Lady Dragons return to the Games after 12 years
There’s less than a week to go before the puck drops on China vs Czechia in the Olympic Women’s Ice Hockey tournament in Beijing. It’s the culmination of years of work for our club, and for the individual players selected to represent their country on the greatest sporting stage of all. The team is already in the Olympic village and raring to go … so here’s a look at what to expect from the Lady Dragons on home ice at the 2022 Olympic Winter Games.
United under one flag
Throughout KRS Vanke Rays’ history, the club has faced lazy jibes about icing a ‘rest of the world’ roster and being Chinese in name only. The reality, of course, is very different. Ten of the 23 players selected for the Games are Chinese born and bred. Three of them are returning to the Olympics after playing in Vancouver in 2010. And the remainder are almost entirely drawn from players with a strong Chinese heritage. These are young women with deep respect for their ancestry, eager to represent the land of their forebears and thrilled to fulfil their personal Olympic dreams. As we go into the Games, where our players are from is far less important than where they are now – ready to stand tall and represent China.
Let’s start with those Vancouver returnees. Going back 12 years, Chinese women’s hockey looked very different. It was limited to a few clubs in the northern Heilongjiang region and our players had little opportunity to connect to the wider hockey world. There was talent, undoubtedly, but not much change to build on those foundations. Now, thanks to the Vanke Rays’ time in the CWHL and now the Russian championship, there’s a pathway for Chinese potential to play at a high level in the pro game.
For three of our players – defenders Yu Baiwei and Lui Zhixin, plus forward Zhang Mengying– the Rays represent a second opportunity to go to the Games. Team captain Yu has been a leader for club and country, playing international hockey since 2007 and captaining her country since 2012. She’s joined by Liu, a mainstay of the Lady Dragons since our club was formed and part of our Russian championship winning team in 2020. Up front, Zhang, like Liu, made her international debut in Vancouver. She’s played 21 times for the Vanke Rays this season and the 28-year-old has also been a key player for her country over the past decade or so.
China’s other homegrown players are a mix of prospects and veterans. Goalie Wang Yuqing, 30, is another long-serving international who is regularly ranked among the top goalies in World Championship IB. She’s also had Universiade experience, something she shares with assistant coach Stacey Colarossi.
The new generation of Chinese talent is seen on defense, where Li Qianhua and Zhao Qinan represent the next generation. Li, 19, was progressing well with China U18s when the pandemic struck and stalled her progress. Her rookie campaign with the Rays this term is helping her to catch up, and Beijing will be her senior international tournament debut. Zhao, 24, is another Harbin native. Despite her youth, she’s been involved in the national program for eight years and looks set for a big role in the future for both club and country.
Four more homegrown forwards join Zhang on the team. Fang Xin and Guan Yingyang bring substantial experience of World Championship play and have caught the eye with the Vanke Rays despite often being given a bottom six role this season. He Xin is returning to the game after a break: her last official action was on our CWHL team in 2018/19, but she was back with the Vanke Rays this season to help rebuild her fitness ahead of the Games. Zhu Rui, 23, another Harbin-born player in her third season with KRS, completes the home-grown contingent on the roster.
Of course, China’s heritage players also have a big role to play. After all, when it was confirmed that the host nation would automatically qualify for the Olympics, there was little time to get the national program up to the required level. Help was needed, and we’re delighted with the support that comes from the global Chinese community. From goalies Kimberly Newell and Tia Chan to our leading scorer this season, Kassy Betinol, we’re indebted to the commitment that these players have shown to our country.
In several instances – Newell, experienced defender Jessica Wong, 20-year-old forward Betinol – these players have been involved with Canada’s national program before joining China’s. Betinol, and fellow youngster Taylor Lum, took a break from their college studies to join the Vanke Rays and take their Olympic shot.
Then we have the likes of Leah Lum, Rachel Llanes and – recently back at our club – Hannah Miller. All three have several seasons with the Vanke Rays and have proven themselves to be prolific scorers. That kind of firepower and know-how will be crucial for Brian Idalski’s team as it looks to advance from Group B.
The women’s tournament at this year’s Olympics features 10 teams for the first time. They start in two groups of five, but unlike the men’s competition, the groups are seeded, with the five strongest teams in the tournament playing in Group A and the teams ranked 6-10 in Group B. That means China needs a top-three finish from the group to advance to the quarter-finals.
It’s a big ask, but an achievable one. The group includes two Olympic debutants – Czechia, captained by our own Alena Mills, and Denmark. Then we have our Asian neighbor, Japan, a regular at this level. Finally, and a little surprisingly, Sweden completes the group. For a long time, the Swedes were expected to be the European team that might break North America’s hegemony in the women’s game. With players of the caliber of Rays’ new recruit Emma Nordin, they remain a dangerous opponent. But in recent seasons the national program has stalled and, unusually, the Damkronorna had to negotiate a qualification tournament to secure their place in Beijing.
For some of these teams, the qualification series was their first action since the pandemic, so it is difficult to predict how they might perform on the big stage. But it’s clear that China has a realistic chance of getting the results it needs to advance – and potentially test its strength against one of the powerhouses of the women’s game in the knock-out stage.
China tournament schedule
Feb. 3: China vs Czechia 1210 Beijing time (0710 Moscow time)
Feb. 4: China vs Denmark 1210 / 0710
Feb. 6: China vs Japan 1640 / 1140
Feb. 8: China vs Sweden 2110 / 1610
The quarterfinals are scheduled for Feb. 11 and 12. All of China’s games will be played at the Wukesong Arena