“Wow, that was a really big party for me!” Qi, 33, told IIHF.com. “When I came to the Olympic Village, every day I would go out for a walk. The fans were really passionate. Whenever we walked on the streets, some people would come to us and say: ‘Are you athletes?’ We’d say, ‘Yes.’ ‘What sport?’ When we said, ‘Ice hockey,’ then they really, really loved it! Also, when we played games, most of the fans cheered for us. Everything for me was new. It was the first time. So I really enjoyed that.”
Daily star sightings were also on the menu in British Columbia’s biggest city for Qi.
“When we ate together, I was really close to some NHL stars like Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin. That was the first time we were really close to them. To see them, we felt really good. Also, we traded a lot of pins!”
More than 10 years later, Qi has pinned her hopes on making the Olympic team again so that she can compete on home ice in Beijing in 2022. Nicknamed “Snow” by her international pro teammates with the Shenzhen KRS Vanke Rays, the Harbin native is one of several 2010 alumni who made a comeback last season to chase her Winter Games dreams.
Qi hadn’t played since the 2015 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship Division I Group B tournament, where the hosts came third in Beijing. However, she didn’t miss a beat after spending the previous two seasons as an assistant coach with the women’s U18 program.
“I think after my coaching experience, I’m more clear in my head,” Qi said. “I can read the situation better. Before I was a coach, I always thought about myself – my position, my situation. But after coaching, I can think about the whole team, the whole situation. It’s easier to understand what the coach says, and I can help the coach help the players.”
Impressively, “Snow” captained her team to the WHL championship. Despite spending weeks on the road due to the COVID-19 outbreak that hit China earlier than Russia, the Rays swept host Agidel Ufa in three straight games in the final in March. It was an upgrade over the club’s experience in the now-defunct Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL), where they lost the 2018 final in overtime to the Markham Thunder on Laura Stacey’s goal.
On 19 September, the new WHL season kicks off with a rematch between Agidel Ufa and the Rays, who will be based in the Moscow area this season same as the men’s team in the KHL. Naturally, the coronavirus situation injects uncertainty into everyone’s plans. For Qi, relying on her mother’s strength and wisdom is particularly valuable in these strange times.
“My mom always supports me,” Qi said. “At the beginning, she didn’t really like me playing ice hockey. But when I played sports in school, she was just 100 percent for me. In China, she’s always with me, watching me play games, even in different cities. Sometimes when I was confused or something came up that I couldn’t handle, she always stood on my side and communicated with me. She always gave me advice and helped me to make some great decisions.”
“My former captain [Linuo Wang]. She’s seven years older than me. She wore number 19 when she played on the national team. She played at the 2002 Olympic Games and the 2010 Olympic Games. And number 14 [Rui Sun]. When she retired, she also became one of my coaches.”
Qi gained valuable experience from her five top-level Women’s Worlds between 2004 and 2009. Interestingly, her tournament debut came in 2004 in Halifax. The hockey-crazed Nova Scotia capital will co-host the 2021 Women’s Worlds with Truro. Those two cities were originally supposed to host this year’s tournament, but the pandemic unfortunately led to its cancellation.
Hockey has helped Qi hone her English language skills: “I learned mainly just from coaches. We’ve had maybe more than 10 foreign coaches.” With the national team, she got opportunities to practice English while travelling and competing in Finland and Canada in the mid-2000s.
The whole world has a lot of work to do before China can host its first Winter Games. Qi doesn’t know whether she’ll get to see Crosby and Ovechkin again in person. The final makeup of the Chinese Olympic team – which will include naturalized North American players of Chinese heritage as well as domestic-born and trained talent – remains unclear.
So “Snow” will simply train hard and play hard as the countdown continues. She always reminds herself about the three reasons behind her comeback as a player.
“First, I love hockey. It doesn’t matter how old I am. I really like to play during the games. So I can feel the passion. I enjoy being with my teammates, playing together. Second, in China, we have more younger players now. I want to show them: ‘If you love hockey, you have to play.’ Some of them think about other things. Third, I think if I can play, maybe it’s more helpful. I can teach other players when I’m a coach, but sometimes, maybe it’s better to teach as a player. That’s why I came back.”