In a career synonymous with history and achievement, Jessica Wong is one of the most underrated stars in women’s ice hockey. With the 2017-18 CWHL season heralding the arrival of the Kunlun Red Star, one of two expansion teams from China, there is a sense of prestige in the fact that a devoted player and popular teammate like Wong is wearing its colors.
Raised in Nova Scotia, Wong was part of a new generation of stars to hail from Canada’s Maritime Region. Such a group include the likes of Jillian Saulnier, Alexis Crossley, Alexa Normore, Blayre Turnbull and Suzanne Fenerty, among others. Worth noting, Saulnier and Turnbull would capture the 2016 Clarkson Cup with the Calgary Inferno, Wong’s former club team.
An integral part of early Inferno lore, Wong was selected first overall in the 2013 CWHL Draft. Not only did it mark the second straight draft in which the Inferno held the top pick, it marked the first time in the modern history of women’s hockey drafts that a visible minority was selected number one. Three years later, Kelsey Koelzer, a blueliner of African-American heritage who competed for Princeton University was the top in a professional draft in the United States.
Earlier in the decade, Wong made her mark with an iconic goal that emphasized the importance of 2010 as an influential year in women’s ice hockey. Skating for the Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs, which featured Shannon Miller as head coach, Wong scored the Frozen Four clinching goal in double overtime against the Ivy League’s Cornell Big Red.
Coincidentally, the Big Red roster in that monumental contest featured Melanie Jue, who would go on to become one of Wong’s teammates during the Red Star’s inaugural campaign. Hailing from British Columbia, Jue has also competed for Canada at the 2015 ISBHF Worlds, while serving as a coach with the lauded Pursuit of Excellence academy.
That sense of coincidence is also extended to the empowering presence of Red Star head coach Digit Murphy. Having won over 300 games as the head coach of the Ivy League’s Brown Bears, she was also the first American-born female coach to win two Clarkson Cups. Having also founded the UWLX lacrosse league, Murphy’s role as a builder in female sports is accentuated by her role with professional women’s hockey in China.
Of note, the chance to play for Red Star head coach Digit Murphy represents a chance for Wong to reunite with the lauded coach. A participant in the inaugural CWHL All-Star Game, back in 2014, Wong played for Murphy on the victorious Team Red. In discussing the opportunity to compete for Murphy once again, it is accompanied by a sense of unprecedented achievement,
“Honestly, once Digit told me what our main goal was, I was in. To be apart of growing the game in China; which is half my heritage, I had to accept. To give back to a game I have grown up with my whole life and made many wonderful friendships. It was a given and I am so glad I took the opportunity.”
Prior to the first regular season game in Red Star history, Wong had the chance to compete in a series of unique exhibition games. From the outset, she participated in an exhibition series in Vancouver against the UBC Thunderbirds. The series also included the club’s expansion cousins, the Vanke Rays.
In addition, Wong had the chance to don the colors of Team China for an exhibition game in Buffalo, New York. Despite a hard-fought 4-2 loss against a squad that won its respective league championship last season, Wong scored the first goal of the game, as Rachel Llanes and Madison Woo gained the assists. Along with another goal by Llanes, China enjoyed a 2-0 lead after the first period of play. The chance to don the Chinese jersey and take to the ice was a profound way of paying tribute to her family heritage, while extending her proud hockey legacy.
“It was such a cool feeling to be a part of this group! Words can’t describe. It is amazing to think my Grandmother came to Canada from China 58 years ago Halloween night to make a better life for herself and to think that I was able to play for the country that she was born in!!! It is pretty awesome!!!!! I am a proud Canadian and I am very proud of my Chinese heritage.”
Wong would continue to take on the role of road warrior, as the Red Star participated in their first regular season game north of Toronto. Competing against the Markham Thunder, the October 21 game at the Thornhill Community Centre took on a monumental magnitude as Red Star board member (and two-time Stanley Cup champion) Phil Esposito was among the hockey luminaries in attendance.
Adding tremendous importance to this notable game was the fact that IIHF Hall of Famer Fran Rider was also in attendance. Having organized the first-ever Women’s World Championship in 1987, it was the catalyst towards the IIHF staging their own championship three years later. Taking into account that Rider, who is also the OWHA President, remains one of the game’s key figures, it represented a sense of pride for Wong.
“Yes I think it was very important for Phil and Fran to be there to support the women’s game. If it was not for people like Phil and Fran a lot of things would not have happened in the women’s game. We have a lot of supporters and I think on behalf of all of the players in the CWHL we would like to thank them for always being there for their support.”
In spite of the Red Star suffering an opening night loss, which saw Wong serve the first penalty in team history (called for roughing after the whistle at the 6:03 mark of the first), the overall effort was very valiant and admirable. Not only did the Red Star hold the lead after the first period of play, they peppered Thunder goaltender Liz Knox with 38 shots.
Considering that Wong has also worn Canada’s colors internationally, the chance to be part of a Red Star roster that features Finland’s Noora Raty, arguably the greatest goaltender in the world, along with American sensation Kelli Stack, both Winter Games medalists, it accentuates an incredible amount of leadership for the younger players to look up to, subsequently keeping expansion woes to a minimum.
Understandably, the on-ice chemistry was still a work in progress during that first game. Although a learning curve represents part of the process for the younger players, the anticipation of taking to the ice after a series of training camps, exhibition games and team-building sessions represented an exciting rite of passage. Reflecting on the impact of that first game, Wong’s leadership certainly shines, acknowledging that the gradual experience shall translate into encouragement,
“To play my first Red Star game was pretty exciting. (minus the outcome.) I think as a team we learned a lot about ourselves with the loss and what we need to do to be successful. We have a lot of learning to do but the crew is ready and we are very excited for the season. This is a brand new endeavour and for what we have done so far; we have to be proud of and continue to be positive.
Bouncing back from the sweep against Markham, the next series would bring with it tremendous emotion for Wong. Challenging the Calgary Inferno from October 28-29, there was a significant sense of homecoming, as the Inferno roster featured several players that Wong once called teammates.
From the outset, the Red Star emerged victorious in a 4-3 overtime final on October 28, as Annina Rajahuta, a member of the Finnish national team and an alumnae of the now defunct Burlington Barracudas, logged the game-winning tally. Not only did it signify the first win in franchise history, the Vanke Rays, another expansion squad from China, would gain their first win on the same day, defeating the Toronto Furies in a 3-0 final.
The following day, Wong would record her first point in Red Star colors, gaining an assist on a third period goal scored by Kelli Stack, who captured a Clarkson Cup in 2013 as a member of Murphy’s Boston Blades roster.
Coincidentally, Wong’s last point in CWHL play prior to joining the Red Star took place exactly one year earlier on October 29, 2016. With the Inferno enjoying an 8-0 blanking of the Blades, Wong gained a pair of assists. In unique fashion, Wong’s assists were on the first and last goals of the game, scored by Brittany Esposito and Jenna Cunningham.
A three-game series against Les Canadiennes de Montreal resulted in Wong hitting her offensive stride. In a Remembrance Day match that was hosted at the Bell Centre, it brought her storied career full circle. As the inaugural CWHL All-Star Game was also hosted on NHL ice (at Toronto’s Air Canada Centre), the chance to compete in Montreal’s NHL venue, with Murphy as her coach once again, provided the wondrous Wong with another proud milestone.
Recording the first goal of her Red Star career, there was another connection to the Inferno. Scoring against Canadiennes’ goaltender Emerance Maschmeyer, the two were actually teammates during Wong’s final season with the Inferno. Taking into account that both have played for Canada’s Under-22/Development team, the NHL venue was truly testament to their world class skills.
The Remembrance Day match was one filled with history for a valiant Red Star roster. Among such a series of highlights in a memorable game, Melanie Jue scored the first goal of her CWHL career, while Stephanie Anderson, who gained one of the assists on the goal, recorded her first point in CWHL play.
With the score tied at 1-apiece heading into the third period, Wong would also find the back of the net. Scoring at the 6:01 mark of the third period, it provided the Red Star with their first lead of the game, as Rachel Llanes and Jue both earned the assists. As a side note, Jue’s assist was also the first in her CWHL career.
Before the period would expire, Stack would add a goal for a 3-1 final, as Wong’s goal stood as the game-winning tally. Wong’s goal would yield tremendous dividends in another unique way. Yuqing Wang gained the victory for the Red Star, becoming the first Asian-born goaltender to win a game in CWHL history. Fittingly, Wong would be recognized as the Second Star of the Game.
Wong’s playmaking skills were essential in keeping the Red Star competitive against the defending Clarkson Cup champions on November 12. With the Canadiennes holding a 2-0 lead, Wong would help lead the way. Merely 36 seconds after Noemie Marin’s goal, providing her team with the two-goal advantage, Wong recorded the assist on Madison Woo’s first goal of her CWHL career.
With more than five minutes of scoreless play to start the second period, Jue would score at the 6:43 mark in the second, with Wong earning the assist. As a side note, France’s Laurence Beaulieu would score her first career goal later in the period, as Montreal broke the 2-2 deadlock.
In spite of the Canadiennes prevailing in a 5-3 final, there was definitely the development of offensive synergy between Jue and Wong, who shall be expected to help shoulder some of the offensive load for this promising team. With a game that also resulted in Madison Woo gaining the first goal and assist in her CWHL career, it was another reassuring sign that the Red Star are headed in a positive direction.
After such an arduous road trip, a November 18 match against the Toronto Furies signified the Red Star’s home opener. Rising to the occasion, Wong would shine in a brilliant 3-1 victory, mirroring the final score of the epic win against Montreal a few days earlier.
Similar to the Bell Centre match against Montreal, the Red Star entered the third period versus Toronto with the score tied 1-1. Once again, Wong provided the winning touch. Gaining the assist on Shiann Darkangelo’s goal, Alaska native Zoe Hickel would score on Furies backstop Sonia van der Bliek 92 seconds later, placing the game out of reach.
Once again factoring into the game-winning goal, the chance for Wong to contribute in such a meaningful way represented a dual accomplishment. In addition to helping the Red Star win their first game on home ice, it added luster to the sense of paying homage to her family roots, adding an exciting dimension to a season that may stand as the most cherished in Wong’s distinguished hockey odyssey.
“All quotes obtained first hand unless otherwise indicated”
Photo credit: Austin Bartolomei-Hill and Visual China