Yu Baiwei darted across the red line, under the arena’s bright lights, and winged a long wrist shot toward the opposing goal.
When the puck sneaked past a Toronto Furies goaltender, many of the 1,850 fans at the Shenzhen Universiade Sports Center celebrated to the pulse of a Chinese pop song. Nearly 14,000 others were watching online, and the moment went viral on Chinese social media.
Yu’s Nov. 19 game-winner — the first goal by a Chinese national in the history of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League — came during a weekend of back-to-back victories for Kunlun Red Star, one of two new professional women’s ice hockey teams in Shenzhen, a subtropical Chinese megacity. It may be the first of many milestones for Chinese athletes in women’s hockey, which has long been dominated by Canada and the United States.
“It was amazing,” said Yu, 29, who is also the captain of China’s national team. “I was very proud of myself because I’m Chinese, and the first goal is very important.”
Veterans of women’s hockey in North America say the CWHL’s foray into China is a smart way to enhance the profile of the sport and tap a potentially enormous new market.
So far, the teams are doing more than that — they are winning. Kunlun Red Star is 7-4 in the seven-team league, and its sister team, the Vanke Rays, is 8-1.
The success of the two Shenzhen teams, whose rosters include a few star imports and many of China’s top Olympic prospects, suggests that the country’s main hockey goal — medaling at the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics — may not be unrealistic.
“I wouldn’t put it out of the realm of possibility,” said Cara Morey, the coach of the PrincetonUniversity women’s team, which defeated China, 3-0, in an October exhibition game.
Sweden and Finland, the next tier of hockey powers behind the U.S. and Canada, should pay attention, Morey added, because “China is taking this very seriously.”
Kunlun Red Star was founded last year by Billy Ngok, the founder of China Environmental Energy Holdings, an energy trading firm based in Hong Kong. He said the club’s seven teams include two under-18 squads and a professional men’s team in Beijing that competes in the Kontinental Hockey League, which is based in Russia but includes teams in Belarus, China, Finland, Kazakhstan, Latvia and Slovakia.
Brenda Andress, the CWHL commissioner, said that the Chinese expansion teams were Kunlun’s idea and that she saw them as a vehicle for growing the game and creating employment for women. (The NHL also sees China as a ripe market and held preseason games in Shanghai and Beijing last September.)
This season, the 11-year-old CWHL began paying players annual stipends of $2,000 to $10,000 based on a $100,000-per-team budget. Most of the players still work side jobs.
The foreign players in Shenzhen also are paid as “hockey ambassadors,” meaning they do not work other jobs and must devote significant time to promoting the sport in China and mentoring their Chinese teammates.
Ngok confirmed a recent report in China’s state-controlled news media that members of the men’s and women’s national hockey teams would earn monthly salaries of up to about 40,000 yuan ($6,047).
He said that the Chinese government had appointed Kunlun Red Star to manage the Olympic hockey program and that he would invest an annual $60 million in the seven teams over five years. That includes the full cost, he said, of having the CWHL’s five North American teams fly to Shenzhen once a season for a series of games, as Markham Thunder and the Toronto Furies did last month.
The Chinese teams go to North America twice to play 13 road games before ending the regular season in March with two games against each other in Marlborough, Massachusetts.
“We have a dream, a Chinese dream, as our president says, for the women’s hockey team to win a medal in 2022,” Ngok said, riffing on one of President Xi Jinping’s favorite political slogans. He chose Shenzhen as a home base, he added, partly to support a government plan to develop winter sports in nontraditional regions.
The Chinese women’s team lost to the United States, 12-0, at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics and did not qualify for the 2014 or 2018 Games. But it finished fourth at the 1998 Nagano Olympics, Ngok noted, and its future stars will have five years to train at the sport’s highest level.
One of his early moves was hiring Digit Murphy, who had led Brown University and the CWHL’s Boston Blades, as the head coach of Kunlun Red Star and the Chinese women’s national team.
Murphy later recruited Rob Morgan, a former associate head coach at Yale University, to assist her with the national team and lead the Vanke Rays. That team is named after a sponsor, the Shenzhen-based China Vanke Group, the country’s largest property developer.
“I’ve died and gone to heaven, and I live in China,” said Murphy, who lives in a hotel that overlooks the Shenzhen arena and hosts visiting CWHL teams.
She said the resources that the Chinese program was receiving were probably on par with what the U.S. women’s hockey team receives in an Olympic year.
Many of the players in Shenzhen are from Harbin and Qiqihar, the two northern cities that produce virtually all of China’s elite women’s hockey players, said Xin Fang, a Vanke Rays forward from Harbin. (On Dec. 8, Kunlun and Vanke will meet in her hometown for their first regular-season matchup.)
Others are North American players of Chinese descent who Ngok said may eventually become Chinese citizens and play on the Olympic team.
“The opportunity to help an entire nation change the face of hockey is something you just don’t pass up,” said Melanie Jue, a Kunlun defender, who grew up in Vancouver, British Columbia, and has family in Hong Kong, which borders Shenzhen.
A few other players are recent graduates of top college programs, like Clarkson’s Cayley Mercer, or veteran stars like the Finnish goalie Noora Raty and the American forward Kelli Stack.
“It’s awesome to finally be appreciated and taken care of better than we have been in North America,” Stack, 29, a two-time Olympic silver medalist and the Kunlun team’s oldest player, said after scoring the second goal in the team’s recent 2-0 victory over the Toronto Furies.
Two days later, the Kunlun and Vanke teams were back at the Shenzhen Universiade Sports Centre for a morning of practices and weightlifting.
When Kunlun Red Star took the ice, Murphy, in a black baseball hat and a black jumpsuit, began coaxing and cajoling her players in a booming voice, and rapping her stick on the ice for emphasis.
“Everything you’re doing is too individual,” she said between drills, adding an expletive. “We’re still not at our best yet.”
Several players said that Murphy’s energy was infectious and that there was a healthy chemistry between the Chinese and foreign players on both teams.
Translation was sometimes a challenge — there is no obvious Mandarin term for “back check,” for example — but not an insurmountable one, they said.
“We speak hockey,” Murphy said after the practice, as she shuttled between meetings, trailed by a phalanx of Chinese players.
But her Chinese vocabulary already includes a few stock phrases, she said, such as “It’s a new day.”
Also this: “China wins.”