With the arrival of two new franchises from China entering CWHL play during the 2017-18 season, the potential for new stars to make their mark was one that brought excitement and anticipation. While such an era would also result in many new opportunities for players and coaches alike, the most unique element involves the presence of North American talent across the Pacific.
Among such individuals was Jenesica Drinkwater, whose role with the Vanke Rays mirrored the sense of newness. Raised in Brantford, Ontario, where she captured a 2007 PWHL Triple Crown championship as a member of the Stoney Creek Jr. Sabres, the extension of Drinkwater’s hockey odyssey as a member of the new-look Rays involved a career milestone, as she crossed the portal into coaching’s professional ranks.
Bringing a very strong background to the Rays coaching staff, Drinkwater has grown admirably into such a role. Having also managed to balance a very promising career in sales and marketing over the last few years, she is a multi-talented individual bringing a positive attitude to whichever endeavor she applies to.
Drinkwater’s coaching resume is just as solid as the one she assembled as a player. Serving as a Graduate Assistant for Castleton University Spartan’s women’s ice hockey program, her duties included assisting with recruiting and video analysis. Having first made her mark in the game as a goaltender, a significant chunk of her coaching background also involved mentoring younger backstops.
With over three years as a goaltending instructor for RUSH, along with time spent in the same capacity at Canadian Hockey Enterprise, her acumen for the position enabled her to be an asset for any coaching staff. Having also served in the capacity of a volunteer goalie coach with Middlebury College, her expertise brought out the best in the Panthers goalies, as the club experienced a 20-5-3 mark, emerging as NESCAC Regular Season Champions. Such presence is one where she combined elements such as keeness and empathy with the Rays, dedicated to instill confidence out of veterans and rookies alike.
Serving on the coaching staff of Rob Morgan, whose background includes Canada West Coach of the Year honors with Lethbridge, also served in the capacity of Head Coach at the NCAA Division III level with St. Norbert’s. Along with a recent two-year stint as Associate Head Coach with the Yale Bulldogs, he is not the only prominent New England-based coach with a solid set of achievements during this new era of hockey in China. Worth noting, Digit Murphy, a legendary figure at Providence, and a two-time Clarkson Cup champion with the Boston Blades made her heroic return to the CWHL as a head coach with the Rays’ expansion cousins, the Kunlun Red Star, who are both based out of China.
“With the experience I had gained from both playing and working within the NCAA, I reached out to Coach Digit Murphy, who was in charge of the recruiting process and co-ordination of the staff for both the Vanke Rays and the Kunlun Red Star.”
Of note, the apex of Drinkwater’s playing career involved guarding the crease of the Syracuse Orange in the College Hockey America (CHA) conference. Logging over 1500 minutes, while amassing 66 games, including a career winning record of .524 plus a career .910 save percentage, she reached her pinnacle during her senior season (2013-14).
Registering double digits in wins, four shutouts, Drinkwater was a key contributor towards helping the Orange reach the CHA semifinals once again. Posting a 1.83 goals against average in said season, which still stands as the program record for best mark by a senior backstop, she is also third all-time in program lore for career saves. As a side note, her final win with the Orange would be grand, blanking Luindenwood in a postseason series-clinching shutout victory.
Helping establish a foundation for the Orange, transforming them into a competitive program, her presence enabled them to become a key player in the conference’s balance of power. Certainly, her assiduous efforts with the Orange mirrors the efforts of helping to build a team in China.
With a group of North American players including fellow CHA alum Emily Janiga, who played for rival Mercyhurst, and former Connecticut Huskies record breaking goaltender Elaine Chuli, among others, the presence of Drinkwater on the coaching staff was certainly reciprocal. Not only did coach and players complement each other in the adjustment period, bringing their skills to a completely different part of the world, they shared in the privilege of serving as proud sporting ambassadors.
Although the language barrier has understandably provided the most significant learning curve, Drinkwater emphasizes how the mutual love of game between Chinese and North American players helped to cultivate a universal language.
“Growing the game in China has been an amazing experience thus far. Cultural language barriers are probably the biggest challenge. Having said that, hockey breeds a culture all of it own and two people knowing the game and having a passion for hard work can learn to develop and communicate together without words.”
Such an outlook was one that certainly defined the exact same scenario with the Red Star, whose efforts ran parallel to the Rays throughout their inaugural season. Of note, the preseason involved both clubs travelling together to Vancouver, participating in exhibition matches against the University of British Columbia, who finished the 2016-17 season as USports silver medalists.
With Chinese-born players from both teams also competing as Team China in some preseason exhibitions, it helped foster a sense of unity, as the shared goal of building a brand and heralding an exciting new era represent a common objective.
Certainly, the progression of the season is one that has seen the Chinese players expand their horizons, competing against world-class talent, while cultivating a strong sense of self-assurance. Reflecting on the headway that has taken place, one that has seen players such as Xin Fang and Qinan Zhao (the first Chinese player to log a point with the Rays, garnering an assist on a goal by Hanna Bunton in a 7-2 November win versus Boston) grow into more prominent roles, it is a point of pride for Drinkwater, feeling a strong sense of gratification in the effort demonstrated by all,
“Looking back from the beginning of the season to now is amazing to see how far our Chinese athletes have grown and developed in just this first season. The hard work they put in each and everyday from the weight room to our on-ice skill sessions to game play has been remarkable. I am so grateful to be a part of the Vanke Rays and my hope is continuing to grow with this great organization.”
Their rivalry certainly reached a vaunted pinnacle when the clubs graced the ice against each other for the first time on home ice, as the Harbin Sport University Skating Center served as the historic backdrop. Although Red Star prevailed in a 6-0 triumph in the December 8 contest, it served as a season highlight, along with one of the biggest games in CWHL history.
History would take on a more profound meaning with the last match of the season, one that Drinkwater could relate to, as it involved a unique goaltending matchup. With Tianyi Zhang gaining the start for the Rays (her fourth appearance of the season), the result was the first CWHL game to feature two Chinese-born goaltenders, as Red Star countered with Yuqing Wang, who would emerge with First Star of the Game honors.
With both expansion clubs boasting the league’s best attendance figures during the season, the interest in the game has reflected a bigger picture where community and curiosity intersect with great significance. Such interest is one that also stands as a tremendous source of encouragement, validating the hard work exerted by Rays coaches and players alike,
“Our fan base has been great with us pulling between 3,000 to 5,000 a game. It has been unbelievable to watch a community that is not familiar with the sport take such interest and support in our hockey programs.”
With a roster of talent from both sides of the Pacific, an amalgam of superlative scorers collaborting with eager players ready to cultivate their skills, the results were one defined by the fact that the Rays were in contention for a postseason position into the last month of their inaugural season. Despite missing the opportunity to compete for the Clarkson Cup by the narrowest of margins, there was a tremendous feeling of achievement.
Undoubtedly, a significant aspect to that achievement was attributed to the dedication of the coaching staff, one that saw Drinkwater work assiduously to help the Rays reach their potential. From a personal standpoint, there is no question that Drinkwater realized many new accomplishments too. As the theme of the Rays expansion season was one of growth, it was suerly a captivating element that contributed to this newest aspect in her hockey journey, asborbing the particulars with great fascination and keen diligence.
“I personally think I have grown tremendously as a coach this season. Coach (Rob Morgan) has led by example, pushing me out of my boundaries in so many ways and continually wanting not only the best for our athletes but to help me be successful as a leader.
Competing in the CWHL with world champion athletes also raises the bar to push our athletes to achieve more! Finally, it has given me an opportunity to travel and see many great places this world has to offer all through the game I love the most - hockey.”
“All quotes obtained first hand unless otherwise indicated”
Syracuse image obtained from: https://cuse.com/story.aspx?filename=WICE_0114143545&file_date=1/14/2014&path=wice
Vanke Rays images supplied by Jenesica Drinkwater