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A conversation with KRS head coach Digit Murphy

Kunlun Red Star’s head coach talks #OneLeague, Hilary Knight, what coaching in China has been like and more.

Digit Murphy is one game away from leading expansion team Kunlun Red Star to a Clarkson Cup championship in their inaugural season.
Al Saniuk

The Ice Garden spoke with Kunlun Red Star head coach Digit Murphy after her team’s regular season finale about a variety of topics, including her team making the playoffs, #OneLeague, and Knight’s signing in Montreal.

Murphy and the Red Star will play for the Clarkson Cup on Sunday at noon ET.

On Calgary and the fact that they got two of their Olympians back after PyeongChang...

“Yeah (we have Olympians)...the issue that we (KRS) have is we are limited by the amount of North Americans we have.”

Does that mean you’re rolling those (international) lines more?

“I think what happens is, you know we’re fine in the regular season, but we don’t have the depth that some of the other teams have, so that’s kind of what’s scary for us going in, and you know how we play. And you know the good news is we’re in pretty good shape, we’ve bene playing with those lines all year, hopefully the chemistry is a good thing for us, because these teams have to disrupt that chemistry by putting new players in. So you don’t know…but players play, and if we make better plays than the other team and we keep our game simple, anything can happen.”

You saw that Hilary Knight is with Montreal now... any thoughts on that?

“I mean good for Hilary, good for the game. I think it’s interesting to see her in a Canadian uniform, but it happens all the time in the NHL, why not have it happen in the CWHL? I think it’s good that the game is growing and people from the US are crossing into Canada, and hopefully Canada is crossing down into the US, and we can make it one big game that’s good for the growth and good for the sport.”

Some fans were concerned that she was leaving NWHL team going to the CWHL...is that a valid concern?

“I think that it’s all about opportunity. And if you have an opportunity to play at this level, I think Hilary’s going to take it. And I just think that why not? We had players join the Blades, I remember, when I coached…we had already known they were going to come, I didn’t know Hilary was going to Montreal…the timing is all interesting, you know? To come off a gold medal and then go play for Canada, I mean why not? Someone is advising her properly, I guess. I’m happy that she has that opportunity.

It’s not really about us, you know, it’s always about creating opportunity for players, and I think as you grow a sport, that’s what China’s about, that’s what Knighter’s about, having that opportunity…we’re at such a young level in our sport, you know, we’re not the NHL, we have to expand opportunities, which for us, it’s frustrating to only have the six and one (international player limit), because you’re trying to expand opportunities yet you restrict them.

It’s just a different way of looking at it, and we’ve been playing all year like this and we’re happy about it, but to have China have a little more depth down the stretch would make us a more viable candidate for the championship, not that we’re not, but…”

Do you think that means expanding the six and one rule?

“I think that’s up to the CWHL and how they want to handle it. Of course, you always want, in my opinion, in any league, to have the best players. So however that has to work is up to the league. But you know, you want to have the best players playing in your league, whether it’s on China, whether it’s on Montreal, so that’s why when Hilary comes, it’s a good thing.”

How has the first year been in a new role in China?

“It’s been a real adventure. It’s learning about the culture of China, how they do things, it’s integrating Chinese nationals, Chinese north Americans, Americans, Canadians, Finns, on my staff, on our team. Kind of overseeing the whole China project where Vanke and Kunlun get together after the season. It’s been really inspiring but it’s also been really challenging at the same time with a country who went from No. 4 in 98 to I think they’re 14 now, so they were trending down, and trying to trend back up is an education for me, and how China does it, and I think it’s education for them to kind of hear what we have to say as coaches, like Rob on Vanke and myself.

It’s been cool though, I really enjoy it. I think that KRS, by using their resources to help grow the game is the player. Everybody looks at it like ‘Oh, the CWHL is growing the game.’ But it’s KRS that has really risen the bar for women’s sports. If you were in China you’d be shocked at people, the experience…it’s night and day. It’s really a professional environment, like it’s professional. There are light shows, you have 3 to 4,000 people, just like an AHL or an NHL game.”

Cassie Campbell has been talking a lot about #OneLeague recently...what are your thoughts on that?

“I think it’s incumbent upon the leadership of sports to put the best players in a league. I don’t look at it like it’s the CWHL, it’s the NWHL, maybe it’s someone else. But the best players have to have a place to play. And it’s incumbent upon the leadership to figure out a way to do that. And I am vociferously opposed to having the NHL do it. And the reason why is because the women’s game should not be controlled by the men’s game. And other people could have other opinions, but I think in order for us to grow the way women’s hockey has to grow, we have to have a women’s hockey model. Not just be part of the men’s model, because I think what happens is you get the only way to think about things is like the NHL, as opposed to there may be other ways to think about the game.

“I’ll be crazy and say in China the other day…when we were in China, Montreal pulled the goalie at seven minutes because they had to score 3 goals. And the fans were out of their minds. When we touched the puck...(scream) ...because they want to see us score. How cool would it be, just saying, this is what you can do if you have crazy leadership, what about making both teams pull their goalie, mandatory, for three minutes?

I know it sounds crazy to us! But why…purists of the sports would say no, but purists of the sports also said you shouldn’t check, or you should never wear shields, so there’s other ways to grow, and that’s what I’m saying, I think that we need to get creative. And I think if you just copy a certain model, it doesn’t happen.

When you say leadership, do you mean USA Hockey or Hockey Canada?

“Oh god no. I think it’s any leadership. I think that someone needs to…maybe it’s Cassie. It doesn’t have to be the CWHL or NWHL, it could be Kelli Stack. It doesn’t have to be an existing league. It could just be someone that says you know what…I’m going to do this…I don’t know, I’m just saying it doesn’t always has to be how everyone thinks it has to be.

I think outside the box, that’s why we’re in China, that’s why Kelli Stack has a place to play after the Olympics.

This interview has been briefly edited for clarity