I’m too old to make 50 saves a game anymore.” So I think in the third period we really crossed that line. Ufa was pushing it so hard and somehow we played really on our heels and really tired. They just kept pushing until they scored a couple of goals. They kind of just ran out of time. If they had a little more time, they probably would have tied it up. It was one of those games where I think a lot of things went my way.
LIU: There are a lot of rules or policies that helped to push hockey to grow in China for the 2022 Olympics, and we are part of it. Our championship is big news and big encouragement for all the Chinese people who are interested in hockey or playing hockey. They know we can do something different and we can improve. Even though we’re an international club, we’re not exclusively Chinese players. Last year we had a lot of Chinese players and heritage players. Those players might eventually be able to play in the Olympics.
RATY: At least the core group [of heritage players] – I think it’s about seven girls that we’ve had for a couple of years or in the last few years – I’m pretty sure that if they get the passports, all those girls are going to be playing. I know there’s a couple more that play in college that would be eligible to play for China. But I think they’d have to play the next season in China. You have to play a year in the country that you would play for. But I’d say somewhere around 10 skaters, if they get the passports. One goalie, 10 skaters, maybe.
JUE: I know I’m a longshot, just because of my age, and apparently that matters to some people. I don’t personally think it does. I think I’d be a big asset. I could play every position, and I’ve had success at every position. I’ve seen success at every level I’ve played at. I’d love to be on that Olympic team. It’d be a huge honour for me. I don’t know. I don’t know what their plans are. But we’re kind of running out of time. So hopefully they sort of figure it out soon.
The process of setting goals for the Rays in 2020/21 is already underway, although the pandemic continues to create uncertainty.
LIU: First, we wish to get the best result we can. Last year we were champions, and next year I hope we can get the cup back again. At the same time, we also want to have more of our Chinese players and heritage players improve and prepare them for the Olympics. This year, we probably will add more Chinese players than we had last year, and hopefully they will be more experienced and train hard and play well and improve themselves.
IDALSKI: We’re still dealing with so many unknowns with visas and travel alone. I have no idea what things are going to look like. Hopefully some of that becomes clear soon. Right now, we’re kind of in a holding pattern and not really sure what things are going to look like.
Regardless, what happened this year in Shenzhen and beyond indicates that there is tremendous potential for women’s hockey in China. Much will depend on the willingness of the federation and the financial backers in Chinese ice hockey to keep things rolling.
BOZEK: Women’s hockey has made such great momentum and strides and gains in the past year or two that I think it’ll continue to grow, whether we start the season at the regular time or not.
RATY: If China does really well in the Olympics, I could see them being like, “OK, let’s push for it and try to earn a spot in ’26.” But let’s say they’re the last-place team or don’t do very well, I could also see them being like, “OK, what’s next that we can start supporting?” For me, I think a lot depends on how they actually do in the Olympics.
JUE: If we do this right, we can turn China into a superpower. They’ve got the resources, they’ve got the money, they want to do it. And so this could be a ripple effect where, maybe not in 10 years, but in 15, 20, or 30 years, China is really turning heads.