The CWHL’s Chinese team gets rebranded

Because women’s hockey history isn’t confusing enough

On Friday, the CWHL announced the Kunlun Red Stars will have a new name. The sole Chinese team has been rebranded as the “Shenzhen KRS Vanke Rays.”

The new name comes after the contraction of the Vanke Rays a few weeks ago, or as the name change press release calls it, “the integration” of KRS and Vanke. They will play with the goal of winning the Clarkson Cup.

On the surface, it seems as if the two names have just been smushed together. Both were based in Shenzhen and both formerly had the city name preceding the team name. But, it seems like there’s a bit more to the name change than solely just a name change.

KRS 2.0

The CWHL’s press release notes that the KRS will still exist, but they will not play in the CWHL. The team will be made up of Chinese National Team players and will play a schedule of “different international games.” This team — coached by a Chinese coaching staff unlike the team at Worlds which was coached by now-former KRS head coach American Digit Murphy — will be preparing for the 2019 Worlds and the Beijing Olympics in 2022.

It is unclear if Chinese National players will be able to play on both teams. If they don’t, it begs the question as to which team they will play on: the one training for international competition or the one playing a regular season. It would also call into question how KRS Vanke Rays will find enough players. They will still have to abide by the CWHL’s import player rules of six non-Chinese players, not including goaltenders. Heritage players, that is players with recent Chinese descent but are not Chinese citizens, do not count towards the limit. However, heritage players cannot play on Team China in IIHF tournaments.

When reached for comment, the CWHL said the KRS Vanke Rays will have members of the Chinese National Team, along with heritage players and international players. The non-CWHL team will play for Harbin, the Northern China team all of the players are from. This team will be coached by Chinese coaches and be made up of the remaining players from last year’s CWHL Chinese teams. However, this team will not be affiliated with the CWHL at all.

Hints of this team have been around since collegiate level teams started releasing their schedule. The UBC Thunderbirds announced they would have exhibition games against Kunlun Red Stars and a Shenzhen-based team. Pension Plan Puppets and Kirsten Whalen of Victory Press dug into this more when Vanke was dropped from the league. It turns out that the Shenzhen team mentioned by UBC is this KRS team.

If the non-CWHL KRS team’s goal sounds familiar, it should. Their stated goal is how the team was introduced into the league last year. The Kunlun Red Stars were created as part of a plan sponsored by the Chinese government to strengthen the National Program ahead of the 2022 Beijing Games. Typically, the host nation is given an automatic entry in women’s hockey, which was recently voted on at the IIHF conference.

Why now?

The first year of the plan for the Chinese government might not have gone quite as planned. The Kunlun Red Stars did make it to the Clarkson Cup finals. But, after a hot start, the Vanke Rays faltered and struggled in the final stretches of the season. Both teams relied heavily on their international players with the Chinese players seeing limited minutes.

In international play, Team China did not fare well at the 2018 IIHF World Championships in Division I - Group B. They placed fifth and only scored seven goals, six less than the previous year. Digit Murphy mutually parted ways with the team shortly after.

If the Chinese are serious about their goal of medaling in 2022, they have a lot of work to do. By not playing in the CWHL, the non-CWHL KRS team can focus on that goal. However, they’ll be losing out on testing themselves against high quality opponents as other National Team players return to CWHL teams.

What now?

The CWHL also announced that Rob Morgan, former Vanke Rays head coach, is now the “Sports Director of HC Shenzhen Kunlun Red Star” and the general manager of the KRS Vanke Rays. He’ll be focusing on recruitment and assisting KRS Vanke Rays’ head coach Bob Deraney rebuild the team.

The next chapter in China and CWHL rosters

Thus far, the KRS Vanke Rays have 11 of their 25 players on their roster. They have filled five of their six import player roster spots with Alex Carpenter, Stephanie Anderson, Cayley Mercer, Emma Woods, and Hanna Bunton. Goaltender Noora Räty has also re-signed. KRS Vanke Rays also have pre-signed both of their allocated draft picks - goaltender Kimberly Newell and forward Leah Lum.  Both Newell and Lum are heritage players as well. Also returning are heritage players Maddie Woo, Rose Alleva, and Melanie Jue.

If you’re confused, don’t fret. Trust me, you’re not alone.

Update: The CWHL responded on 8/9 to questions about the teams. The article has been updated to include them.