It could easily be argued the biggest signing in the CWHL last season didn’t happen in Calgary, Markham, Toronto or Montreal, nor did it happen during the post-Olympic push when returning athletes decide whether there’s enough gas in left the tank and those with Clarkson Cup aspirations do their darnedest to scoop up top talents who feel they’ve got something to contribute at the tail end of their campaigns. No, it’s likely the signing came when Noora Raty, on the heels of three seasons tending goal in Finnish men’s leagues, put pen to paper to join Kunlun Red Star as part of the CWHL’s Chinese expansion project.
“My first priority when I started this thing and joined the team was primarily to help the Chinese,” Raty said of her move to the women’s league. “I was hired to make sure the goalies get training, make sure they get better and have a mentor on the ice that sees them day to day and helps them with everything they need. Obviously, it turned out that my other part was stopping pucks, too.”
And stop pucks she did, to the surprise of absolutely no one. This is Noora Raty we’re talking about. The same Noora Raty who finished her four years with the NCAA’s Minnesota Golden Gophers with all-time records in save percentage, shutouts and wins, as well as a perfect season, single-season shutout mark and single-season win record on her resume. The same Noora Raty who was named the best goaltender at the World Championships twice and had a World Championship MVP before she even entered the college ranks. The list goes on, but you get the idea.
So, when Raty arrived last season, it was a game changer for the upstart Chinese expansion team, one that wound up making all the difference for an organization that had a level of success that was as shocking, if not more, than that of the NHL’s Vegas Golden Knights.
“As a first year team, you always go through the bumps and hurdles because you don’t know what to expect,” Raty said. “Having a Chinese staff that really didn’t know anything about hockey it was about learning something new every day for the players and staff. But when you looked at our team on paper, I felt like we were one of the top teams. We had the expectation that we could win a lot of games if we pulled everything together, but we didn’t start the year well so it felt like it was going to be a long year. Then we went on a roll and around Christmastime we had a really good chance to win the championship.”
With a roster that had only 10 import players, Kunlun rode Raty’s play — and the play of all of their imports, really — to the Clarkson Cup final. That isn’t an overstatement, either. Raty finished second in wins (16), first in save percentage (.944), first in shutouts (six) and had the league’s lowest goals-against average (1.60). In the playoffs, Raty faced nearly double the workload of any other keeper, a whopping 179 shots in four games, yet allowed only four goals, had a .961 SP, one shutout and backstopped the expansion franchise to overtime in the final.
The situation for the Chinese outfit has changed this season, however. The CWHL has cut the project from two teams to just one, with Red Star amalgamating with Shenzhen Vanke Rays to become the Shenzhen KRS Vanke Rays. It stands to strengthen the talent pool, too, given the disparity in the talent level that was seen last season. Raty explained that the thin talent pool meant that while some Chinese players were CWHL calibre, others were still at a minor hockey level, needing to be taught basics such as how to give and receive a pass. It stands to reason that bringing the two sides together only stands to strengthen the on-ice product, which is especially true given the familiarity the players all have with each other.
“The good thing about our team is that lots of our players were part of either one of the teams last year,” Raty said. “We lived in the same apartment buildings last year in China, we had practices together last year in China, so we were all familiar coming together in China. I think we only have one new player outside the program. We all knew each other beforehand so team chemistry was there right off the bat.”
Success won’t necessarily come easily, however, particularly not with the injection of returning Olympic talent into lineups league-wide. But in Raty, the CWHL’s now-lone Chinese team has one of the major keys to success. It’s a coup, too, for Shenzhen to have Raty back between the pipes, because to hear her tell it — after last season’s 14-hour plane rides, trips back and forth between Canada, the United States, Finland and a bronze medal-winning journey to the Olympics, a campaign Raty called one of the best and certainly the most unique of her career — she wasn’t sure about returning.
“The tank was pretty empty after last year,” Raty said. “I thought I would be almost done and go back home to Minnesota and keep growing my goalie business, because all the little goalies are waiting for me to be there year-round for them, but then China offered me a contract for this year and it was like, ‘I can’t really say no to my dream of playing a second year of pro hockey.’ So, I accepted the offer and I felt like for me, it’s having fun every day because you never know when it’s going to end.”
For Shenzhen’s sake, they hope it’s not any time soon. But if this does happen to be her last campaign in the CWHL, don’t doubt Raty’s ability to carry this team again, guide them right back to the Clarkson Cup final and earn a different result.