Inside China's curious and challenging plunge into women's hockey

Kunlun Red Star players line up for the national anthems in Markham, Ont., on Oct. 21. (Chris Tanouye/CWHL)

When one of the top women’s hockey coaches in the world was summoned to China for a job interview, her partner asked her to sleep on the first offer. But Digit Murphy only listens to one source.

“You live and die by your strengths, and mine is my gut,” she says.

Sometimes in hockey you have to shoot first and ask questions later.

The offer presented to her was two-fold: to lead China’s first ever pro women’s team into the Canadian Women’s Hockey League and to coach China’s national team to a medal at the 2022 Olympic Games in Beijing. If that sounds like a lot to chew on, bet that Murphy’s the one with the appetite for it.

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Ice hockey is the premiere sport of the Winter Games and China, like any host country, wants to boast to the world about its athletic prowess. The national women’s team placed an all-time best fourth at the 1998 games but have finished seventh in two subsequent Olympics while not qualifying for the two others.

The Chinese have more often than not turned inward to find coaches but this time have looked to Canada and the United States to lead them internationally as well as in the CWHL. Murphy, 55, hails from the U.S. and will coach the Kunlun Red Star while Canadian Rob Morgan will coach the Vanke Rays — the second of two CWHL expansion teams announced this year.

Murphy, in brief, became the winningest coach in NCAA Div. I women’s hockey history in 2006-07 after her 18th season at Brown, has coached at the international level with USA Hockey, and has already won two CWHL Clarkson Cups with her former team, the Boston Blades.

It’s a story of mutual benefit between China, which gets world-class talent growing its hockey program, and the CWHL, which gets greater exposure and financial security. Both get to bring awareness to women in sport.

Players and management pose during the ceremonial puck drop before Kunlun’s inaugural game in Markham, Ont. (Chris Tanouye/CWHL)

With the CWHL team, as well as a men’s team in the Russian KHL led by coach Mike Keenan, both pro clubs aim to boost the country’s interest in hockey. An early-season report, however, said the KHL’s KRS team held the lowest attendance numbers in the league, just 2,705 fans per game.

Keenan calls it “the biggest project in hockey in the world,” and says the goal is “to have more hockey players playing in China than in any other country in the world.” Backed by two wealthy investors — bank executive Xiaoyu (Alex) Zhao and oil and gas investor Billy Ngok — KRS is not short on cash, and money will talk throughout this experiment.

Expansion is a quantum leap for the CWHL, which began operations 11 years ago and remains a not-for-profit league. In its infancy, players had to pay to play, but now with the addition of the two Chinese clubs, opportunities for the league to grow have increased exponentially. Prior to the 2017-18 season, CWHL players were only paid modest sums for travel, some equipment and performance bonuses. But after the strangest and most promising summer of its existence, players for the first time will be paid still-modest sums that range from $2,000-$10,000.

When news broke of expansion, many CWHLers were hearing about it for the first time, and nobody knew all the details and implications. The league made its formal announcement on June 5 at the Hockey Hall of Fame when just the one Chinese club, KRS, was made official. Questions were abound: a report suggested all-world players Noora Räty and Kelli Stack had signed with the team and there they were on stage that night, Zhao alluded to a second expansion team in his speech, and CWHL commissioner Brenda Andress mentioned a salary cap, which was odd because players had never before received a salary. One player texted me during the press conference: “The CWHL girls are asking, ‘What salary cap?’”

The league didn’t make official its plans to pay its players until September, yet by then it had become clear that KRS and Vanke were recruiting top North American and European talent that would be paid handsomely. Only to get around CWHL rules, they would not be paid as players but as “sport ambassadors” who would help the national team players (their KRS and Vanke teammates) through osmosis while promoting the sport around China.

Naturally, these details had some existing CWHL players feeling left out. The Players’ Association was not involved in the decision to expand.

“To be frank, [KRS paying “ambassadors”] is a loophole, but they’re just opening a door for an opportunity for those girls that I’m not gonna complain about, that’s for sure,” said Calgary Inferno skater Jacquie Pierri. At a Puck Talks panel in June, Markham Thunder GM Chelsea Purcell questioned the league’s strategy and suggested that China’s ambassadors would be paid upwards of $60,000-$100,000, a range repeated by other sources with knowledge of the organization. The league saw the live broadcast of the show and afterward admonished Purcell.

The mystery then deepened. On July 15, with commissioner Andress back in China, the CWHL tweeted that the league would be adding a second Chinese team. No press release was issued and the league did not respond to inquiries from the media (though the CWHL was without a full-time communications person at the time). The tweet was then deleted but only two days later, a lifetime on Twitter. The CWHLPA had questions themselves but they went largely unanswered for most of the summer. A league schedule, which would have helped answer many questions, did not appear until Sept. 22.

“After lots of confusion at the beginning of the summer, the league has been receptive,” says PA representative and Thunder goaltender Liz Knox. “Especially in terms of agreeing to player compensation. In my first year in the CWHL, I paid $1,500 to play. For me now to be making the $3,000 minimum for a senior player is a huge step.”

But questions remain regarding just how much money KRS has invested in the CWHL and in what ways that investment affected the North American club players getting paid.

“I really don’t know where the dollars are coming from directly,” says Knox. “I know that sponsorship dollars have increased. I know that China has, in some capacity, paid to enter the league.”

For some, traveling to China for the four-game, nine-day road trip won’t be possible due to commitments to full-time day jobs. The Chinese clubs, whose players now play full-time, will take several weeks-long road trips across North America. KRS, for example, is currently in the midst of a seven-game swing that began Oct. 21 in Markham and ends Nov. 14 in Montreal.

Kunlun’s Stephanie Anderson in action against the Markham Thunder on Oct. 21. (Jess Bazal/CWHL)

“But for years it’s been a problem for some just to travel for a Calgary road trip on a Friday for the weekend,” says Knox. “Is it worth getting on a plane Saturday morning only to fly back Sunday night?”

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For those with experience coaching hockey in China, seeing money thrown around is nothing new.

“They have money — they’re spending money — but not on the right things,” says Matt Bourgeois, director of Absolute Goaltending and former goalie coach with the women’s national team.

Bourgeois was hired in July 2015 as China’s first full-time goalie coach. He also participated in the NHL’s grassroots program while there. But he resigned in early 2017 frustrated with the direction of the program, saying “I basically wasted my time over the past two years.

“My frustration came from the lack of leadership and knowledge base for what was required. They just assumed that if I trained these goalies incessantly, day-in and day-out, two practices a day, six days a week the entire two years I was with them, [they would improve].”

Bourgeois took issue with misspent resources which included too much ice time, poor eating habits borne out of expensive stays at hotels while touring, substandard training facilities, and ill-fitting equipment that the goalies would choose themselves. He suggested things like staying in cheap college dorms while touring North America and going grocery shopping to teach players how to eat properly.

“My starting goalie [and current KRS backup Yuqing Wang] had pro-return pads from Evgeni Nabokov and a pro-return glove from Jaroslav Halak,” he says. “I told them she needed lighter equipment and the team said she bought what she liked. There are no hockey stores in China so she didn’t get to try this stuff on. Her glove was extra stiff and extra thick because it was Halak’s practice glove. It was a travesty watching her use it.”

He laments that there lacked a pipeline of goalies in the system, which is likely since there are only about 300 active female hockey players in the entire country. The goalies, he says, were without the required motivation to improve, and without a translator for 90 percent of his time on the ice, communication was lacking.

Finland’s Noora Raty will be leaned on to provide support to her Chinese counterparts. (Jess Bazal/CWHL)

“Frustrations like that built up to where I thought I wasn’t going to get anywhere with the team.”

Bourgeois says the team had a history of picking former Chinese players to coach, a strategy he likened to hiring Wayne Gretzky rather than Mike Babcock. But he also believes they’ve made the right choice in hiring Murphy and Morgan.

“Digit and Rob are brand new and have no idea what they’re coming up against,” he says. “They’re gonna see what I saw and try to change things because they’re good hockey people. They’ve hired the right person for women’s hockey because Digit is a champion of the women’s game and raises the level of awareness of female sports.

“We [Bourgeois and former national team coach Rick Seeley] didn’t want to come in and say to the Chinese that our way is better but wanted to create teaching moments for ownership that explained that there’s a way to satisfy your bottom line while properly developing hockey players.

“They could be so much stronger if they went to a full development scale versus what they’re doing now.”

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It’s become clear that Murphy intends on riding her “ambassadors” to victory, hoping that success will rub off on national team players.

“We’re trying to elevate our players’ game, and you can’t elevate their game if you’re rolling four lines to develop Chinese athletes,” she says. “Part of the Chinese players’ mindset has to be [realizing they’re] not as good as Shiann Darkangelo, Kelli Stack, or Noora Räty, and figuring out what they need to do to get there.

“For me, it’s about winning and teaching people how to win.”

She insists there’s no oversight from ownership as to how she coaches, “because if they did that, I wouldn’t have taken the job. It’s not about everyone getting equal ice time, and you could argue that’s what Chinese hockey used to be about. They would play all 20 of their players and they never got better.”

Murphy told the Toronto Star last week that having those North American and European ambassadors on the team is “like [having] 10 more coaches injected into your system.” In particular with Räty who is a longtime goalie coach herself.

The Finnish star clearly has the attention of her CWHL peers who’ve watched her career from afar. Knox refers to her as “one of the best to ever touch the women’s game.” But for an Olympian as accomplished as Räty, her gaze is directed at the head coach.

“Digit’s not afraid to say things straight, which I like,” she says. “She’s a pioneer for women’s hockey and now I can see why her teams win championships.”

“Anything else is not a victory,” says Murphy. “You have to help people believe why that’s going to happen.”

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