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Chinese expansion a bold move for CWHL, but timing was right

After celebrating the league's 10th anniversary, the CWHL is making its boldest move yet: expanding to China and welcoming Kunlun Red Star to the league next season.
Pat Barkley/CWHL/Twitter

Pat Barkley/CWHL/Twitter

The NHL is set to play pre-season games in China for the first time in league history, but the CWHL is taking their foray into the gargantuan Asian market one step further. Come the 2017-18 campaign, the CWHL will welcome China’s Kunlun Red Star to the circuit as one of six teams in the women’s league.

Discussions between the two parties have been ongoing for months after initial conversations about what the league could provide the burgeoning women’s club slowly shifted into talk about Kunlun entering the CWHL’s ranks as the league’s sixth franchise. And while adding Red Star could be considered a daring strategy, CWHL commissioner Brenda Andress said it was time for the league to take a calculated risk on the heels of their 10th anniversary.

“We’ve been very stable, we’re trusted, we’re very knowledgable, we’ve got a proven track record, and every now and then, when you know it’s the right move, you take a bold move,” CWHL commissioner Brenda Andress said. “This is where we’re at. We believe we’re stable, we can take this bold move, and I think we need to take more of those as we grow.”

Red Star, which also boasts a KHL franchise, won’t simply be a Chinese team in name, however. The franchise is set to play next season out of Shenzhen, a city of nearly 12 million located near the southern coast of China. That does come with a certain set of challenges. The schedule, for instance, was increased from 24 to 30 games, and Red Star will play a full slate of games. In order to fulfill their home and road requirements, Red Star will visit North America on two-week tours, according to The Globe and Mail, while the North American clubs — Calgary, Toronto, Brampton, Montreal and Boston — will visit on weeklong, three-game road trips. But hammering out details such as the schedule was part of the process, and the opportunities in China outweigh the risks.

“We took a look at different things,” Andress said. “There’s a time difference, obviously, the travel, language barriers. So, there’s a lot of things that we had to talk through. But really, we’re all talking about coming to the end goal.”

One of those goals, as Andress pointed out, is the same for the CWHL and Red Star: to grow the women’s game on a global scale. But the two organizations, the league and the franchise, have their own independent goals, as well. 

For the CWHL, there’s a tremendous market to be tapped into in China. With the NHL attempting to break into the market and other major North American sports looking for inroads into China, it’s no secret that the massive population brings with it the potential for a sizeable increase in viewership. With that comes greater sponsorship opportunities and new revenue streams that have gone largely untapped to this point. The CWHL also looks at a Chinese-based team as a chance to offer China’s younger generation a whole host of strong female role models, on and off the ice.

As for Red Star, the opportunity is there for the franchise to be a leader in the sport, adding the top level of women’s play to an organization that already possesses a team in one of the world’s top-tier men’s leagues. As Andress pointed out, establishing a women’s team in China also gives young girls something to strive for when and a reason to pick up the game. That can pay dividends in China, as the team has an eye on the 2022 Olympics.

The 2022 Olympics are the key in all of this, too. Andress said the agreement between the CWHL and Red Star spans five seasons, which would take the team up to the Beijing Games. Despite that, though, Andress believes in two to three years the impact of the players will have been felt enough for this five-year pact to turn into a long-term partnership. Kunlun’s immediate focus, however, is strengthening the talent pool with which to draw from for the 2022 national squad.

“Our mission is to develop a top-tier professional team in order to develop a strong base of female players for our national programs, and new audiences for the sport in China, in the lead-up to hosting the Beijing Winter Olympics in 2022,” Red Star’s chairman of the board Alex Shao said in a release.

Heading up the on-ice program is Digit Murphy, longtime coach with the women’s program at the NCAA’s Brown, CWHL Coach of the Year winner and Clarkson Cup champion as coach of the Boston Blades, with Rob Morgan, who spent the past season as an associate head coach at Yale, coming aboard as an assistant. 

As for the roster, it will be composed of Chinese national players and international talent. While contracts are yet to be signed, standout American Olympian and former NWHL star Kelli Stack is reportedly set to join Red Star, along with Finnish Olympic goaltender Noora Raty, who has spent the past three seasons playing in Finland’s third-tier men’s league. Stack and Raty were on hand at the team’s announcement and donned the Red Star jersey. And with two top talents already on board, Andress — who has seen the roster and said it’s “pretty good” — expects Kunlun to be competitive out of the gate.

For those such as Stack and Raty who are primed to head to Shenzhen next season for the CWHL’s debut in China, Andress heralded the opportunity as one that can create a lasting impact.

“It’s a great opportunity. That’s what it’s about,” Andress said. “The opportunity to go, live in China, play in China, and, more importantly — people talk about the money, the money — when you think about it, very few times in our life do we get a chance to make a difference, and the people who play in China will make a difference in growing the grassroots of hockey that’s not there right now…So I say to our players, ‘Your legacy is built on so much more than money. It’s built on what you do and what you leave behind.’ ”

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