With a thrilling hockey journey, that has spanned three leagues, an equal number of championships and the chance to participate in the Women’s Winter Classic, the 2019-20 season supplied Rachel Llanes with another celebrated milestone. Among the veteran leaders for the KRS Shenzhen Vanke Rays (KRS) franchise, who began play in the Russian Women’s Hockey League following two seasons spent in the former CWHL, Llanes’ legacy, highlighted by a revered standing as an ambassador for the game, took on a greater lustre.
Reaching the 150-games played milestone as a professional this season, enhanced by the fact that Llanes also holds standing as a charter member of KRS, the milestone presented an opportunity for celebration. Upon her arrival, a collection of memorabilia adorned Llanes’ locker, including a thoughtful placard, signed by her teammates, serving as a tremendous keepsake.
“I was surprised more than anything. I had no idea anybody was keeping track. Got a little emotional about it because it forced me to reflect on my last seven years of pro hockey and really understand how lucky I am to still be able to compete at a high level and make a career out of it. I had no idea how many games I have played.”
Just as impactful for a jubilant Llanes was the remarkable show of support on social media. On numerous platforms, friends, family, former teammates and fans spanning numerous stages of her exceptional sporting journey shared their thoughts, congratulating and praising an exceptional competitor whose career was constructed on values such as fair play, work ethic and a commitment to constantly contributing towards providing her team with a chance to succeed.
“It is always nice to be appreciated and valued. To me, it does not seem like a big deal because being a professional is just what I am, but now I understand that I am playing a part in paving the way for future generations. Not being part of a national team my entire career, you take a back seat to those who are on one and that is usually who social media focuses on.”
Raised in San Jose, California, Llanes’ hockey journey would initially take her eastwards, committing to the Boston-based Northeastern University Huskies. During her time in Huskies, highlighted by participating in an outdoor game at Fenway Park in 2010, the first in NCAA female hockey history, she also played alongside a remarkable Who’s Who of Women’s Hockey, accentuating a golden era for the program.
Among them included the likes of Dani Rylan, the eventual founder of the NWHL, future Clarkson Cup champions Brittany Esposito and Casey Pickett, Chelsey Goldberg, a member of the Jewish Sports Hall of Fame. Additionally, other teammates in the Northeastern black and red jersey included goaltender Florence Schelling, the first General Manager in men’s pro hockey, ascending to the position with SC Bern, Kendall Coyne Schofield, a Winter Games gold medalist and Lucie Povova, a member of the Czech Republic National team.
Graduating to the professional ranks in 2013, having reached the Huskies 100-point club, Llanes was the 30th pick overall in that year’s CWHL Draft. Part of a superlative Boston Blades draft class which included Blake Bolden, Jillian Dempsey, the eventual CWHL Rookie of the Year, fellow Huskies alum Casey Pickett, goaltender Brittany Ott and Kelly Cooke, it stands as one of the greatest in franchise history.
Competing for iconic head coach Digit Murphy, Llanes racked up a solid 23 regular season appearances, accumulating a respectable 12 points. Wrapping up her first professional season with an appearance in the 2014 Clarkson Cup Finals, the Blades faced off against the fourth seeded Toronto Furies. Although the Furies would prevail in a thrilling 1-0 overtime final, Llanes and the Blades would return to the Finals in 2015, meeting the Montreal Stars for the second time in three years.
Coincidentally, overtime would be required once again, as Blades’ rookie Janine Weber became the first European player to score a Clarkson Cup clinching goal, putting the puck past CWHL Goaltender of the Year Charline Labonte in a highly emotional victory.
Following the triumph of the Clarkson Cup, which proved to be the exclamation point to the Blades’ halcyon days, Llanes, Weber and a group of other players would find greener pastures in the formation of the new NWHL, an American-based league. Signing with the Boston Pride franchise, Llanes was reunited with a handful of former Blades teammates, including the likes of Kacey Bellamy, Corinne Buie, Blake Bolden, Kelly Cooke, Brianna Decker, Cherie Hendrickson, Denna Laing and Brittany Ott, among others.
Appearing in 17 regular season games during the inaugural NWHL campaign, one game that held significant meaning for Llanes was the opportunity to compete in the Women’s Winter Classic. Signifying the first-ever outdoor professional women’s game, allowing Llanes to make history twice, complementing her appearance at Frozen Fenway, it also marked the first (and only) meeting between the CWHL and NWHL, as the Pride shared the ice with Les Canadiennes de Montreal. Coincidentally, the Winter Classic also took place in Massachusetts, as Gillette Stadium, home of the NFL’s New England Patriots, served as the venue for this empowering display of hockey brilliance.
Before Llanes’ NWHL career would expire, she would hoist the Isobel Cup, placing her in the pantheon of celebrated skaters that have won both, the Clarkson and the Isobel Cups in a career. Although her hockey narrative involved a return to the CWHL, it was only part of a much grander narrative. With the league announcing in the summer of 2017 that a pair of expansion teams from China, the Kunlun Red Star and the Vanke Rays, would begin playing for the 2017-18 season, it propelled Llanes towards an exciting new chapter.
Originally meant to be the Strength and Conditioning Coach for the Kunlun Red Star, Llanes was back on skates, a key contributor towards the franchise appearing in the Clarkson Cup Finals, joining the Toronto Furies (2011) as the only teams to play for the Cup in their inaugural season. Playing for head coach Murphy once again, the season allowed her the opportunity to call the likes of Jessica Wong, a former first overall pick by the Calgary Inferno in 2014, Melanie Jue, a Cornell graduate and prominent Canadian ball hockey player, and Noora Raty, a longtime mainstay on Finland’s national team.
During the first Red Star season, Llanes also enjoyed the opportunity to share the experience of playing professionally on an international scale with another prominent New England hockey star. Boston College all-time leading scorer Alex Carpenter was also a member of the Boston Pride during the 2016-17 NWHL season, like Llanes, recording a strong 29 points in merely 17 games played.
Joining the Kunlun Red Star following 10 appearances with the US National Team, it marked the second time that Carpenter and Llanes became teammates. With Carpenter leading the team in scoring in 2018-19, amassing an impressive 31 points, one of the league’s top scorers, she followed it up with the honor of the team captaincy in 2019-20. Establishing a franchise record with 53 points, on the strength of 32 assists, (Llanes would record 42 points in 2019-20), she would be a highly influential and admired teammate during Llanes tenure with the franchise, enriching the strong feeling of family that defines the culture,
“There are not many players I have played with and against in my professional career that I can say are professionals as well. They play with a chip on their shoulder and work at 100% every practice and every shift, they go through the grind of having to commute to their full time jobs and find other hours in the day to train and practice and they do their part to grow the game.
I wish I could still play some of the teammates I played with back in 2014 for the Blades and through the NWHL with the Pride especially in this setting, they all continue to do so much to grow the game back in North America. I have the most respect for Alex Carpenter as we both played a year on the Boston Pride together and what resonates with me most is her showing up to every practice even when salaries were cut and other teammates found it easier to skate earlier in the day and just show up for games.
She would skate with that same group of national team players earlier in the day and still show up for our late night practices and suffer through the Boston commute as well. I’m thankful to have shared the last three seasons in China with her.
We have had the same equipment manager for the last three seasons and although that does not seem long, it is for our company, (especially) when you have rolled through new coaches and support staff every year. Steph allows us just to focus on our game when we come to the rink, her attention to detail and passion for her job is unmatched and for her to go out of her way to make a big deal out of 150 games for me is definitely special.”
The off-season following the visceral Finals loss would bring with it a highly eventful announcement as the Red Star and Rays merged, becoming the KRS Shenzhen Vanke Rays. Remaining an integral part of the new-look roster, Llanes was among its core, which included Carpenter, Jue, Raty and Wong, their combined presence integral in keeping the franchise competitive. Fittingly, all four would be named to the 2019 CWHL All-Star Game. As a side note, Llanes was inactive due to injury, replaced by Cayley Mercer, who played with Hannah Miller on Team Purple. The KRS skaters opposing them on Team Gold included Hanna Bunton, who skated for the Vanke Rays in 2017-18, Carptener and Wong.
Tied with the Toronto Furies for the final playoff spot, the Furies qualifying over a tie-breaker, the feeling of disappointment was only surpassed by the very shocking revelation that the league would cease operations in the aftermath of the 2019 Clarkson Cup Finals.
Despite the closure of the CWHL, the KRS franchise remains an integral component in the women’s hockey landscape. Providing China with professional reputation, coached by the highly accomplished Brian Idalski, the fact that they are the last CWHL franchise that still exists speaks volumes to their persistence and continued dedication to growing the game in the Pacific Rim, led by a solid management team highly dedicated to winning. Fittingly, home dates for KRS featured attendance of over 3,000 fans, setting Russian league records.
— Kunlun Red Star (@KRSchina) January 19, 2020
Holding membership in the Russian Women’s Hockey League (in partnership with the Kontinental Hockey League), KRS continues its standing as one of the world’s finest hockey clubs. Considering that Llanes remains one of the charter members still garbed in KRS paraphernalia represents a very strong point of pride to player and team alike. Fittingly, Llanes followed up on her CWHL All-Star nod with the opportunity to participate in the KHL All-Star Game, enhancing her status as a franchise luminary and world-class competitor.
Considering that Beijing, China shall serve as host city for the 2022 Winter Games, the continued presence of KRS stands as an integral facet in raising awareness of the game’s growth, while giving the nation’s citizens a club team to cheer for and its young skaters a group of exceptional players to emulate. Undeniably, growth has also been a significant theme in the individual careers of players such as Llanes, reach new heights as hockey heroes in the Pacific Rim.
“I am definitely grateful for KRS providing the opportunity to grow women’s professional hockey. The company is growing the sport in China and helping develop Chinese players for the 2022 Olympics and beyond. I have seen a lot of growth in my game the last three years with KRS and it is something I never thought would be possible until I decided to take the leap with Digit Murphy during our first season in China.
Unfortunately, she is not with the program anymore which is disappointing because her vision of the future for Chinese hockey truly inspired me to continue my playing career, but most importantly share my skills and knowledge to help the Chinese develop.
Most of my on-ice success is because KRS provides the livable salary, ice, training facilities and competition, I am also fortunate to have Mel Jue on the team to help with my skill development and I have a background and continue to educate my self for performance nutrition and strength and conditioning.
All I need to worry about is producing and helping my team win. It is pretty easy to do when you surround yourself with the right teammates and have an experienced equipment manager who belongs in the NHL, along with some staff members who make traveling and accommodations smooth, so again we only need to worry about playing.”
View from the 🔝 pic.twitter.com/eu5EwdYA7A
— Shenzhen KRS Vanke Rays (@KRSVankeRays) March 11, 2020
Winning is exactly what occurred during the 2019-20 season, as the KRS franchise enjoyed its first-ever championship. Securing the second overall spot in the regular season, perhaps the most impressive aspect was the fact that the last home game for KRS took place on January 23, enjoying a convincing 6-1 victory over SKSO Yekaterinburg.
The rest of the regular season for KRS (including playoffs), would take place in Russia. Taking into account that the playoff run from their first CWHL season involved playing all games in the province of Ontario, they had long grown accustomed to being “road warriors”.
Going undefeated throughout the postseason, the teams that KRS bested solidified their standing as champions. The semi-finals resulted in the elimination of nine-time champion Tornado Dmitrov. Wresting the title away from Agidel Ufa, the defending champion, in the Finals, it provided Llanes with the third championship of her professional career.
Looking back on the monumental milestone of 150 professional games, spanning three different leagues, competing in her native United States, Canada, China and Russia, the journey has been just as profound and treasured as the achievements themselves. Discussing the most enjoyable aspects of playing the sport she loves at such a high level, the social element has proven to be just as integral as the on-ice glories.
“I have enjoyed being able to grow as a person, with all the new managers, coaches, teammates, staff competition and experiences I have received the last seven years; I am truly blessed with lessons learned and lifelong friends and memories.
One of my teammates mentioned I need to write a book because what I have experienced would allow me to teach a lot of things, but most of the experiences are just worth sharing.”
“All quotes obtained first hand unless otherwise indicated”
Featured image obtained from Facebook