23 December 2021
For Russian sports lovers of a certain age, an abiding memory of the Olympic Games involves an inflatable teddy bear floating into the twilight skies above Moscow to the bittersweet strains of ‘Do Svidaniya, Moskva’ (Goodbye, Moscow) at the climax of the 1980 Games. Now, it’s almost time to substitute a bear for a Dragon as KRS Vanke Rays prepare to leave Moscow Region and fly to China for the last weeks of Olympic preparation.
Brian Idalski and his coaches completed their schedule in Mytishchi this week, playing the last of four exhibition games against Russian opposition before heading to Beijing for the final stage of our long journey to the Games. And it’s been an incredible journey: Chinese women’s hockey has emerged as a competitive force in both the CWHL and, more recently, Russia’s WHL, two of the strongest women’s competitions in the world. There have been challenges along the way: one league folded, a second was disrupted by the pandemic that forced us to relocate from our spiritual home in Shenzhen. We’ve set attendance records, we’ve won trophies, as a club we’ve taken on national teams. And now, it’s time to close on that Olympic dream. Goodbye Moscow, hello Beijing!
Double duel with Russia’s juniors
Our final pre-Olympic engagements in Mytishchi saw our girls don the Team China mantle for two exhibitions games against Russia U18s. The roster – unchanged for the two games – was an exciting mix of homegrown and heritage players, exemplified by the goaltending tandem of Tia Chan and Yuqing Wang.
The offense was led by Rachel Llanes, who centered Kassy Betinol and Anna Segedi on the first line. Xin He, who recently returned to the organization after first playing with the Vanke Rays in the CWHL in 2017/18, went to the second line alongside Taylor Lum and Minghui Kong. On the third line, Harbin’s ‘Turbo’ Xin Fang centered Mengying Zhang and Maddie Woo while the fourth was entirely homegrown with Lu Wen, Yingying Guan and Rui Zhu. On defense, Camryn Wong and Leah Lum represented the heritage players, with Zhixin Liu, Qinan Zhao, Yue Liu and Qianhua Li completing the line-up.
Both games were hard-fought affairs. While China is focused on preparing for the Olympics, Russia’s juniors are looking forward to their own World Championship next month – and perhaps hoping to force themselves into Olympic contention as well. As a result, it took a battling performance from our Dragons to recover from Alexandra Nesterova’s first-period goal and grab a 2-1 verdict thanks to tallies from Wen and Betinol.
Game two was more challenging, with the Russians getting revenge in a 3-0 win. Russian goalie Daria Gredzen, so often a formidable opponent in Women’s Super League action, again proved her worth with a shut-out. There was some consolation though, since this exhibition game ended in a shoot-out and goals from Segedi and Betinol gave China the verdict there.
That wraps up our time in Russia – at least for now. Brian Idalski and the team fly to Beijing on Dec. 26 in time for the next phase of Olympic preparations. There will be just over a month to acclimatise to local conditions and get the players into peak condition ahead of the biggest sporting festival on Earth. The opening game at the Olympics is slated for Feb. 3, when China will face the Czech Republic – captained by our old friend Alena Mills.
Mills recently confirmed her return to the Vanke Rays after the Games, when the league campaign resumes with a race to grab the best positions in the playoffs. And our club is continuing to bring back some stars from the past to help us push for more silverware in the Russian championship. Earlier this week, Swedish club Djurgardens announced that it was releasing Hannah Miller to enable the 25-year-old Canadian forward to return to us for the climax of our season. It’s anticipated that Emma Nordin and Michelle Karvinen might also return after playing in Scandinavia earlier this season. So, despite the long break from WHL action, there’s plenty happening to keep the Lady Dragons in contention for more honors.