Having attained All-America status while skating for St. Lawrence University, Brooke Webster followed up such a prestigious achievement by contributing towards a compelling chapter in hockey history. With the CWHL adding a pair of internationally-based expansion teams, the Kunlun Red Star and the Vanke Rays (the first professional women’s’ teams to hail from China), Webster was among the distinguished talent from North America taking on double duty as franchise players and ambassadors for the game’s growth.
Selected by the Rays 21st overall in the 2017 CWHL Draft, Webster was part of a highly talented draft class which included numerous Canadians. Among them included Cayley Mercer, the club’s first-ever draft pick, Hanna Bunton, Ashleigh Brykaliuk, goaltender Elaine Chuli, plus Emma Woods. As a side note, the only American-born player in the Rays draft class was Emily Janiga, who captured an American hockey championship in 2017 with a team based in Buffalo.
Wearing the same #26 that she made so iconic at St Lawrence, Webster and her fellow draft picks were part of a crucial time for the game’s growth in China. As Beijing serves as host city for the 2022 Winter Games, the aspiration is to bring about an on-ice renaissance, complemented by the dream of a podium finish. Worth noting, China played in the bronze medal game at the 1998 Nagano Winter Games, which featured the first-ever women’s ice hockey tournament.
The opportunity to call Mercer and Bunton teammates represents a unique highlight in Webster’s hockey journey. During her four fantastic years at St. Lawrence, members of the ECAC Conference, Webster found her future Rays teammates on the opposing end of the ice during conference play.
Donning the Cornell Big Red jersey, Bunton served as team captain in her senior season. Capturing a pair of Frozen Four crowns with the Clarkson Golden Knight, Mercer was also a finalist for the Patty Kazmaier Award, of which Webster was among the top-10 nominees. As a side note, Woods was also part of ECAC play, suiting up for the Quinnipiac Bobcats.
Taking into account that Clarkson, Cornell and St. Lawrence are all ECAC programs based in New York State, this tremendous trio of talent would add to their hockey legacies together in another part of the world. Making the journey overseas, bringing their superlative skills to China in an exciting collaboration, the fact that all three suited up with the Rays truly brought new meaning to the term “Dream Team”.
From the opening faceoff, Webster and her former ECAC rivals delivered on all accounts. This impact was felt most profoundly in the Rays' first game, resulting in a memorable first impression, which was quite possibly the greatest debut for an expansion team in CWHL history.
In a game that saw the Rays defeat the Toronto Furies in a 3-0 shutout at MasterCard Centre, there was also a sense of homecoming. As Webster, Bunton, Chuli and Mercer were all raised in the province of Ontario, the chance to launch the newest phase of their professional careers in Toronto brought with it profound meaning.
Scoring the Rays' third goal of the game, it was the crowning touch in her CWHL debut, one that may have also been the greatest in her hockey career. With Hanna Bunton logging the first-ever goal in franchise history at the 14:51 mark, Mercer and Webster would proceed to score in the second period. Scoring with less than seven minutes remaining in the second, Webster’s first professional goal was not only the first short-handed goal in Rays history, it was assisted by Brykaliuk, who gained her first professional point.
Such a captivating performance was complemented by Chuli logging a shutout in her professional debut. The result is that these four fantastic Canadians will be inextricably linked in franchise lore. Certainly this kind of impressive showing not only placed the Rays on the hockey map, it was a point of pride for Webster.
“It was definitely nice to get my first point out of the way in the first game just to put some weight off of my shoulders! It was great to share this experience with Mercer and Bunton, they are both great players that I competed against all 4 years of college, so it was kind of an interesting dynamic going from opponents to teammates, but it was actually really fun!
We have a great group of girls and we all get along really well and support each other on and off the ice which is special.”
That landmark game was the catalyst for a phenomenal nine-game scoring streak. Recording an amazing 17 points, including five multi-point performances, her finest game involved a four-point output on November 18 against the eventual Clarkson Cup champion Markham Thunder.
Scoring the first two goals of the game (including the game-winning tally), with the assists credited to Mercer, Webster’s pair of third period assists were just as meaningful. Of note, said assists were for goals scored by Emma Woods. Not only were said goals the first for Woods as a member of the Rays, it was also the first multi-point game of her CWHL career.
Recognized as the First Star of the Game, while Mercer was bestowed Second Star honors (Markham’s Jamie Lee Rattray was the Third Star), it was the kind of game that would supply Webster with a lifetime of memories. Worth noting, the contest versus Markham represented the Rays’ home debut.
As the first five games of the Rays’ inaugural season involved competing on the road in two different countries (Canada, United States), the chance to finally skate on home ice in Shenzhen, China, was one truly worth the wait. With a raucous crowd eager to see their hockey heroes in action, it was a game that truly endeared Webster to the home crowd, providing her with a treasured place in franchise history,
“My first game in China is something I will never forget. The crowd was insane and there were so many people that were just happy to be there supporting us! It was really cool to see because of course (some) of the Chinese (public) do not know too much about hockey, but they are learning - so it was awesome when something exciting happened in the game, like a scoring chance, and they would all cheer so loud because that is what they have learned to do! We were really lucky with all the support we had, and it made it that much more fun playing in China!”
Complementing such an amazing moment was the fact that Webster’s second month as a professional hockey player resulted in a tremendous accolade. Recognized as the CWHL’s Player of the Month for November 2017, it was not only a honor that signified Webster’s arrival as a scoring sensation, it was also a tremendous example of the success of the female game in China,
“I was very honoured to receive player of the month. Being a rookie in this league, there are so many great players that I can look up to on the ice, some that I’ve never even played against before, so to get recognized as Player of the month felt really good, but I wouldn’t have had the success I did without my teammates!”
Statistically, Webster was a marvel for the Rays, holding the hot hand in numerous contests throughout the season. Finishing the season third overall in the Rays scoring race, amassing 26 points in 26 games played, trailing Hanna Bunton and Cayley Mercer, she was one of only two players that averaged at least one point per game.
Tied with Emma Woods for second in goals scored on the Rays with nine, Webster’s 17 assists would tie with Ashleigh Brykaliuk for second overall. As a side note, Brykaliuk and Webster would also tie for second in game-winning goals. Along with Emily Janiga, Webster scored the only short-handed goals on the team this season.
While Mercer, Bunton and Webster combined for an astounding 93 points, Webster finished tenth overall in the race for the Angela James Bowl, emerging as one of the league’s elite scorers.
As proud as Webster was regarding her statistical achievements, it could not compare to the dream of helping introduce the professional game in another part of the world. With some members of the Chinese national team playing on the Rays, Canadian and American players were each assigned players that they would mentor.
The chance to serve in such a role brought new perspective to Webster’s career, while gaining a newfound appreciation for the game and the essence of friendship. Such a cherished highlight took place at the beginning of the New Year. With a month-long road trip to start 2018, said trip included a series versus the Markham Thunder.
As Webster’s family resides in the same vicinity, they graciously hosted the entire team for a home-cooked meal, indulging in various fare. With the team’s consent, the management graciously chartered a bus for the excursion, truly embodying the sense of team spirit, enriching an already memorable year that was truly a labor of love,
“I think I saw myself as both a mentor and a role model to the Chinese girls. They definitely looked up to all of us as roles because we have played Division 1 hockey and (have) been in many competitive situations before.
Yet, I think it was a good mix between being a role model but also just seen as a regular teammate. As for being a mentor, all season we would help them out with any skills they wanted to work on and offer them advice of any sort. At the same time, they knew that we make mistakes too and that we are not perfect, so it was nice to kind of learn from each other all throughout the season.”
“All quotes obtained first hand unless otherwise indicated”
Photo Credits: Brooke Webster Instagram and Christinne Muschi