On the evening of June 5, it was announced at the Hockey Hall of Fame that the Canadian Womens Hockey League shall welcome Chinas Kunlun Red Star into its fold, beginning competition in time for the 2017-18 season. Also in attendance were the two individuals that are the driving force behind the Kunlun Red Star organization. Proprietors Xiaoyu Zhao, whose business background is in banking, along with oil magnate Billy Ngok are helping to lead this remarkable sporting revolution, both investing in the construction of numerous rinks throughout China, while also looking to finance junior teams, both male and female, that can compete in North America.
Head coach Digit Murphy is joined by former NHL coaches and executives Mike Keenan and Phil Esposito, as members of the organizations Advisory Group. Another prominent figure from North America that is part of Red Stars leadership hierarchy includes Scott MacPherson, a co-founder of the KHL, and current vice-president with the Chinese organization.
Kunlun Red Star becomes the 11th team in league history. Of note, China does not represent the CWHLs first experience with Asia. During the 2016-17 season, the Calgary Inferno travelled to Japan for a two-game series against their national womens ice hockey team, which saw both teams win one game.
Heading into the 2017-18 season, Red Star will be one of six teams aspiring for a Clarkson Cup championship, which includes the Boston Blades, Brampton Thunder, Calgary Inferno, Toronto Furies and the defending champions, Les Canadiennes de Montreal. With home games contested at the Shenzhen Universiade Sports Centre, the league has expanded its schedule from 24 to 30 games. Each of the North American teams shall travel once to China, participating in three-game series.
With the city of Beijing serving as the host city for the 2022 Winter Games, a commitment is being made economically and politically to develop the game, potentially propelling it to new heights. As the Red Star also feature a professional mens team that competes in the Kontinental Hockey League, the arrival of its womens team results in the CWHL becoming the first professional league in North America to have a team beyond its borders, an historic moment for the league and game alike.
Coincidentally, the Blades hold a unique connection to the Red Star. Murphy was the Blades head coach from 2012 to 2015, making an indelible mark on league history. Capturing two Clarkson Cups with the Blades, the first American coach to win the hallowed Cup twice, she was also the winning coach in the leagues inaugural All-Star Game.
For the CWHL, the opportunity to welcome Red Star into its ranks will bring excitement to a league that is facing a severe shortage of star power. As both Canadian and American national womens teams shall engage in centralizing its rosters, in anticipation of the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Games, the CWHL sees almost 20 of its stars unavailable for the 2017-18 season. Therefore, the Red Star shall help the league remain relevant.
With the type of season where so many stars shall be skating for Winter Games gold, the experiment of competition in China is a concept that is truly worth the risk. Undoubtedly, the true test shall be the travel schedule. Considering that most of the CWHLs players juggle day jobs with their athletic endeavors, travel tends to come with time off from their employment.
When the league first expanded to Calgary, an effort was made to maximize the trek to Western Canada by holding three-game series, an efficient concept that saw said series usually contested from Saturday to Monday. In other markets, games were scheduled as back-to-back affairs on weekends. With China now part of the leagues schedule, three-game schedules will not only be necessary there, mirroring Calgarys scenario, it will also result in a more grueling travel schedule.
Considering that many competitors in the CWHL juggle day jobs in addition to their hockey endeavors, the word sacrifice definitely encompasses their playing careers. As trips to China take close to one day, a three-game series will involve two days of travel and likely one day of rest, due to the elements of fatigue and jet lag.
Although each team is slated to make only one trip to China during the season, some North American players may need to make special arrangements with their employers. Should there be any positives emanating from the possibly rigorous travel schedule, it is the fact that Red Star shall assist in subsidizing the travel costs of visiting CWHL teams into China.
Taking into account that Red Star will log more miles than any other team in the CWHL, the demands of travel may be more intense than the competition itself. Obviously, there will definitely be an adjustment period for all involved players, and the realities of travel could also have an impact on potential playoff races.
Theoretically, it may have been more practical for Red Star to spend one season in the European Womens Hockey League (EWHL), just to get acclimatized to the duration of travel and quality of competition. Teams in Belarus, along with the Eurasian-located Kazakhstan could have been ideal rivals. Europe would have also allowed for a lighter travel schedule.
The first step towards assembling a roster for Red Star shall take place in the CWHL Draft, although it has not yet been determined whether the team shall be allocated the first pick overall. Having finished with the worst record in the CWHL during the 2016-17 season, the Boston Blades were slated for that first pick prior to this expansion announcement.
In addition, Red Star is allowed to sign free agents, which may definitely alter the leagues balance of power. On the same day that expansion was announced, Noora Raty, the greatest female goalie in the history of Finland, and two-time Winter Games silver medalist Kelli Stack were photographed in Red Star jerseys. Although such signings have not been confirmed, their presence would certainly allow Red Star to be a highly competitive expansion team, possibly becoming the first to appear in the Clarkson Cup finals. Of course, such players only helps to enhance the teams image, while adding a cosmopolitan flair.
Of note, Stack already owns a Clarkson Cup championship, part of the Boston Blades roster in 2013. In addition, she holds the Boston Blades single-season scoring record and spent the last two seasons competing with the NWHLs Connecticut Whale. For the Whale, the possible departure of one of their scoring leaders would be disastrous.
While the concept of Raty and Stack competing in CWHL circles is one that shall certainly stimulate interest, it is worth noting that the league has struggled to retain European talent in seasons past. Stars such as Switzerlands Florence Schelling and Swedens Danijela Rundqvist only lasted one season in the league. With the speculation that players from Europe may be part of the Red Star lineup, it is important to recognize that this is not a reality for other teams. Worth noting, the league has seen players from Japan join its ranks in the last two seasons, while Les Canadiennes feature Marion Allemoz, a star player from the French national team, who also captured a championship while also playing at the university level in Montreal.
Although the long-term viability of Red Star is far from guaranteed, any possible success may hold significant influence on the future of the game, and potentially the league. In years past, the CWHL had announced possibilities for further expansion into the United States, which never materialized. Maligned with numerous rumors regarding the Minnesota Whitecaps and the fact that they were never part of league play, such a track record regarding expansion is not strong.
Considering that the league also contracted from eight teams down to five between 2010 and 2013, any overwhelming success for Red Star may be the remedy to regain the status of eight teams, while potentially helping broker a peace between competing leagues. Undoubtedly, the efforts of Red Stars ownership group and the leadership of individuals like McPherson are the true success story in this expansion, having evolved the game by a quantum leap in a very short, yet substantial period of time.