Part of the first draft class in the history of the Vanke Rays, one of two expansion teams from China gracing the ice in the CWHL, Emma Woods certainly emerged as a high value pick. Definitely, the Rays acquired a player in Woods with more than just a fundamentally sound game. Bringing a strong work ethic and a tremendous sense of pride in her work, Woods’ character is renowned among her teammates. Certainly, the dedication to hard work emanated from the fact that she was raised in a dairy farm outside Burford, Ontario.
Such traits quickly translated into remarkable athletic achievements locally. An eight-sport star at Paris (Ontario) High School, Woods also gained the honor of the Phyllis Gretzky Memorial Award for Female Youth Leadership Award in 2011. Awarded by the Brantford Sports Council, it was the foreshadowing of an athlete who was truly world-class.
Having served as a captain at PWHL and at the NCAA level, where she was the 14th captain in the history of the Quinnipiac Bobcats (based in the ECAC conference), the chance to play for the Rays represented a very unique facet in her career.
At the PHWL level, Woods suited up for the Cambridge Jr. Rivulettes, a team named in honor of the historic Preston Rivulettes, led by Hilda Ranscombel. Considering that Woods’ tireless effort on the club paid homage to the legacy of their empowering predecessors, Woods’ opportunity to compete in China certainly channels that strong sense, helping create a new history.
Perhaps the most unique element of donning the Rays jersey was the chance to call long-standing collegiate rivals as teammates. Part of a decorated group of stars from the ECAC conference, pioneering players establishing a new decorated career in the Pacific, ensuring an exciting and successful transition for the team from expansion status to playoff contender was assured, such a gathering of elite talent included numerous familiar faces.
Among Woods’ newly-minted teammates included Clarkson’s Cayley Mercer, Hanna Bunton, a captain with Cornell, plus Brooke Webster, an All-America selection while at St. Lawrence,. Woods certainly brought her own impressive credentials.
In addition to her legacy as the Quinnipiac captain, helping the program attain its first appearance in the NCAA Tournament, Woods gained numerous honors, including All-ECAC Third Team, ECAC All-Academic and the Most Outstanding Player Award at the Nutmeg Classic.
Woods was a highly versatile competitor, very effective at winning face-offs, while establishing herself as a shot blocking specialist. Also a member of the 100-point club, bringing consistency with double-digits in goals and points every season. Renowned for her durability, Woods’ final season in Bobcats gold and blue resulted in a stirring performance, scoring four goals versus Rensselaer on December 3, 2016.
Statistically, Woods continued her consistent ways, amassing 19 points on the strength of 10 assists in her debut season with the Rays. Complemented by three power play goals, she ranked a respectable sixth overall in league rookie scoring, while placing fifth overall amongst all skaters on the Rays.
Worth noting, Woods placed 19th overall in the race for the Angela James Bowl. Joined in the top 20 by Rays teammates Cayley Mercer, Hanna Bunton, Brooke Webster and Ashleigh Brykaliuk, part of an amazing group of first-year talent that delivered on all accounts during such a memorable expansion season.
“I am happy where I finished the season, obviously I want to be able to help my team offensively, and I thought I did that. There are, however, other aspects of my game that define me as a player and that I take a lot of pride in.”
Making her CWHL debut on October 28, 2017 at Toronto’s MasterCard Centre, a 3-0 shutout win for the Rays, Woods would have to wait until November 5 to log her first point. Registering an assist on Ashleigh Brykaliuk’s first-ever goal in CWHL play, said goal also stood as the game-winning tally. Enjoying a 7-2 road win against the Boston Blades, it would also spark a five-game scoring streak for Woods.
“It was an incredible feeling playing in my first CWHL game. It is something you dream of, and strive for as a girl playing hockey. Playing in this league isn’t just about being at the highest level of women’s hockey, it is about continuing to help grow the game for the future of girls and women in this sport, and being a part of that is amazing.”
Said streak would result in numerous statistical milestones for Woods. Undoubtedly, the biggest took place on November 18. Scoring twice against the eventual Clarkson Cup champion Markham Thunder, the feat took on greater sheen as it was the Rays’ home debut.
With fellow rookie superstar Brooke Webster scoring in the first and second period, the Rays offensive attack exploded with a four-goal outburst in a matter of just four minutes and 13 seconds during the final frame. At the 2:15 mark, Woods buried the puck past Thunder All-Star backstop (and eventual 2018 Clarkson Cup MVP) Erica Howe, as Webster and Brykaliuk logged the assists on this landmark goal.
In addition to the feat of Woods’ first career goal with the Rays, her second goal of the game provided the achievement of her first power play goal. With Jessica Hartwick serving a tripping penalty, Webster fed Woods the puck for the assist (recording her fourth point of the night), extending the Rays’ already insurmountable lead. Resulting in a sparkling multi-point effort, another exciting first, Woods emerged as a key contributor in a convincing 6-1 final.
“It felt great to score my first goal as a professional hockey player. It took me a few games, I had a monkey on my back for a while there, but it was good to get that out of the way, and continue to contribute offensively!”
The culmination of Woods’ wondrous five-game streak culminated with another proud moment. Recording another multi-point effort on home ice, as the Rays pummeled the visiting Toronto Furies in a 5-0 blanking on November 22, Woods attained the peak of her first three-point output.
After a scoreless first period which saw Furies goaltender Sonja van der Bliek valiantly oppose the Rays offense, Woods contributed towards a second period that helped turn the tide in their favor. With Emily Janiga scoring short-handed, potting her second goal of the season, Woods and Webster would add to the lead with helpers on a goal by Hanna Bunton with less than five minutes remaining in the second.
Woods would also help engineer an even more productive third period. Merely nine seconds into a power play opportunity, she extended the Rays’ lead to three goals, scoring at the 1:51 mark. In the latter half of the third period, Cayley Mercer would add her name to the scoresheet, while Woods and Webster brilliantly collaborated once again, as Janiga scored her second of the game.
For their efforts, Janiga and Woods were recognized as the First and Second Stars of the Game. Gaining Third Star honors was van der Bliek, who faced 25 shots in the loss.
On December 10, the second game in a home-and-home series with their expansion cousins, the Kunlun Red Star, Woods would start another five-game scoring streak. While the Rays and Red Star are inextricably linked in hockey lore, their success running parallel to the amazing efforts of the NHL’s Vegas Golden Knights, there is no question that there is a mutual respect between the two clubs.
Considering that both the Rays and Red Star feature North American talent on their rosters, there is a shared understanding among them of their crucial roles. From helping grow the game internationally, to providing mentoring for the Chinese-born players, it is a privilege that has evolved into a labor of love. As Woods explains, while the level of competitiveness during this groundbreaking season resulted in an exciting on-ice rivalry, one which truly reached its apex when the two played each other for the first time in Shenzhen, such a rivalry serves to personify a love of the game, one which has reached new and exciting heights in the land of this rising hockey power,
“Regardless of the fact that we are expansion cousins with KRS, there seemed to be an obvious rivalry between our two teams all season. It was always fun stepping on the ice against them, especially in Shenzhen where we had the locals cheering us on, as they had done all season. It was a very cool, and unique experience.”
Totaling three points in a two-game sweep of the visiting Boston Blades prior to the holiday break, Woods continued to provide productivity in the New Year. With points in the first two games of a three-game road stand versus the Thunder, signifying the conclusion to her second scoring streak of the campaign, Woods worked tirelessly in keeping the Rays postseason hopes alive.
As the season culminated in a three-game series versus the Red Star, the final two games saw the Rays serve as the home team. The March 10th tilt resulted in another strong showing for Woods, accumulating another multi-point effort in a 6-4 win, highlighted by a second period goal against All-World goaltender Noora Raty.
In spite of the fact that such a strong showing all season resulted in a visceral fifth place finish for the Vanke Rays, just narrowly missing a postseason berth, the focal point of this season was one built on development and enjoyment. While Woods recounts how living in a new land brought with an understandable element of modification, the bigger picture is one that projects an exciting account built on making history, a proud feat which propelled Woods into a much larger world.
“It was definitely a big adjustment living in China this year, the differences in food and culture is much more than I had expected, and took a little getting used to. However, our staff and teammates were great with helping us get settled in Shenzhen.
What I liked best about living there was how the community really welcomed us, and the tremendous support our team had all season. This year was an adventure, and I am very grateful to have the experience!”
“All quotes obtained first hand unless otherwise indicated”
Quinnipac photo by: Erin Kane
Vanke Rays image obtained from: http://cwhldaily.tumblr.com/