In a sensational season defined by the arrival of two highly talented expansion teams from China, the Vanke Rays and the Kunlun Red Star, such a competitive time in the CWHL has been enhanced by the superlative quality of talent on these respective rosters. With an assembly of talent from North America, Europe and Asia, this diverse yet dedicated gathering has woven a tremendous tapestry as professional women’s ice hockey takes on an even bigger grip globally.
Quickly emerging as the most compelling and brilliant forward is the sensational Cayley Mercer, whose offensive wizardry and scoring abilities have made her the toast of the league’s rookie class. Donning the colors of the Vanke Rays, Mercer has captured the hearts and minds of hockey fans on both sides of the Pacific, simultaneously building a strong case as a league MVP candidate.
Through the first seven games of her CWHL career, Mercer has logged at least one point. Perhaps more impressive, Mercer has recorded an amazing six multi-point performances. Her best effort resulted in a four-point outing against the Boston Blades in a November 5 tilt.
Such a sterling offensive output is enhanced by the fact that the league’s top four scorers are all members of the Rays. Mercer’s 16 points (on the strength of 10 assists), places her two points ahead of Ashleigh Brykaliuk, who ranks as the league’s top scoring blueliner, six points better than Montreal’s veteran blueliner Cathy Chartrand.
Tied with 13 points each are Bunton and Webster, while Kunlun’s Kelli Stack is fifth in scoring. Worth noting, Mercer also ranks first in points per game (2.29), power play assists (4) and is tied with Bunton for first in plus/minus rating with a solid +14.
The opportunity to play alongside the likes of Bunton and Webster represent an exciting new dimension for Mercer. During her four fantastic seasons with Clarkson, Mercer called her current teammates on the Rays as collegiate rivals. All competitors in the ECAC Conference, Bunton served as team captain in her senior season for the Cornell Big Red, also a member of the Ivy League. Garnering All-America honors following her senior season, Webster starred for the St. Lawrence Skating Saints, who qualified for the 2017 NCAA tournament.
“It is just exciting to be teammates with talented players, and good people – of which both Brooke and Hanna are. It’s fun too because you come from different teams and schools where you played different systems and had different philosophies so you are constantly learning from one another.”
Since the Rays’ opening faceoff, the offensive chemistry between these three tremendous talents has propelled the club into competitive status, while finding themselves perched among the league’s elite scorers. All three have become kindred spirits, making their presence felt during a sensational CWHL debut.
Competing on the road for an October 28-29 weekend series against the Toronto Furies, the first series in franchise history, Mercer quickly made an impression. Along with Bunton, both scored their first professional goals in a dazzling debut, assisting on each other’s goals, both scored against veteran goaltender Sonja van der Bliek, who will become the answer to a great trivia question one day.
Simultaneously, it would allow Mercer and Bunton a multi-point performance, something that both would repeat in the following game, helping contribute towards building the early mythology of the Rays. As a side note, Webster and Brykaliuk would also log their first career points in the October 28 affair.
In reflecting on the chance to collaborate with Bunton in such a historic game, who have both worn Canada’s jersey in international play, the chance to achieve this milestone together certainly helped set the tone for a fascinating month of superlative hockey to unfold. Equally important, it was a cherished opportunity to see such titanic talents shine as teammates for the first time ever,
“It was extremely special! Being able to say that you are a professional athlete is an accomplishment in itself, but being able to add a professional goal to that is a milestone I won’t soon forget. I scored my first college goal in my first college game, so it seemed only fitting that I would score my first professional goal in the same manner.”
Emerging victorious by a 3-0 margin against the Furies on October 28, as rookie goaltender Elaine Chuli gained a shutout in her CWHL debut, Bunton, Mercer and Chuli swept the Three Stars of the Game honors. Adding to the sense of history on this day was the fact that there was a unique sense of connection to their expansion cousins, the Red Star, as they also won their first-ever game in CWHL play on the same day.
Worth noting, the clubs experienced another intriguing link during the preseason. As both clubs (along with China’s national women’s team) enjoyed the chance to compete against the nationally ranked University of British Columbia Thunderbirds, it was a chance to welcome both clubs, as it marked their North American debut.
Accumulating four points in a convincing victory against the valiant Thunderbirds, Mercer’s performance was definitely a preview of exciting things to come. Such a sensational start in Vancouver was part of a much more profound narrative. It was a key event that emphasized the mutual respect between the Rays and the Red Star. With the presence of the Red Star in Vancouver, it marked the culmination of a shared journey, one that Mercer explains,
“We actually spent most of our preseason together, so we were getting kind of used to it. It was nice because we were given the chance to really acclimate as one big group before breaking off into our separate teams. Now that league play has started though there is definitely a friendly rivalry being established. We obviously want to see KRS be successful, but at the same time we are doing what we can to find a competitive edge and establish ourselves as a strong contender.”
Throughout the first month of the 2017-18 CWHL season, Mercer has definitely propelled the Rays into contender status, possibly eclipsing the Furies and the Blades for the best season by an expansion team. Undoubtedly, Mercer has emerged as more than just the scoring leader. Pacing the way for the Rays offense, while headlining one of the league’s most impressive rookie classes ever, Mercer may be on a collision course with one of the greatest performances for any player.
Although Meghan Agosta was the first rookie to capture the Angela James Bowl, awarded to the league’s scoring champion, Mercer still has the opportunity to make history twice. Should she finish her inaugural season in CWHL play atop the scoring race, she would be the youngest winner of the coveted Bowl, simultaneously becoming the first winner from an expansion team. Also such a feat would represent a great point of pride for Mercer, her maturity shines through, focused on team success first,
“I think for me, and I have always been this way, even throughout college, I am way more focused on helping win a team championship than a scoring championship. If I am able to contribute on the score board to help my team win, then, that is great, but I do not see individual points, just 2 points for a team win and I am happy.”
As the first-ever draft pick in the history of the Rays, Mercer has emerged as the top pick of the 2017 CWHL Draft class, yielding tremendous dividends while rewarding the faith shown in her by the organization. Evolving rapidly into a franchise player, she has quickly become a drawing card for the league and team alike. Mercer approaches such a strong start by observing the bigger picture, one where the role of ambassador for the game adds an exiting new dimension to such an accomplished career,
“It is definitely an exciting opportunity to be part of one of the first ever Chinese teams to play in the CWHL. Being able to contribute to the global growth of women’s hockey is something I never thought I would be a part of, so I am really trying to take in every moment, learn from the people around me and just have fun!”
Such a remarkable role on offense is one that is not unfamiliar to Mercer. As a member of the Clarkson Golden Knights’ senior class of 2017, she captured the NCAA scoring title while leading the Green and Gold to its second Frozen Four title in program history. Having also been mentioned in Sports Illustrated and SI Kids (where she was featured on a trading card inserted in the magazine), Mercer accumulated an impressive 178 points, including the 2017 ECAC and USCHO D-1 Player of the Year Awards, respectively.
One of the superstars during the Golden Knights’ halcyon days, she is also part of a group of alumnae making their mark in professional hockey. In addition to Mercer, the Toronto Furies feature alum Brooke Beazer, who is also one of the Furies’ charter members.
Having also played for the United States Under-22 national women’s team, Lauren Dahm, a member of Clarkson’s Class of 2011 is back between the pipes this season for the Boston Blades. Members of the Golden Knights’ first Frozen Four championship team, Jamie Lee Rattray, the recipient of the 2014 Patty Kazmaier Award, along with goaltender Erica Howe, both don the green jersey of the Markham Thunder. As a side note, this titanic duo for the Thunder also participated in the inaugural CWHL All-Star Game.
Coincidentally, it was the Markham Thunder that would make the trek across the Pacific to participate in the Rays home opener. Taking place on November 18, Mercer would not disappoint as the fans in Shenzhen witnessed her wondrous ways. A three-assist output in a 6-1 victory against the Thunder was essential in the path to victory.
During the first two periods of play, Howe provided a solid effort, keeping the game rather close. Mercer would connect with Webster for a goal in the first and second, as the Rays only enjoyed a two-goal cushion heading into the third. With a four goal outburst in a span of 4:53, Mercer would record her 10th assist of the season on a power play goal by Brykaliuk. Considering that the Rays scored a pair of power play goals in the third, said goals were crucial in placing the game out of reach.
By game’s end, there was a strong sense of Clarkson pride. Scoring the last goal of the game (and the Thunder’s only goal) was Rattray, as Jenna McParland gained the assist. Fittingly, Mercer would emerge as the Second Star of the Game, while Rattray was recognized as the Third Star.
The next day, Mercer would score twice, including an unassisted goal in the third, as the Rays swept the visiting Thunder in a 5-2 triumph. Bunton also found the back of the net twice, as her nine goals are tied with Red Star forward Kelli Stack for the league lead. Coincidentally, Rattray would also score for the Thunder, recording her seventh goal of the season, extending the proud Clarkson presence in Asia.
As the Rays progress towards the possibility of a postseason berth, fueled by the dream of becoming the first expansion team to win a Clarkson Cup, they have a gem in Cayley Mercer. Embodying the essence of world-class play, Mercer, who is on pace for a 50-point season, is poised to become a sporting icon on both sides of the Pacific, enhancing the booming footprint of the game in Asia.
Images obtained from Twitter
“All quotes obtained first hand unless otherwise indicated”