A team based in China could compete this winter for the Clarkson Cup – the Stanley Cup of women's hockey.
Before a crowd inside the Hockey Hall of Fame on Monday night, the Canadian Women's Hockey League announced its plans to add an expansion team in China for the upcoming season.
Kunlun Red Star will become the sixth team in the league and will play its home games in Shenzhen. The team will be comprised of elite players from China, North America and Europe.
This move is just one part of China's efforts to rapidly expand hockey participation and fan bases there before hosting the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing – a mandate heartily endorsed by Chinese President Xi Jinping. Kunlun Red Star (KRS) is a management group led by deep-pocketed Chinese businessmen and their advisory group of North American hockey experts, including Mike Keenan and Phil Esposito.
The plan has come together in just a few months. KRS, who last year debuted a men's expansion team of the same name in Russia's Kontinental Hockey League (KHL), approached the CWHL about launching a women's team. The Red Star will play a 30-game schedule against the league's other teams from Toronto, Brampton, Calgary, Montreal and Boston.
"This partnership helps us continue our mission, which has always been to grow the game for women and make sure women have career opportunities," said CWHL commissioner Brenda Andress during an interview at the CWHL's Toronto offices in the days before the announcement. "What we stand for is young girls watching our players and wanting to grow up to be just like them. We have a chance to do the same in China and help them start growing their grassroots. Also, Canada has a large Asian population, so when the team plays here, we can engage a new fan base."
KRS has hired several well-connected North American experts to help with China's various hockey initiatives. Digit Murphy, a well-known American who coached Brown University and the CWHL's Boston Blades, has been named the head coach of the new women's team. With Boston, she twice won the Clarkson Cup, the league trophy named after former governor-general of Canada, Adrienne Clarkson.
Red Star will be built mainly through the CWHL draft this August. It will likely include some women who already play for the Chinese national team or who may be eligible to play for the host country at the 2022 Olympics. The team can also sign free agents, and two high-profile ones were photographed in Red Star uniforms Monday: Finnish Olympic goalie Noora Raty and U.S. Olympian Kelli Stack, recently left off Team USA's centralization camp for the 2018 Olympics.
"Playing with higher-quality players is obviously one of the best ways to quickly help improve your level of play," Andress said. "We've had a couple of players from Japan come to play in our league and they improved dramatically and that has really paid off for Team Japan. We can help increase the talent pool across the world and the level of national teams."
The CWHL was founded in 2007 and has become home to many Canadian and U.S. Olympians after they graduate from their university teams. It does not pay its players, but it does cover most equipment and travel costs. When they declare for the draft, all eligible players – who must be at least 20 years old – indicate one to three CWHL markets in which they're willing to play.
"It would be an amazing opportunity for players from North America or Europe, as they are going to be treated very well by the CWHL team in China," said Scotty MacPherson, a Toronto native and former NCAA hockey coach who had a hand in founding the KHL and now works as vice-president and international development director for the Kunlun Red Star management group. "We plan to help the women find jobs there. It's the People's Republic of China, and its President supports the project. We know there are businesses who want to create opportunities for these women."
The CWHL, which operates on a modest budget, says the new team will bring in new sponsorship dollars from Chinese businesses.
Kunlun Red Star is led by two wealthy businessmen who are passionate about hockey – both in attendance on Monday. Xiaoyu Zhao is a long-time banking executive, and Billy Ngok is a Chinese oil and gas investor who also famously bought the Sergio Tacchini clothing label out of bankruptcy and turned a big profit.
"We are confident Chinese women will one day make it to the top of women's hockey," Zhao told the crowd, adding that KRS hopes to have two CWHL teams in the near future.
The management group has numerous projects on the go to develop hockey in China. It plans to send two Chinese youth teams to play in North American leagues – a girls' squad to New England and a boys' team to Toronto. It is also building new rinks all over China, working to add hockey to the school curriculum and scouring the planet for hockey players with Chinese heritage who may be eligible for Team China.
"China is going to become a hockey power some day," MacPherson said during an interview in Toronto. "It's not a matter of if, but a matter of when."
In February, Esposito and Keenan joined the KRS international advisory board. Keenan has since taken over as coach of the KHL team. Esposito, the former NHL and Team Canada star, will share his experience as a founder of the Tampa Bay Lightning, where he also signed goalie Manon Rhéaume – the first female to play in an NHL game. He will open doors for the Chinese within his network of hockey contacts – including in Russia, where the 1972 Summit Series star is still well known.
"These businessmen seem like honest guys and they love the sport – and they impress me because they want to do it now, and I love that," Esposito told The Globe while in Toronto for Monday's announcement. "These men have hockey as a passion, and they've got the wherewithal to make it happen, so I believe they will make it happen."
The new CWHL team will play its home games at Shenzhen Universiade Sports Centre.
MacPherson projected that every opposing team will make one trip each to China, staying for a full week and playing three games a trip. Red Star will travel to North America for two weeks at a time and play multiple road games on each trip. He added that KRS will help subsidize their opponents' travel costs to China.
The league faces competition for players from the U.S-based National Women's Hockey League. The NWHL started out paying its athletes between $10,000 (U.S.) and $26,000 in its 2015 debut season, but has since had to reduce salaries due to poor ticket sales.
This season, the CWHL will be missing many of its star players, as Canadian and U.S. Olympians will report to their national team training camps before the 2018 Olympics.
"Just ask the NBA or the NHL – to play in China with that kind of population and viewership is massive," Andress said of Red Star. "China has made a statement. They want to be successful at winter sports, and you can only imagine the benefits that could have for us. It means more access to fans, broadcasting and sponsorship dollars, and it allows the game to grow. China is a powerhouse, and the CWHL wants to be part of that powerhouse."