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Melanie Jue helps China’s Vanke Rays to first league championship

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Sandwiched in between Melanie Jue’s appearances at ISBHF World Championships for Canada was the chance to be part of an exciting new era for professional women’s ice hockey. With the summer of 2017 marking the CWHL’s expansion into China, welcoming the Kunlun Red Star and the Vanke Rays, both based out of Shenzhen, one of the nation’s largest cities with a population of over 12 million. Indubitably, the opportunity marked a unique intersection for Jue, tapping into history and heritage, finding a tremendous motivation and purpose for a new chapter in hockey journey.

Joining the likes of Shiann Darkangelo, Rachel Llanes, Noora Raty, Kelli Stack and Jessica Wong, among others, Jue would be part of the core for the Kunlun Red Star, simultaneously becoming ambassadors for the game’s resurgence in China. Along with Wong and Madison (Maddie) Woo, they were classified by the franchise as Heritage Players, as all had Chinese ancestry. Decked out in a sharp red and gold jersey, a golden dragon draped around a red star adorning the front of the jersey, it quickly become one of the most stylish accoutrements in hockey.

With the arrival of Alexandra Carpenter, an alum of the US National Team joining the Red Star later in their inaugural season, the franchise quickly became one of the elites, disrupting the league’s traditional balance of power. Taking into account that this marked Jue’s return to competitive play since her last season (2009-10) with Cornell, she provided an exceptional effort. Appearing in 28 games, Jue, playing on the defensive unit, would rack up a respectable total of 10 points, highlighted by seven wins on home ice, while competing in all of the franchise’s playoff games.

Qualifying for the 2018 Clarkson Cup Finals, the Red Star aspired to be the first expansion team to win a championship in CWHL lore. As a side note, another celebrated expansion team, the NHL’s Vegas Golden Knights reached the Stanley Cup Finals in 2018, providing a unique parallel, accentuating a season, which absolutely redefined the hockey landscape.

For Jue and her Red Star teammates, the prospect of hoisting the Clarkson Cup certainly was within reach. With Raty becoming the first European to capture the CWHL’s Goaltender of the Year Award, while Stack left her own mark as the first American to finish atop the league’s scoring race, there was definitely a strong sense of momentum. Combined with the belief that the championship was a distinct possibility, it could elevate the game to greater heights in the Pacific.

Challenging the Thunder, who completed their first season in Markham, after more than two decades in Brampton, neither team had ever won a Clarkson Cup, allowing for a very unique scenario in Cup lore. Emotions certainly ran high throughout this tightly contested match, one that took on the luster of a classic, as overtime was required to decide a winner. Unfortunately, a title was not yet meant to be for the ambitious Red Star, with Laura Stacey scoring in overtime.

Such a visceral moment also proved to be a turning point. With Stack not competing in 2018-19, Darkangelo signing with the Furies, plus Digit Murphy, one of the franchise’s key architects, not returning to her role as head coach, it was an ominous sign. Compounded by the fact that both teams amalgamated to become the Shenzhen KRS Vanke Rays, it resulted in over 20 players losing an opportunity to pursue their professional aspirations.

Remaining with the franchise, Jue, alongside Carpenter, Llanes, Raty and Wong remained the foundation. Although there was a sense of satisfaction in the fact that the new-look Rays defeated the Thunder in a rematch on October 25, 2018, prevailing in a 3-2 final contested at Hamilton, Ontario’s Morgan Firestone Arena, a return to the postseason was not in the cards, unable to avenge their overtime Finals loss from a year prior. Yet, their legacy would take on a completely different meaning, symbolizing an amazing endurance, which certainly became one of the defining features of the proud franchise and its players from the inaugural season.

With the highly unexpected announcement that the CWHL abruptly folded following the 2019 Clarkson Cup Finals, the Rays remained intact, their resiliency and perseverance its keystones. Announcing the hiring of Brian Idalski, who made his mark with the North Dakota Fighting Sioux, whose teams were stocked with the discovery of highly talented recruits from all corners of Europe, he was the ideal choice as Rays head coach, another of the game’s global citizens.

Certainly, there was a North Dakota flavor on the Rays roster, as alumnae Rebekah Kolstad and Amy Menke joined the franchise this season. As a side note, there was also a unique coincidence, as Krzyzaniak, a player coached by Jue at POE would compete at the NCAA level for Idalski at North Dakota, recording 139 appearances.

Finding a new home in the Russian Women’s Hockey League, first established in 2014, the Rays continued their winning ways, finishing second overall in the regular season standings. Maintaining her role as an integral member of the Rays roster, Jue was joined by the likes of Carpenter, Raty, Llanes and Wong in making the move to competing against Russian-based teams, maintaining their shared legacy as franchise foundations.

Noting how the styles of play presented a series of varied contrasts, the common ground existed in a fundamentally sound approach. Although the league did not have the abundance of Canadian and American players, which were found “en masse” in the CWHL, a cerebral approach remained highly necessary, devising strategy and developing an ability to read the opposing style of play. Certainly, the most important element remained an opportunity to continue growing the game and creating opportunities, one in which Jue was proud to be able to ply her trade in Russia.

“I think there is a vast difference between the CWHL and Russian league style of play. I think the CWHL was a faster more physically demanding game with some very high-end world-class hockey players. With that being said, I personally think the WHL had more overall individual skill, I am not talking about dancing around defence kind of skill, though there were certainly players that could do that, I mean more from a fundamental stand point.

The way they manipulated lanes, protected the puck, skated deceptively, subtle skills most if not all the Russian players possessed to some degree. From a roster perspective, I think the CWHL had more depth throughout the teams, with teams often carrying three very formidable lines.

To compensate for this, teams in the WHL have to be more strategic tactically. There was often more ‘gamesmanship’ in the WHL with closer attention to line matching, exploiting last change and systems. Overall, I think the league they have in Russia is doing its best to promote the women’s game. It is a professionally run league and very well organized.”

Vanke Rays Championship

Photo: Vanke Rays/Russian Women’s Hockey League

Finishing second overall in the league standings, all of the Rays postseason games would take place in Russia. This scenario was one, which mirrored the first playoff run of the franchise, as the 2018 Clarkson Cup playoff games all took place in the province of Ontario.

Certainly, the postseason was one defined by momentum for Jue. Having logged only three assists in regular season play, Jue played with an even stronger sense of purpose in the postseason. Recording four assists, the Rays reached the Russian League championship game after eliminating Tornado Moscow, one of the league’s signature teams.

Opposing the two-time defending champion Agidel Ufa, the result was a highly emotional 4-2 triumph, an elusive championship attained. The match also presented a storybook finish for the proud franchise. Just a few weeks earlier, a January 19, 2020 home tilt versus the visiting Agidel Ufa club saw a league-record crowd of 4,100, smashing an attendance mark set the previous day, which saw 3,788 fans pass through the turnstiles.

Jue, akin to numerous others on the Rays, also experienced the milestone of appearing in a championship game in two different leagues with the franchise. In the last decade, the only other team to have reached this rare double were the Minnesota Whitecaps, winning the Clarkson Cup in 2010, and the Isobel Cup in 2019. As a side note, Winny Brodt-Brown and Brooke White-Lancette were part of both championship teams.

After the heartbreak of the 2018 Clarkson Cup, the elation of the championship summit provided a strong sense of personal satisfaction, simultaneously providing an important and highly meaningful moment in China’s unfolding, evolving hockey heritage. Yet, the achievement brought with it a pair of unique coincidences that not even a Hollywood film could conceive.

From the outset, Wong and Jue actually crossed paths in the 2010 NCAA Frozen Four Finals, as Wong skated for the opposing Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs. Additionally, it was Wong, raised in Baddeck, Nova Scotia, and an alum of Canada’s Under-22/Developmental Team, that scored against Cornell goaltender Amanda Mazzotta in overtime.

While Wong and Jue would become teammates for the 2018 Clarkson Cup Finals, a member of the opposing team would play a huge role in 2020. Megan Bozek, one of the winningest players of her generation, whose remarkable career includes the Isobel Cup, the NCAA Frozen Four, the IIHF World Championship and Winter Games silver, was also a member of the Markham Thunder’s 2018 Clarkson Cup championship team. Joining the Rays midway through the season, the achievement of a Russian league title, made her the only player to have won championships in the CWHL, NWHL and Russia.

With the calendar year of 2019 having seen Jue capture the ISBHF World Championship, the glory of her first professional ice hockey championship with the Rays in 2020 marked an exhilarating bookend, few players able to boast of two consecutive major hockey championships. Reflecting on such an outstanding personal achievement, memories of former teammates quickly flooded Jue’s thoughts. Remembering the players who contributed to the franchise in its infancy, the championship of 2020 pays homage to their efforts, strengthening the culture of unity and belonging, values that enveloped from its opening faceoff in autumn 2017.

“It is an honour to finally be able to pay homage to all of the people who have been part of the KRS program since its inception. We have obviously had our ups and downs each season and in different iterations of KRS, but every person that had been a part of the program at any point had a huge impact on our success in the WHL.

During our inaugural season, we came so close to winning the CWHL Championship with world class players such as Kelli Stack, Shiann Darkangelo, Zoe Hickel, Taylor Marchin, Annina Rajahuta, and Steph Anderson. Even though they are not with us anymore, they laid the foundation and set the standard for where we are now.

It is also really special to give our organization and China something tangible to be proud of. It is one thing to build and develop a team—which is honourable in and of itself—but it is often hard to see the forest through the trees. Winning a league championship lends validation to what we have been doing over the past few years.”

”All quotes obtained first hand unless otherwise indicated”

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