Chinese clubs launch 'revolutionary' debut in CWHL

Kunlun Red Star, one of two Chinese entries in the seven-team Canadian Women's Hockey League this season, opens play with a weekend doubleheader in Markham. CWHLers will be paid for the first time, but the Chinese players’ job description extends beyond the ice — as “athlete ambassadors” on the road to the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.

Digit Murphy, the coach of one of the new Chinese entrants into the Canadian Women’s Hockey League, was on the phone from the Air Canada departures lounge at Boston’s Logan Airport.

The place is called a “departures lounge,” but if you’ve been there on a busy day you know it’d be more accurately described as a pre-travel torture chamber. Being the person in charge of a travelling party of 35 “jackasses,” as Murphy lovingly called her players and support staff, she was understandably exhibiting the symptoms of airport-related stress.

“We call this adversity training. Team bonding. Team building,” Murphy, the 55-year-old veteran coach, joked.

Indeed, much as there’s been considerable fuss made about the injection of Chinese money that will, for the first time, pay modest stipends to the players in the seven-team CWHL, charter-jet travel remains a long way away from touching women’s pro hockey.

“Let’s just say we’re lucky we’re not busing,” said Murphy, 55.

Murphy and her team, Kunlun Red Star, were en route to Pearson airport in the lead-up to a weekend doubleheader against the Markham Thunder at Thornhill Community Centre, on Saturday night and Sunday afternoon. But the team’s mission — in concert with fellow China-based club Vanke Rays — goes beyond making a run for the league’s championship. The goal of the initiative, from the Chinese perspective, is to help make China’s women’s national hockey team a medal contender in time for the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.

Murphy, who is also the co-coach of China’s women’s national team, knows it’s an ambitious goal when you consider that, by the latest count, there are 294 registered women’s players in the world’s most populous nation. Still, in a sport long searching for more global parity in the face of the dominance of the Canada-U.S. rivalry, China’s interest comes as a welcome development.

The money, an unspecified investment from a couple of wealthy Chinese businessmen, is essential to the pursuit of global excellence. But the goal is to make the sport sustainable, which will require the long-term building of a fan base willing to buy tickets and merchandise and the like. To that end, the players on the CWHL’s China-based teams are being billed as “athlete ambassadors.” Murphy said they’re not being paid to win hockey games, a la the model of men’s pro sports. They’re being paid to win over an audience that can sustain the sport. While many of the players on Canadian-based teams balance their hockey schedule with full-time jobs, their overseas counterparts are essentially working full-time to spread the hockey gospel wherever they go.

“What we’re doing in China is revolutionary, because they’re not getting paid to play hockey,” Murphy said. “They can’t get paid to play hockey until people care about watching hockey, or buying tickets. So if you pay them as athlete ambassadors in the community, and they go to the schools, and they go to a golf outing — we’re on the way to developing a sustainable sports model.”

Along with engaging fans and community support at speaking engagements and golf outings and school visits, the Red Star and Vanke players with NCAA experience are being cast as mentors to Chinese-born players generally greener to the realities of elite sports.

“Those North Americans are living, breathing, eating with the Chinese players, teaching them how to act, how to dress, how to sleep, how to hydrate. It’s like 10 more coaches injected into your system,” said Murphy.

Jessica Wong — a 26-year-old Canadian from Baddeck, N.S., with Chinese heritage — is among the NCAA alumni on the Kunlun Red Star roster. She acknowledged that building women’s hockey in China is going to be “a long road,” but she said she’s enjoying the challenge.

“This is probably one of the best experiences I’ve had. We have a really good group of girls. This is what I’ve been wanting to do for a really long time,” said Wong, an alumnus of Minnesota-Duluth who scored the winning goal in the 2010 NCAA championship game.

Brenda Andress, the CWHL’s commissioner, said league players will make anywhere from $2,000 to $10,000 plus bonuses this season.

“I characterize it as a beginning on a path for the women to eventually earn a career in the future,” said Andress. “It’s a long ways away from where a player can earn a career, but we’ve come so far from the days where a lot of elite players . . . had to pay to play.”

Wong said her involvement in the team is “not about the money,” although the idea of earning a living from the game she loves is more than attractive.

“We obviously don’t get paid as much as the guys in the NHL, but you’ve got to start somewhere,” Wong said. “I hope it continues for girls, for women in hockey. I believe what we do is basically what the NHL guys do. It’s different, but we’re trying to be equal.”

Speaking from a crowded commercial departure lounge, Murphy can tell you that pro sports gender equality, at least in hockey, remains a distant dream, but a worthy one, no matter the continent in question.

“You have to think differently in women’s sports,” Murphy said. “What we’re doing here is trying to build relationships with the community, and hopefully (the community) comes back and watches. But it starts with the relationships. It starts with the community. It starts with the stories. That’s the model we have. It takes years to do it. But here it starts.”


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