Digit Murphy was standing outside her team’s locker room in the hallway of the Bell Centre. She has been through a lot of wins.
She has 318 NCAA coaching wins, one of only 15 coaches to reach that mark. She has two CWHL Clarkson Cup titles. But she was beaming after a 3-1 regular season win by her Kunlun Red Star team over Les Canadiennes at the Bell Centre. A win she called one of the best of her career.
A little bit further down the hallway, Kelli Stack said something similar. Stack has five World Championship gold medals with Team USA and a Clarkson Cup, won together with Murphy as part of the Boston Blades.
The win wasn’t supposed to be in the cards. An expected all-world goaltending matchup of Emerance Maschmeyer versus Noora Räty at the Bell Centre hit a speed bump when the game was scheduled right in the middle of the 4 Nations Cup in Tampa. Räty was with Team Finland, meaning Kunlun went with 23-year-old Chinese goaltender Yuqing Wang (known to her teammates as Sherry), making her first CWHL start.
“When I go in every day, of course you want to win,” Murphy said after the win at the Bell Centre. “But it’s about growing and development. My goal is that every shift we get better. You develop your team in pieces. Personally… I was a little surprised.”
Wang, who had played 19 games at the World Championships in Division I, was outstanding en route to winning CWHL Goalie of the Week.
“I was pumped,” said Räty, who watched the game from Tampa. “I was pumped for my backup [Sherry]. She’s worked hard all fall and she finally got the start and the team played awesome. She made some big saves so I’m very happy for her.”
“The thing that I’m most proud of is winning that first game at the Bell Centre with the Chinese goalie and how the whole team came behind her,” Murphy said.
“I was feeling very nervous but my teammates kept telling me to be strong, we are supporting you,” Wang said after the Bell Centre game.
“Noora's not here but I wanted to do my best for the team,” Wang continued. “I'm going to cry... I'm so happy, I'm so excited."
Both teams played two games without their starting goaltender. Kunlun because of the 4 Nations Cup and Montreal because of a suspected injury to Emerance Maschmeyer. But it was Kunlun able to win one game against the other team’s starter.
With Kunlun taking two out of three games, it went to show just how competitive they would be. The Red Star have players like Stack, Shiann Darkangelo, Zoe Hickel, and Stephanie Anderson who have been part of the US National Team. But the Chinese-born players like Wang, Beiwei Yu, and Zhixin Liu didn’t look out of place. Heritage players (North American-born players with Chinese roots) like Melanie Jue, Jessica Wong, Madison Woo, and Rachel Llanes, some of whom have gone years without playing, provided Kunlun with significant lineup depth.
Kunlun’s performance in Montreal showed that the CWHL not only grew their game internationally by adding the two Chinese teams, they improved their product.
“Our league has exactly what we hoped it would be: parity amongst all the teams and you can definitely see that the two teams from China can compete in our league and fit in perfectly,” said CWHL commissioner Brenda Andress to a group of journalists, some of them openly shocked after watching Les Canadiennes, defending Clarkson Cup champions and previously undefeated, lose to a Kunlun team that was 1-3 entering play.
“I’m pleasantly surprised,” said Canadiennes coach Dany Brunet when asked about what he thought of the Chinese home-grown talent. “They are able to compete in this league and by adding key international players, they have the depth to compete and perform well in the league and that’s what they showed.”
“We shouldn’t have been 1-3,” Murphy said. “What happened was we weren’t ready for the speed and had to adjust.”
It could also be that Kunlun was playing without the pressure that Montreal surely had by playing at the Bell Centre in the opening game.
“When we were on the bus ride over here we were asking some of the Chinese girls ‘do you know where we’re playing today?’,” said Stack. “And they are like ‘no’ and we’re like ‘do you know the Bell Centre?’ and they’re like ‘no’... Maybe one or two knew the Bell Centre so when we told them where we were playing they were like ‘Woooaaah!’ so they were definitely really excited to come out here and play on an NHL rink.”
“The fact that they weren’t aware of this environment... it helped,” said Murphy. “A lot of these kids have been in National Championships so they have been in front of people.”
The series ended in a physical affair on Tuesday night, reminiscent of games that Murphy’s Blades played against Montreal.
“When my teams get together with Montreal, it’s always a classic, back and forth, a lot of chippiness, it’s fun,” Murphy said. “It’s fun hockey. I was talking to Steph Anderson and she’s like ‘I love playing these games. I love it’ and I’m like... ‘You guys are going to give me a heart attack.’”
After the 7:00 p.m. start, Kunlun made the trip back home. They had been travelling since September, and even though they were on their last stop, they still had a lot of travel in front of them. The other Chinese team, the Vanke Rays, have been in China since last week.
Kunlun left Montreal at 3:00 Wednesday morning before arriving in China on Thursday. They play their first game at home in Shenzhen at 1:00 a.m. EST on Saturday morning against the Toronto Furies. It will be the first CWHL game in China.
Kunlun’s and Vanke’s games have been streamed in China, and have seen more than 90,000 viewers, something they hope translates into some fan support.
“I know that we’ve had good numbers watching online so hopefully those people get out from behind their computers and actually come to the game when we have home games,” Stack said.
But others are just glad to be going home.
“Seventy-three days living out of a suitcase and about 15 hotels later, I’m excited to go home and actually unpack my suitcase and actually have a closet, have my own room and not wake up next to somebody else,” Räty said. “It’s been good, it’s been a great experience but I’m really, really excited to actually have a home base and play some home games.”
Both Toronto and the Markham Thunder will play two games each against Kunlun and the Rays. Vanke is 4-1-0 on the season so far, led by North American players Cayley Mercer, Hanna Bunton, and Ashleigh Brykaliuk. Mercer leads the entire CWHL in scoring with four goals and seven assists in five games. Goaltender Elaine Chuli, from Waterford, ON, has a 1.20 GAA and .963 save percentage.
The Chinese teams come back to North America in January.