Road trip to China
by Maria Tassone|26 FEB 2019
Markham Thunder goaltender Erica Howe makes a save on Hanna Bunton of KRS Vanke Rays.
photo: Teri Di-Lauro / CWHL
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Tonight the Markham Thunder will complete its regular season in the Canadian Women’s Hockey League. After a road trip to Montreal during the weekend they will conclude the season with a local rivalry against the Toronto Furies.

It hasn’t always been that close since the Chinese Kunlun Red Star club created a women’s team for the CWHL after it had hit headlines for a men’s team in the Russian-based Kontinental Hockey League.

The Chinese team, this season called KRS Vanke Rays, travels to North America for its away games while the other teams have one road trip per season to Shenzhen in southern China.
Young Chinese players get ready to hit the ice.
photo: Teri Di-Lauro / CWHL
For the team from Markham in the Greater Toronto Area it was the longest road trip. The team would embark a plane, and venture approximately 12,500 km to play three games against the KRS Vanke Rays in Shenzhen.

The Thunder are the defending Clarkson Cup Champions, and are one of six teams in the CWHL along with the Rays, Toronto Furies, les Canadiennes de Montréal, Calgary Inferno, and the Worcester Blades. Each of the five North American based teams takes one trip over to China to play the Rays in their home rink each season. Last year, the Thunder and Furies were the first teams to go to China, and played the Kunlun Red Star and Vanke Rays (the two China-based teams were merged in the off-season). 

This year, Markham was the second team to head to China, a week after the Blades had their road trip. Because of the 4 Nations Cup, six players joined a day later – Olympians Jocelyne Larocque, Laura Fortino, Laura Stacey, along with Jamie Lee Rattray, and Victoria Bach for Canada, and Olympian Megan Bozek for the United States – but they were still able to soak in what Shenzhen had to offer. They just had some extra hardware in tow.

The team explored Shenzhen and nearby Hong Kong over the seven-day trip. From riding the subway, to shopping trips to the markets, and ordering food, both those who were experiencing China for the first time and those who were there for a second time, took in all the experiences.
Markham Thunder players take a selfie on the subway in Hong Kong.
photo: Markham Thunder
One of the overwhelming favourite trips was to Dafen, the oil painting village. “It was a great experience,” says rookie Kelly Gribbons. Fellow first-year Ailish Forfar added. “The village was fascinating! To see the untouched streets lined with shops, and people outside actually painting was something very unique to Shenzhen - you can’t find anywhere else.”

Some picked up custom pieces of art or calligraphy, while others purchased pottery or picked out already framed paintings. Kristen Richards and Alexis Woloschuk even got in on the painting action, learning from artists outside their shops. “They were all so talented,” remembers Thunder captain Jocelyne Larocque, “I loved being able to see the culture there. It was my favourite outing!”

Another day saw the team venture to the Fairy Lake Botanical Garden, and paying a visit to the Hongfa Temple. “It was beautiful – nature and culture together,” says Forfar. “The area was so green it was almost like the park was cheering for the Thunder!” 

When it came time to play hockey, the fans in the Shenzhen Universiade Sports Center were ready to cheer. “The drum would start up whenever the Rays were in our zone, and you could hear the crowd get excited,” explained Forfar. Gribbons added, “Every shot the Rays took you heard the ‘Oooohs’ roll through the crowd.”
The Chinese drum used during the games by fans in Shenzhen.
photo: Maria Tassone
The Chinese home team won the first game 3-2 thanks to Jessica Wong‘s overtime goal but the other two games ended in Markham’s favour. After playing all three games and coming away with five points it was time for a team hot pot dinner. “It was so much fun to experience hot pot with everyone,” says Gribbons. “It was a great end to the trip to watch some teammates struggle with the spicy side of the pot!”

“It was an amazing trip to play hockey on another continent and have the opportunity to become immersed in the culture and be together as a team,” Laura Fortino concluded. The planning is already underway for excursions so the team can experience even more in China next season! 

Watch the Funda Travel Diaries video clubs from this season’s trip to China here.