Vanke Rays win Russian title
by Andy Potts|27 APR 2022
The KRS Vanke Rays players celebrate with the trophy after winning Russia's Women's Hockey League.
photo: Sergei Babunov
Chinese women’s hockey has enjoyed a big year – and the KRS Vanke Rays crowned a successful season by winning Russia’s Women’s Hockey League for the second time.

The club, based in Shenzhen but currently playing out of Mytishi, just north of Moscow, due to Covid restrictions back home, helped to nurture the players who represented China at the Beijing Olympics and then won promotion to the IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship Division IA.

And many of those players did double duty, combining international duty in Poland earlier this month with the play-off campaign in Russia. That culminated in double gold: victory for China and a 3-0 sweep of SKIF Nizhni Novgorod in the final series in the league.

Hannah Miller, also known as Mi Le after taking Chinese citizenship and joining the national team, was involved on all fronts during the season.

“I think it’s a bit of a dream team,” she said after Monday’s title triumph. “We have lots of players from different countries coming together in one locker room. That’s a special feeling.

“It was a really interesting season. I got the chance to play for China at the Olympics and I’m so grateful for that. I never thought I’d get a chance like it, and it was one of the best experiences of my life. Playing at the Olympics then coming back and winning the Women’s Hockey League – it’s a dream come true.”

Two rosters in one season

In previous years, the Rays had a reputation as a ‘Harlem Globetrotters’ roster of players from around the world. The likes of Team USA Olympians Megan Bozek and Alex Carpenter played a big role in the club’s 2020 Russian championship, and there was top talent from Europe involved as well.

However, after playing a Covid-delayed 2021 season final in September and losing out to Agidel Ufa in a shootout in the decisive game, the line-up changed abruptly. Head coach Brian Idalski was tasked with preparing a team to represent China at the Olympics and for the first half of the season, only prospective Chinese internationals were available to the team. A 0-5 loss on opening day suggested a steep learning curve ahead and after two seasons of dominating the league, the Rays found themselves in mid-table.

After the Games, though, it was back to a combination of the best Chinese talent seasoned with some international stars. And several homegrown players, notably Yu Baiwei, Liu Zhixin, Zhu Rui, Fang Xin and Zhao Qinan. A long unbeaten run lifted the team to second in the regular season table behind SKIF, and KRS was ready for the first of three rounds of play-offs as the expanded league began its biggest post-season schedule.

Finnish forward Michelle Karvinen, a bronze medallist in Beijing, was one of the players who played in September then returned in late February. “It was a challenge [to rejoin the team],” she admitted. “We didn’t play the whole season together, so there was a lot to take in.”

Once established, she then had to help hold the fort at the start of the play-offs, when Team China went off to the World Championship, missing the first-round series against MSMO 7.62 and the opening game of the semi-final against Tornado Dmitrov. At times the Rays had to play two-line hockey in the early stages of the play-offs, with some players racking up 30+ minutes on the ice.

“When the play-offs started, we didn’t have so many players,” she added. “It was tough, we had forwards playing on defence. I’m really proud that we overcame all these difficulties and won the championship.”

By the time everyone returned, the Rays were down 1-0 to Tornado in a best-of-three series with the league’s leading goalscorer, Anna Shokhina, looking to lead the Moscow Region club to the final. However, back to full strength, KRS turned the series around to set up a showdown with SKIF.

The action began in Nizhni Novgorod, with KRS winning 3-1 in the opening game. But the second encounter was a tense affair. SKIF led twice, only to lose out 3-2 on a goal from Michela Cava two minutes from time. Canadian forward Cava finished the play-offs as leading scorer and MVP with 17 (6+11) points.

Then came Monday’s clincher in Mytishi. Goaltenders Noora Raty and Valeria Merkusheva produced a masterclass in regulation, both beaten only once each by deflected goals. Overtime was scoreless, but in the shootout Raty underlined her class by winning every duel with SKIF’s forwards. At the other end, KRS scored three and fittingly it was Cava who struck the final blow.

While the trophy was won ‘in exile’ on the outskirts of Moscow, Shenzhen did not forget its team . A live stream of the game was available in the club’s home arena even as a new generation of Chinese players practiced their skills.
For Czech international Alena Mills, it was a chance to banish unhappy memories of last season’s loss to Agidel.

“We’ve been waiting for this since September,” said Mills. “I’m so happy that we finally managed to win it, and got it done in three games. SKIF is a good team, they battled hard, especially in the second game. They played better than us, we rode our luck there. In the third game we had plenty of chances but just couldn’t score. It was a really even game and it ended in a shoot-out, like in September.”

Promising signs for SKIF

Although SKIF could not lift the trophy, the season was a big step forward for one of Russia’s oldest women’s teams. Founded in Moscow in 2000, it won eight national titles either side of its move to Nizhni Novgorod in 2006. However, the last of those was in 2014.

Topping the regular season table was the best result since then, and a run to the play-off final was the club’s best ever postseason performance.

Meanwhile, there is evidence that the league is getting more competitive. Dynamo Neva pulled off a play-off surprise to oust Agidel in the first round, while the expanded three-round format meant first ever postseason campaigns for 7.62 and Belye Medveditsy from Chelyabinsk.

Among the KRS players, too, there’s a growing sense that the standard of the women’s game continues to improve.

“The level is improving,” said Miller. “As the more experienced players, our job is to inspire a new generation of young girls. I hope that the standards will continue to rise, and more girls will play hockey. The WHL is a good professional league and I’m happy to be a part of it.”