Raised in Waterford, Ontario, Elaine Chuli’s love of the game gained a grander scale, competing in front of an audience of rabid fans across the Pacific. Having also competed with Canada’s national team at the Under-18 and Under-22/Development levels, Chuli already possessed an impressive resume of international experience. Helping to pioneer the professional game in China, Chuli brilliantly provided the Vanke Rays with elite goaltending, keeping the team in the playoff conversation throughout the duration of their expansion campaign.
Prior to joining the Rays, Chuli left her mark at the collegiate level, guarding the crease for the University of Connecticut Huskies, where she broke both the program and Hockey East record for career saves. Among the accolades bestowed upon her, including three Huskies Team MVP Awards, her senior season culminated with a nod to the 2016 All-America Second Team, along with recognition as a CoSIDA Academic All-District Women’s At-Large Team honoree for District 1.
Appearing in an impressive 27 games in her rookie campaign with the Rays, Chuli tied Boston Blades second year competitor Lauren Dahm for the league lead. Amassing 14 wins, only Noora Raty (16) and Emerance Maschmeyer (18) had more. Coincidentally, Raty and Maschmeyer were the only goaltenders who had more shutouts than Chuli’s four. Surprisingly, Chuli’s heroics from start to finish this season did not garner one nod as the ADT Goaltender of the Week.
Undoubtedly one of the league’s busiest goaltenders, Chuli also made her mark in two other key statistical metrics. Leading the league with an astounding 1513 minutes played, she also ranking second in shots against with 851, trailing only Dahm. As a side note, it was Dahm that would place second in minutes played, testament to their status as workhorse goaltenders for their respective clubs. In spite of such a solid season, Chuli remains her harshest critic, highly motivated to push herself towards greater goals,
“To be honest I am never satisfied. Always working to get better and reach a higher level of performance. The team made a lot of positive steps this season but there is always a lot of room for improvement.”
Making her debut on October 28, 2017, also the first game in Vanke Rays franchise history, Chuli shined in one of the greatest performances for an expansion goaltender.
Hanna Bunton, who scored the first goal in Rays history gained First Star honors. Cayley Mercer, who assisted on Bunton’s historic goal emerged as Second Star, while Chuli completed the sweep, as her 23 save effort culminated with Third Star recognition.
While a goaltender logging a shutout in their professional debut is a remarkable achievement, Chuli’s blanking of the Furies certainly stood as one of the league’s season highlights, there is another aspect to this monumental milestone.
After graduating from the University of Connecticut, where Chuli rewrote the Huskies’ goaltending records, along with a stint on Canada’s U22/Development Team, her professional aspirations were not fulfilled immediately. Shelved for an entire season due to a knee injury, the elation of a full recovery was only outmatched by the thrill of returning to the ice,
“The shutout was definitely a bonus, but, I was just happy Vanke could get a win in our first game in the CWHL. It had been about 19 months since I played a game and that time off from the game was difficult mentally. It was a long year and a half of rehab but very rewarding. There is no better feeling than being in the locker room with the team after a big win.”
Following a loss on October 29, one that saw Furies goaltender Sami Jo Small become the oldest player to win a regular season match (broken later in the season), Chuli became part of CWHL history for the second game in a row. Although Chuli was on the opposite end of history in this notable game, such a stellar weekend represented a fascinating start for such a promising career. Masterfully assembling a superlative seven-game winning streak, such a peerless performance resulted in an undefeated month of November, setting a franchise benchmark.
Sweeping the Boston Blades, Markham Thunder and Toronto Furies, Chuli also logged another pair of shutouts during this dazzling stretch of dominance. The November 7 affair versus Boston, capped off an eventful professional debut in America as a three-game series versus the Blades resulted in some very unique yet pulse pounding matches, showing the mettle of goaltender and team alike.
Although the Rays enjoyed a three-game sweep of the black and gold, the level of determination that entailed the desire of players on both sides to gain the W, represented a high level of dramatic and intense competition as the on-ice battles waged were among some of the league’s finest all season.
With a November 4th tilt representing the first contest, the Blades put together a solid effort, holding a 1-0 lead through two periods of play, as Dahm and the defense frustrated the Rays high-flying offense. Although rookie sensation Hanna Bunton tied the game in the third for the visiting team, a shootout was required to determine a winner.
In spite of Kate Leary, the Blades’ first shooter, slipping the puck past Chuli, she kept her composure between the pipes, denying the four remaining shooters. With Ashleigh Brykaliuk supplying the shootout heroics in a 2-1 final, the outcome certainly resulted in a mutual respect between both clubs. Fittingly, Chuli and Dahm were recognized among the Game’s Three Stars.
The following day, the Blades peppered Chuli with an astounding 54 shots, including 20 in the opening frame. Despite such a high number of shots, Chuli was spectacular, not allowing one goal during said frame.
Although Dahm faced a total of 39 shots, the vast difference in shots did not reflect the final score. Of note, the Rays would reign on the scoreboard, prevailing in a 7-2 final. The goals scored on Chuli both took place in the second stanza, as Meghan Grieves and Megan Myers placed their names on the scoresheet. In each instance, the Rays enjoyed three goal leads when the Blades scored.
With the series culminating on November 7, Chuli would ensure a series sweep, garnering her second career shutout. Making 28 stops (and nullifying three power plays), the Blades were offensively starved in a 4-0 final.
Serendipitously, the Rays sweep of the Three Stars involved the compelling Canadian trio of Bunton, Chuli and Mercer once again. Chuli would emerge as the First Star of the Game, while Second Star honors went to Mercer. With a scintillating three-point output, Bunton gained the Third Star.
As the season progressed, the chance to share the ice alongside scoring sensations Bunton and Mercer, along with fellow Canadians, Ashleigh Brykaliuk, Lauren Kelly, Brooke Webster and Emma Woods resulted in the forging of some formidable friendships, each sharing a strong sense of national pride. Including the empowering presence of American competitors such as Emily Janiga and Rose Alleva, the chance to share in this hockey odyssey alongside them only enriched the unfolding journey,
“It was an honor to play with the other Canadians and Americans on the Vanke Rays. We were all very good friends and it made the experience that much more enjoyable. We were a very tight-knit group and stuck together. I really enjoyed their company and their abilities on the ice are outstanding.”
The most captivating element is the fact that the victories versus Markham and Toronto took place on home ice. Serving as an exciting introduction of the professional game for Chinese fans, the combination of an electrifying home crowd, an enthusiastic group of teammates, plus the sensation of winning, with its ability to restore confidence and/or supply optimism, resulted in a perfect storm for Chuli, gracious at the chance to showcase her superlative goaltending skills in such a fantastic forum.
“It was such a cool experience, once in a lifetime opportunity for sure. The facilities we have in China are top notch and the fan support we get is just amazing! It is very cool to play in front of thousands of people at every home game.
Hands down, it is the best atmosphere I have played in. As the season went on the fans got more familiar with the game as they began cheering at the appropriate times and were more engaged with the game.
In regards to our work every day… it was such an amazing experience to see all my Chinese teammates grow in all aspects of the game. They all improved so much and it was awesome to bring popularity to hockey in southern China.”
Fittingly, the last win of Chuli’s spectacular season took place on home ice in Shenzhen, as the March 10th tilt resulted in a splendor of hockey greatness. With Finnish goaltending legend Noora Raty guarding the crease of the Kunlun Red Star, China’s other entry during the 2017-18 CWHL season, her presence on the opposing end of the ice resulted in a pulse-pounding renewal of rivalries. Of note, the Red Star came back from a 3-1 deficit, claiming a 4-3 advantage in the third period against their expansion cousins.
Facing a combined 35 shots during the first two periods of play, Chuli handled another 10 shots in the third period. Retaining tremendous composure, especially after Kelli Stack scored her 26th of the year on the game’s only power play opportunity, Chuli rose to the occasion, providing the Rays with a chance to erase Red Star’s lead.
Highlighted by a two-point performance from Rose Alleva, including her first career goal (which also stood as the game-winning tally), Chuli staved off an ambitious Red Star in the game’s final seconds. With the opposition opting for an extra skater as relief goaltender Yuqing Wang was summoned to the bench, Chuli nullified their attempts at tying the game, as Hanna Bunton buried the puck into an empty net in a captivating 6-4 final.
Recording 41 saves, Chuli was recognized as the First Star of the Game, while Cayley Mercer, who finished her season as the rookie scoring champion obtained Second Star honors. Rui Zhu of the Red Star emerged with the Third Star of the Game, in an action paced outcome which certainly spoiled the Chinese fans.
As enjoyable as the wins were for Chuli, especially in an expansion scenario, the postgame celebrations comprised the other part of the tale. Reflecting on what she enjoyed most during this memorable season, the chance to bond with her Chinese teammates with the recital of a victory song truly embodied the sense of friendliness, goodwill and sportsmanship that comprised the proud team culture,
“My favourite moment of the season was being in the locker room after our wins. We had to teach the Chinese players the lyrics to our win song and everyone was always very fired up after we won.
It was so rewarding to see the smiles and excitement on the face of all my teammates, especially the Chinese players who did not typically play in a league format in the past.”
“All quotes obtained first hand unless otherwise indicated”
Media head shot obtained from: http://vanke.thecwhl.com/
Game images obtained from: https://www.facebook.com/VankeRaysCWHL/