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From CWHL to Russia: Jessica Wong wins WHL Championship with Vanke Rays

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Selected with the first pick overall in the 2013 CWHL Draft, the arrival of Jessica Wong marked a turning point in the history of the Calgary Inferno. Part of a draft class which included the likes of goaltender Delayne Brian, Rhianna Kurio and Jacquie Pierri, the pieces towards building a Clarkson Cup championship contender were falling into place.

Although Wong, the product of Baddeck, Nova Scotia would only make her CWHL debut on January 12, 2014, she paid immediate dividends, recording a pair of assists in a 2-1 road win versus the Toronto Furies. For her efforts, Wong gained recognition as the Second Star of the Game, earning another milestone in her debut.

Starting her CWHL career with a three-game scoring streak, the results throughout the progression of the season included a respectable nine points in 12 games played. Providing consistency in the second half of the season, Wong solidified an Inferno blueline altered due to the absence of numerous players competing at the 2014 Winter Games, including Meaghan Mikkelson and Tara Watchorn.

Contributing towards the Inferno qualifying for their first-ever postseason berth, Wong’s efforts were rewarded with a place on the 2013-14 CWHL All-Rookie Team. Joined by teammates including Delayne Brian, along with Alyssa Baldin of the Toronto Furies, there was also a trio of Boston Blades rookies gaining the honor. Among them were Blake Bolden, Jill Cardella and Jillian Dempsey, the league’s Rookie of the Year Award winner.

(L-R): Rhianna Kurio, Rebecca Johnston and Jessica Wong in the jersey of the Calgary Inferno (Photo credit: Dave Holland)

Worth noting, Wong and Bolden were both part of a significant chapter in CWHL Draft history. From the outset, Wong became the first visible minority selected first overall. Bolden, selected by the Blades with the fifth overall pick was the first African-American player taken in the first round.

Coincidentally, the two also gained another postseason honour. Bolden would join Dempsey on the CWHL First-Team All-Stars, while Wong and teammate Jenna Cunningham earned recognition as Second-Team All-Stars. As a side note, fellow All-Rookie team selection Baldin also ended her season with the status of Second-Team All-Star.

Before 2014 ended, Wong experienced another hallowed highlight. Among the participants named to the inaugural CWHL All-Star Game at Toronto’s Air Canada Centre (ACC), home of the NHL’s Maple Leafs, Team Red captain Charline Labonte with her 13th pick in the Frozen Fantasy All-Star Draft selected Wong.

In addition to Team Red prevailing, with the game-winning goal scored by Inferno teammate Rebecca Johnston, there was a subplot, which added to the jubilation of skating in such a historic event. Having grown up as a fan of the Toronto Maple Leafs, the chance to not only grace NHL ice, but to compete on the home ice of her favorite team in one of her grandest career highlights reached a surreal level of elation.

Fittingly, before Wong’s CWHL career expired, the opportunity to return to the CWHL All-Star Game presented an exciting denouement. Participating in the 2019 edition of the All-Star extravaganza, which proved to be the last in league history, it was also contested at Toronto’s ACC, although the venue now hand the nomenclature of Scotiabank Centre.

Skating for Team Gold, led by team captain Liz Knox, Wong gained a well-deserved place on the starting lineup. Although the novelty of the event is that the All-Star rosters will pit traditional teammates against one another, as Hannah Miller and Cayley Mercer from KRS skated for Team Purple, Wong also gained the opportunity to skate alongside former familiar faces from the Inferno, including Brianne Jenner, who scored a hat trick in an 8-4 win for Team Gold, and Rebecca Johnston, calling them teammates for one more day,

“It was an honour to attend the (final) All-Star Game! I think my favourite part was just being able to see all my old friends/ teammates that I have known for years and being able to play with against the best and with the best at the Scotiabank (Centre)! Big thanks to my favourite hockey team (Maple Leafs) for everything they did for the CWHL!”

Building on such a solid rookie campaign, Wong recorded 13 points, highlighted by a strong display of playmaking skills with 11 assists. Returning to the postseason, it marked an exceptional progression for Wong and the Inferno.

Sadly, Wong would not return to the Inferno for their Clarkson Cup championship season in 2015-16. With a team that featured fellow stars from Atlantic Canada, including Sarah Davis, Jillian Saulnier and Blayre Turnbull, who scored the game-winning goal in the Clarkson Cup Finals, Wong’s career appeared to have reached an abrupt conclusion with concussion woes.

Remaining a resident of Calgary, employed with Hockey Canada, the summer of 2017 would see Wong’s career experience a fascinating rejuvenation. Coming out of a premature retirement, Wong became part of a highly unexpected yet fascinating chapter in league history, simultaneously gaining a treasured opportunity to be closer to her heritage. Worth noting, her cousin Peter Campbell, is also a professional athlete abroad, having captured the 2018 Beijing Championship Golf Tournament as a competitor on the PGA Tour’s circuit in China, the homeland of their grandmother.

(L-R) Wong, Kelli Stack and Noora Raty in the Kunlun Red Star jerseys at an introductory Press Conference at Toronto’s Hockey Hall of Fame. Photo credit: Chris Tanouye

In a surprise announcement at the Hockey Hall of Fame, the onset of the 2017-18 CWHL season would herald the arrival of the expansion Kunlun Red Star and Vanke Rays, both based out of the southeastern city of Shenzhen, China, boasting a population of more than 12 million residents. Transforming the CWHL into a three-nation league, Wong emerged as one of the signature acquisitions of the Red Star.

Featuring a star-studded roster, including the likes of All-World talents Kelli Stack and Noora Raty, along with Alexandra Carpenter, Shiann Darkangelo, Melanie Jue, Rachel Llanes, who initially joined the club as the strength and conditioning coach, plus Annina Rajahuhta, Wong fit right in. Providing a veteran leadership, her value quickly defined by CWHL Player of the Month honours for December 2017. She also gained the opportunity to play for head coach Digit Murphy, a two-time Clarkson Cup champion coach and the coach for Team Red in the inaugural CWHL All-Star Game, Murphy provided Wong with high praise in a profile for the Calgary Sun, referring to her as a “dynamite human”.

Reaching the Clarkson Cup Finals in their first season, the Red Star hoped to become the first expansion team to hoist the hallowed chalice. Challenging the Markham Thunder, the theme of firsts emerged again, as it marked the Thunder’s inaugural season in the York Region city, after calling Brampton home in prior seasons. Forcing overtime against the Thunder, a highly intense match saw third generation player Laura Stacey spoil the Red Star’s Cup aspirations, scoring the Cup-winning goal.

In spite of the overtime loss, it should have been the springboard towards loftier heights. Instead, a downward spiral ensued, as another unexpected announcement regarding China’s teams took place. For the 2018-19 CWHL season, the Red Star and Rays amalgamated, becoming the KRS Shenzhen Vanke Rays (KRS), reducing the number of teams in the league from seven to six.

Compounding such a difficult situation was the fact that the iconic Murphy would not be returning as head coach. Replacing Murphy was another coach with strong New England hockey roots, as former Providence Friars head coach Bob Deraney took the reins. Additionally, Kelli Stack, the first American-born player to win the Angela James Bowl, achieving the feat with KRS remained stateside, not returning across the Pacific, playing what proved to be her final season of professional hockey. As a side note, the Boston Blades, a team that saw Murphy and Stack contribute towards Cup championships, were relocating to Worcester, Massachusetts. Along with a new commissioner in place, change quickly emerged as the predominant theme of said season.

(L-R) Hanna Bunton, Hannah Miller, Noora Raty, Cayley Mercer, Alexandra Carpenter and Jessica Wong. Shenzhen KRS competitors at the 2019 CWHL All-Star Game (Image obtained from Facebook)

With the Chinese rivals merging into one team, welcoming notable Rays players such as Hanna Bunton and Cayley Mercer into the fold, Wong quickly dismissed any concerns over chemistry or positive attitudes eroding. Reflecting on the new reality, a revamped roster gracing the ice, her observations encompassed a strong feeling of unity, the transformed franchise loyal to the goal of raising awareness of professional women’s ice hockey in China.

“Really, it was no different, we still had the same mission and goals as we did the year before. The only difference was having one less team.”

Although the KRS remained in contention for a postseason spot until the final month of the season, a return to the Clarkson Cup tournament was not meant to be. In a tinge of irony, KRS tied with the Furies for the final playoff spot. Although the Furies scored fewer goals, only 64, compared to the 79 scored by KRS, they ended up with one more win, denying KRS an opportunity to try to return to the Finals. The woes of a season also involved the fact that Wong’s point totals suffered, dipping from 24 to 15 points, while the goals scored went down from a sensational 10 in 2017-18 to just three in 2018-19.

Through such turbulence, Wong maintained a constant for KRS, employing tremendous professionalism and a highly commendable dedication to her teammates and the team’s success. With China serving as host country for the 2022 Winter Games, automatically gaining a berth in the women’s ice hockey tournament, Wong’s presence with KRS, emerging as a highly inspiring ambassador for the league and game alike, represented a highly important facet in the game’s growth there.

From a cultural perspective, there has also been the opportunity to mingle with fans, enlightening them on the game’s nuances while encouraging them to participate in the sport. Graciously giving her time to provide instruction, Wong confers how the social element, with teammates and fans alike, has been highly rewarding, supplying a joy that made the second half of her CWHL career one of the greatest chapters of her hockey odyssey.

“My second season with KRS was again a great experience and something I am grateful for. No complaints. The fan base seems to be getting a bit better every year.

More people see us on the street and will try to communicate knowing that we are playing a sport on ice! But, all laughs aside, we are getting the community really involved, putting learn to skate (programs), and getting schools to come with young children to learn the basics and get the sport out there.

Looking back on the season, I think my favourite experience would be being able to meet the good bunch of girls that we had! I think the last two years, I was able to meet some of my best friends that I will have for life!”

Taking into account how the season started for KRS, as fans were shocked by the sudden turn of events following a highly promising inaugural season for both franchises, it certainly appeared to be a highly ominous sign, as the league announced its closure just a few days following the 2019 Clarkson Cup Finals.

Through it all, the KRS remain an integral part of the professional women’s ice hockey landscape. Undeterred by the outcome of the CWHL experience, the team aligned itself with Russia’s Women’s Hockey League, created in 2014 as a collaboration by the Ice Hockey Federation of Russia and the men’s Kontinental Hockey League (KHL), establishing a legacy as the only CWHL team still in existence.

Shenzhen KRS Vanke Rays celebrate following their 2020 Russian Women’s Hockey League Championship (Image obtained from: https://www.facebook.com/ShenzhenKRS/)

Taking into account that the men’s Kunlun Red Star, coached by former NHL competitor Curt Fraser participates in the KHL, it is only fitting that their sister franchise also compete in a Russian based league. With only eight teams in the women’s league, the KRS franchise, which still features Wong on its roster, captured the league championship in its inaugural season, supplanting the two-time defending champions, Agidel Ufa in a 4-2 final.

Wong, who appeared in six regular season games, but appeared in every playoff game, is one of numerous former KRS players from the CWHL seasons to play in Russia, including the likes of Alexandra Carpenter, the league’s scoring champion with 54 points, Rachel Llanes, who celebrated the milestone of her 150th professional game this season, and Noora Raty among others. Coincidentally, Megan Bozek, a member of the Markham Thunder roster that defeated KRS in the 2018 Clarkson Cup Finals also skated for KRS during its championship season. Coached by Brian Idalski, the former bench boss with the University of North Dakota and celebrated supporter of the international female game, a title marked a proud milestone in his distinguished career.

The sense of milestone is one also prevalent with Wong. After missing the Inferno’s championship season in 2015-16, along with the highly visceral loss in the 2018 Clarkson Cup Finals, the jubilation of the Russian League championship is one ten years in the making. Having last won a major championship with the UMD Bulldogs at the 2010 Frozen Four, scoring the championship-winning goal in overtime against Cornell (which featured current KRS teammate Melanie Jue on their roster), a championship one decade later stands as the crowning touch, bringing a celebrated closure to the championship dream of KRS.

“All quotes obtained first hand unless otherwise indicated”

Featured image credit: Shenzhen KRS Vanke Rays

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