Sports

While Training Continues, China’s Prized Women’s Hockey Players Are in Russia

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The players most crucial to Chinese women’s ice hockey reside in a hotel about 70 miles south of Moscow. The quasi resort’s expansive grounds contain horses, stray cats and a speleochamber — a salt cave designed to improve breathing.

That these players are in Russia and not Beijing, 3,600 miles away, symbolizes how far China, whose women’s ice hockey team last qualified for the Olympics in 2010, has moved away from its grand plans in the sport.

“Not seeing it come to fruition and deviate is a disappointment,” said Maddie Woo, who was recruited to play in China and occasionally skated with China’s national team over the past three years. “There was so much potential. There still is. It’s just the time sensitivity of it now. It’s shocking.”

Woo was one of several North Americans of Chinese descent who signed in 2017 with the newly formed Kunlun Red Star, a team now known as the Shenzhen KRS Vanke Rays. With China hosting the 2022 Winter Olympics, the Chinese Ice Hockey Association, the national governing body, assigned the club to manage the women’s national team.

Rachel Llanes, a Filipino-American forward who also hopes to represent China, said she still trains as if she’s “on call” for the national team. For now, Llanes plays only for KRS in Russia’s Zhenskaya Hockey League with six North Americans of Chinese descent who harbor similar Olympic dreams. In the 2019-20 season, KRS won the league title, but this year the team has had 10 games rescheduled because of the pandemic.

“I hope to be at the Olympics, but I know it’s not guaranteed,” Llanes said. “If you’re banking on it, I don’t recommend thinking that way. If we don’t get called, we’ll get four years of experience no one else can say they had.”

Since 2017, KRS has invested millions to create an environment uncommon in women’s hockey. Digit Murphy, an American who had coached in college and the professional ranks, was hired to lead the women’s program. She enticed recruits with a simple, yet novel, approach.

KRS not only pays livable salaries of about $70,000 per year, but provides amenities expected of a pro team like first-class airfare, an equipment manager and ice times when the sun is still shining.

That hasn’t been the case for North American women’s hockey, despite Canada and the United States reigning as the sport’s powerhouses (several United States national team alumnae have also been KRS sports ambassadors). Founded in 2015, the National Women’s Hockey League, which has six teams across North America, had a highest reported salary of $15,000 last season.

In October, Secret, the deodorant brand, contributed $1 million to the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association, a rare instance in which a party proclaiming interest in elevating North American women’s hockey gave more than just crumbs.

“We’re pretty spoiled, I’m not going to lie,” said Llanes, who worked three jobs while playing in Boston for teams in North American leagues. “We don’t have to worry about anything. You’re hockey players.”

Xu Guoqi, author of “Olympic Dreams: China and Sports, 1895-2008,” said sports rivalries among local governments in China were not uncommon.

“Backstabbing practices, or they try to lobby, always that’s a case,” Xu said, noting that the Chinese hockey association is essentially under the control of the Chinese government. “The reality is the party is in charge of everything.”

For the 2018-19 C.W.H.L. season, China supplied only one team, the Shenzhen KRS Vanke Rays. (The C.W.H.L. folded soon after and said the revenue from China had probably kept the league from ceasing operations earlier.)

In 2017, KRS also ran a men’s team with a similar mission to build Chinese hockey centered around foreign players and Chinese teenagers who previously trained in America.

In interviews with current and former KRS players and coaches, none said they knew where the partnership between their club and the C.I.H.A. currently stood. The Chinese nationals currently on KRS are mostly older players not expected to compete at the next Olympics.

Liu, the team’s general manager, said that the “relationship is still there” and that the roster composition was different because of the pandemic. The hockey association declined interview requests.

Because of the coronavirus pandemic, KRS relocated to Russia this season to reduce travel. The hockey association has reason to be cautious of bringing international players into its bubble. In March, two Chinese players training with a travel squad in the United States tested positive for the coronavirus shortly after returning to Beijing.

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