Although the Vanke Rays may be in their inaugural season of CWHL hockey, the presence of highly talented players such as Hanna Bunton shall not only ensure that any expansion woes are minimized, but that the objective of qualifying for postseason hockey is feasible. Selected in the fourth round, 28th overall in the 2017 CWHL Draft, Bunton has already emerged as the steal of said draft, scoring goals in her first two games for the Rays.
Consisting of eight Canadians on the Rays roster (of which Bunton is the third youngest), it was rather fitting that the club’s first appearance took place on Canadian soil. Prior to their inaugural CWHL game, the club, based in Shenzen, China, took to the ice on the Pacific coast, joining the Kunlun Red Star and the Chinese national women’s team in an exhibition series against the University of British Columbia Thunderbirds. As a side note, the Rays would prevail by an 8-4 tally.
Making their official CWHL debut on October 28, 2017, the first of a two-game series with the host Toronto Furies, Bunton emerged as a key contributor as the Rays enjoyed a combination of numerous milestones. From the outset, Bunton scored the first goal in franchise history, etching her name in league lore. Scoring at the 14:51 mark of the first period against Furies goaltender Sonia van der Bliek (who was awarded CWHL Goaltender of the Week honors a few days prior), Bunton’s goal would also stand as the game-winning tally in a 3-0 triumph.
“It was a really great feeling for our team just to score the first franchise goal. The puck would not have gone in without the effort of Cayley Mercer. It was really great to get that first win under our belt. We have been putting in a lot of work and to see it pay off was pretty special.”
Of note, Bunton was not the only player to make history for the Rays during this eventful evening. Gaining the assist on Bunton’s monumental goal was Cayley Mercer, the runner-up for the 2017 Patty Kazmaier Award. In the second period, Mercer would score her first goal for the Rays, with Bunton earning the assist, as both would experience the first multi-point effort in franchise history.
The opportunity to call Mercer a teammate is certainly unique for Bunton. For the last four seasons, the two were rivals in the ECAC Conference, constantly battling for bragging rights in the postseason. With Bunton skating for the Cornell Big Red, while Mercer donned the green and gold colors of the Clarkson Golden Knights, their epic battles helped extend a golden age for ECAC women’s ice hockey. Getting the opportunity to collaborate on the Rays, the already dazzling display of offensive synergy should propel both of them into the conversation for rookie of the year consideration,
“Cayley is such an amazing player and person. It was really special to play with her, she’s always in the right spot on the ice so it makes things pretty easy for me.”
Joined by Brooke Webster, who was a 2017 All-America selection with the ECAC’s St. Lawrence Skating Saints, this unique triumvirate of talent are serving as the catalysts on a high-scoring and potent offense, poised to make opposing goaltenders in the CWHL highly nervous. Of note, Webster would also find her name on the scoresheet in this epic debut game, scoring her first goal as a member of the Rays while registering the first short-handed marker in franchise history.
Also adding to the sense of history was the presence of Elaine Chuli between the pipes. Akin to Bunton and Mercer, Chuli has also competed for Canada’s U18 national team. A graduate from the University of Connecticut, where she re-wrote several goaltending records, Chuli also made history twice, gaining the first win and shutout in Rays history.
In spite of the Furies capturing the win on the following day, Bunton continued to display her offensive wizardry. Scoring on Furies co-founder Sami Jo Small in the second period, it not only made her the first player to score goals in back-to-back games for the Rays, it would also result in the team’s first power play goal.
Once again, Mercer made her mark offensively, as she collaborated with Ashley Brykaliuk for the assist. Coincidentally, Brykaliuk would also gain the assist on Webster’s short-handed goal the night before, quickly emerging as an impact player on special teams. She would gain another assist in the third period on a goal by Mercer, which sees her join Bunton as Rays skaters to score in their second straight game. As a side note, Brykaliuk would become the first Rays blueliner to record a pair of assists in a game.
Having played for Laura Schuler with the Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs, Brykaliuk, who is also a Hockey Canada alum, joins Bunton as part of a strong core of leaders from North America donning the Rays colors this season. For Bunton, the presence of such distinguished competitors is of vital importance to creating a positive team culture while instilling the belief that success is within reach for all who wear the Rays jersey.
“Our team is so awesome and close. All of the Canadians and Americans have gotten so close over the past two months and we are loving living in China together.”
This gathering of talent includes Lauren Kelly, a 25-year old from Milton, Ontario, who joins the aforementioned Brykaliuk as the two Canadians on the blueline unit. Emma Woods is another alum of ECAC hockey, having provided offensive punch for the Quinnipiac Bobcats, while engaging in many classic matches against Cornell and Clarkson. Along with Bunton, Mercer and Webster, this remarkable foursome is part of an impromptu “dream team” of ECAC superstars suiting up for the Rays.
Rose Alleva, who was raised in Red Wing, Minnesota is one of two American-born players on the Rays roster. Alleva is joined on the Rays by the Western New York-bred Emily Janiga. Having captured the Isobel Cup in 2017, the Mercyhurst alum may prove to be a key component in the ambition of playoff success.
Considering that the commitment to compete with the Rays involves living in China, the last two months of training camp and team building has been crucial towards a pleasant adjustment. With all the North American players becoming like a second family, there is a strong sense of unity among them.
That sense has also helped contribute a positive example. With 10 players from China’s national team competing with the Rays this season, the essence of teamwork has taken on an even greater meaning. Taking into account that Bunton served as a captain at the collegiate level with the Cornell Big Red, the values of friendship, hard work and encouragement certainly make her an important asset for the Rays, simultaneously contributing to a very exciting time for the women’s game in China.
Highly valued for her leadership skills as well as her on-ice abilities, the hallmark of Bunton’s career may very well be her undeniable love of the game. Bringing her positive attitude and joyful smile, while employing a combination of maturity and alacrity, Bunton’s impact as a leader has taken on a more profound meaning, as she serves as a role model, instilling confidence in her Chinese teammates that a rise to prominence is possible.
Poised to gain the admiration and respect of China’s growing base of hockey fans, Bunton’s early experiences with the Rays has already translated into a labour of love. In discussing what she enjoys most about being part of this new era of CWHL hockey, her appreciation of the game certainly shines brightly, proud of the chance to help make it grow and reach prosperous new heights. Blossoming into an ambassador for the game, it is an affirming status that sees Bunton continue to forge a wondrous legacy as a world-class competitor.
“Getting the opportunity to play the sport we love and travel the world has been amazing but also having the opportunity to help another country reach their dreams is my favourite part about being a part of the Vanke Rays.”
“All quotes obtained first hand unless otherwise indicated”
Images obtained from Facebook