With the announcement that China’s Kunlun Red Star women’s ice hockey club shall be competing in North America this upcoming season, a supplementing announcement somewhat flew under the radar. On any other day, the signings of All-World goaltender Noora Raty and Team USA superstar Kelli Stack to the same roster would certainly be headline news.
Instead, it was the epilogue to an eventful day, which saw the announcement of Kunlun Red Star ready to grace the ice take place at Toronto’s Hockey Hall of Fame. With the signing of two players most worthy of legendary status, this groundbreaking team has quickly shed its image as an expansion team. Such acquisitions certainly project the persona that no one shall be willing to settle for the typical expansion scenario, whereby placidity and tolerance of losing are customary. Although it is unmistakable that the backbone of this team for the long term shall be homegrown talent, with members of the national team crucial towards such realization, the immediate future is a statement that Red Star may conceivably become the first expansion team to capture the coveted Clarkson Cup.
As a side note, the announcement at the Hockey Hall of Fame also brought with it a unique instance of six degrees of hockey separation. Along with Red Star head coach Digit Murphy and former NHL coach and executive Mike Keenan, Phil Esposito is part of the team’s Advisory Board. Having spent the 1980s as a coach, broadcaster, coach and general manager with the New York Rangers, Esposito would become an unlikely luminary in shaping the future of women’s hockey.
After devoting three years of his life towards making the Tampa Bay Lightning a reality, Esposito turned the hockey world on its ear, employing a revolutionary vision by signing goaltender Manon Rheaume to a contract. Although she would compete during the Lightning’s inaugural season with their IHL farm club, the Atlanta Knights, her preseason game against the St. Louis Blues transformed her into an icon and a role model for future generations. Considering that so many players looked up to Rheaume, inspiring her to play the game, there was a serendipitous feeling to Esposito being on-hand to Red Star’s launch.
Today, there is another goaltender who holds a similar status as a revered role model. Considered by many to be the world’s greatest female goaltender, Noora Raty’s hockey odyssey takes an exciting new twist with her arrival in China. After backstopping the Minnesota Golden Gophers to an undefeated season, the first in NCAA women’s ice hockey history, her post-university career involved stops on both sides of the Atlantic. Standing between the pipes for the Minnesota Whitecaps, along with Russian women’s club SKIF Nizhny Novgorod, she has also played in her native Finland SKIF Kiekko-Vantaa, Bewe TuusKi, KJT and most recently Nokian Pyry. During her career in Finland, her most famous game involved taking on goaltender Meeri Raisanen, her teammate on the Finnish national team. Both starting for men’s teams in the Finnish third-league, Raty gained the start for KJT, who defeated Raisanen’s D-Kiekko by a 5-2 tally.
Making the ambitious move into the Pacific, it actually adds to a 2017 filled with momentum for a well-travelled Raty. Twice this year, Raty defeated Canada in international competition. The first took place in January, as Raty backstopped Finland to the gold medal in the Nations Cup, defeating Canada’s U22/Development Team in a 1-0 shutout. Considering that Canada’s goaltender was Emerance Maschmeyer, the projected starter for the Calgary Inferno in 2017-18, a rematch between these two should serve as one of the season’s highlights.
Raty’s other win against Canada took place on one of the game’s biggest stages. Defeating the senior team at the IIHF Women’s World Championships in Plymouth, Michigan, it represented the biggest win of her career. Considering that the victory took place on Jennifer Wakefield’s birthday, one of the forwards for Team Canada, there would be a tinge of irony if the Red Star could sign her as a free agent. Finishing the tournament with a bronze medal, along with Best Goaltender honors, Raty is still in the prime of her career, one that should yield tremendous results for Red Star.
It is also worth noting that China also developed its own world-class goaltender. In the 1990s, Hong Guo was the cornerstone of the Chinese national team. Known affectionately as the “Great Wall of China”, she was the game’s first Asian-born superstar. Among Guo’s remarkable achievements in the game, she would backstop the Chinese to the medal round at Nagano 1998, the first-ever women’s ice hockey tournament in the history of the Winter Games. Despite losing to Finland in the bronze medal game, China would also compete at the Winter Games in 2002 and 2006. Therefore, the national team does have a significant history. It has merely suffered a setback as other countries, notably Austria, Czech Republic, Germany, Japan and Switzerland have improved considerably.
With the Pyeongchang 2018 signifying the 20th anniversary of such a watershed moment in women’s ice hockey history, there is a sullen sense of loss with the fact that Kelli Stack was actually left off USA Hockey’s list of Centralized players. One of the greatest players to wear the Stars and Stripes, she remains one of the world’s finest. Officially the first player to sign a contract with Red Star, another historic feat in an extraordinary career, the USA’s loss represents a significant gain for China.
Having amassed an amazing list of achievements in her stellar career, the opportunity to compete in China goes beyond the luxury of getting the chance to experience another part of the world and its culture. Contributing towards the launch of something so meaningful from the ground up brings with it an amazing sense of achievement. It also allows her the chance to reunite with an influential figure in her professional career. Spending parts of three seasons with the Boston Blades, Stack and Digit Murphy were both part of the club’s first-ever Clarkson Cup championship. In addition, they would be among the numerous Blades representatives at the first women’s hockey All-Star Game contested at Toronto’s Air Canada Centre.
While Stack will certainly wear many hats with the Red Star; team leader, mentor, ambassador, the most important aspect may be the chance to enjoy playing the game. Considering that so much of her career was spent competing in high stakes games at numerous levels, most notably for gold at the international level, the Red Star presents a more tranquil approach.
Taking into account that Stack has already made history with the nascent Red Star, adding to her unforgettable international legacy, there is another unique aspect that may add luster to her inaugural season across the Pacific. During her first season with the Boston Blades, Stack lived up to her billing as a world-class superstar, breaking the team’s scoring record, one that still stands to this day. Not only would it come as no surprise if she set a similar scoring benchmark for the Red Star’s emerging franchise history, but there comes the exciting potential to lead the league in scoring, subsequently becoming the first American-born player to win the Angela James Bowl.
Worth mentioning, it is not only the US national team that will be deprived of Stack’s brilliance in 2017-18. Stack spent the last two seasons as one of the most celebrated and popular players in the newly launched, American-based NWHL. Participating in the league’s first two All-Star Games, Stack was also the highest paid player in the NWHL’s inaugural season. Although Stack is not the first player to leave the NWHL to sign with a rival league, the first was goaltender Amanda Makela, departing the Buffalo Beauts for Les Canadiennes de Montreal in the autumn of 2016, the thought of Stack no longer wearing the Connecticut Whale colors is one that will take time to absorb for New England hockey fans.
Undoubtedly, Stack would have been the focal point for the league in its upcoming third season, one where it shall endure the loss of many of its star players to American Centralization (which mirrors the situation for competitive hockey in Canada). Stack’s presence would have also established the Whale as the favorites for the 2018 Isobel Cup in a season that will now be defined by parity.
Although such a departure is a visceral loss for the team, the league, and its devastated fans, it opens up a spot on the Whale roster for a younger player who otherwise may not have been considered. In addition, it allows other rostered players the chance to gain more ice time and play a more prominent role in the offense, possibly growing as leaders and franchise players. This may be a very minor consolation, rushing any potential rebuilding, but the reality is that there is an abundance of amazing amount of talent at all levels of university hockey in North America, ensuring that the development of a new talent may not be such a long and arduous task.
Developing talent also remains a significant priority for the future of the Red Star. With the presence of a world-class coach like Murphy, a two-time Clarkson Cup champion who also won more than 300 games at the NCAA level, her sporting legacy also includes co-founding the UWLX, the first semi-professional women’s lacrosse league in the United States. With great acumen, she will provide a remarkable insight with regards to coaching, management and training. Possessing international experience that also includes serving in the IIHF’s Mentorship and Ambassador Program, she will ensure that the Chinese-born players are exposed to the best hockey possible, while developing as talented competitors, furthering a determined necessity to establish a foundation that will advance the game in China, emboldening a new generation of auspicious players with the concept that the future is within grasp, gaining the chance to shape it and contribute towards its ascendance.
Images obtained from cwhl.com