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China is trying to manufacture a women’s hockey dynasty, but is that possible?

The country just started building their team, but their sights are already set on Olympic gold.

Former head coach Digit Murphy and the Kunlun Red Star take on the Toronto Furies in Shenzhen on November 19, 2018.
| VCG via Getty Images

When Digit Murphy was still coaching women’s hockey in China, she and her players became fond of the phrase “mei wen ti.” No problem.

As it turns out, that’s a useful phrase when your club combines some of the best women’s hockey players from the West with a group of Chinese players who have never experienced that level of play. It was also a useful attitude given the scope of Murphy’s mission: Transform Chinese women’s hockey into a force that could make some noise at the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.

Murphy wasn’t in China to sweat the small stuff. If a player messed up with with the puck, mei wen ti.

“It was a warm, loving environment that we tried to create,” Murphy says in a call from Providence, Rhode Island.

But at some point over her 14-month run in China, something changed, as often happens with the people and policies which make up China’s hockey program. Murphy’s mandate had been to improve the players, teams, and institutions as much as possible by 2022, with the goal of challenging for a medal in women’s hockey. She had been given resources: two brand-new pro teams, a pipeline of players and coaches from the West, and a new arena in Shenzhen. Murphy jumped at the chance to build women’s sports the way she’d always dreamed of — on her own terms.

In late April, all of a sudden, Murphy was no longer coach of Team China or Kunlun Red Star, the pro team she’d been coaching. Murphy denies that she was fired. She says her departure was mutual and amicable, and she remains an adviser to China’s hockey program.

The country now has big dreams, a foundation built by Murphy, and cash to burn. Will that be enough to fulfill the ambitious dream of Olympic glory in 2022?

The conventional wisdom, at least in the West, is that there’s no instant formula for becoming an elite hockey nation. One does not skate with the likes of Russia, Canada, Sweden, or even Switzerland by merely spiffing up equipment and rinks.

The Chinese aren’t starting from scratch, exactly. Twenty years ago, their women’s team placed fourth in the Nagano Olympics. The program stumbled after that, with the women since falling to 20th in international hockey rankings. But another thing has happened over the last 20 years: China has emerged as an economic and political powerhouse. And as the Communist Party sees it, a great nation should be great at sports.

Since 2014, the Chinese government has undertaken a systemic sports reform, one that’s every bit as economic as it is cultural. China’s goal is nothing less than building the largest sports market in the world — $813 billion by 2025. They also want to do it faster than what would usually be considered possible, at least to those in market economies. According to Nikki Wang, head of sports business in China for Deloitte, getting to $813 billion would imply more than 16 percent growth from 2013 to 2020 before coasting to 10 percent in the home stretch.

After decades of pulling the global economy ahead, experts say China is looking for new, domestic markets to satiate its middle class. But it’s not all about money. As the State Council said in a 2014 guidance document, China sees it as an “inevitable” part of its development to match what western nations have done: weave sports into everyday life and make their people healthier and more nationalistic. China envisions half a billion people, many of whom have more time and money than their forebears did, will become athletes — or at least athletic.

“Accelerate the construction of a powerful sports nation,” reads one translation. “Continuously meet the people’s growing sports demands.”

Becoming a powerful sports nation demands excellence in international team sports. The initial priorities were basketball, soccer, and volleyball, but winter sports were added to the fold once Beijing was picked to host the Winter Olympics. China’s official goal is to get 300 million citizens — just under a quarter of the population — participating in winter sports by 2022. Inevitably, hockey became a target.

In 2016, China established Kunlun Red Star (KRS), an organization meant to overhaul the national hockey program. By mid-year, a Shanghai-based men’s team had been added to Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League. Presidents Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin attended the inauguration.

KRS’ roster was supposed to gradually become a mix of Russian, Chinese, and Western-raised Chinese players. The goal was to expose the Chinese men to top-level hockey, but not necessarily turn them into KHL stars overnight. Men’s hockey was a bigger game worldwide, and thus more entrenched. Women’s hockey, by comparison, hadn’t been so thoroughly conquered; only the USA and Canada were truly dominant. If the men’s goal was respectability, the hope was the women would do even better.

Kunlun Red Star takes the ice during the player introductions ahead of their debut season in the 2017-2018 Canadian Women’s Hockey League.
Xinhua News Agency/Getty Images

In March 2018, the website SupChina asked Shirley Hon, KRS’ director of international affairs, what the benchmark was for 2022. “The goal for the men’s team is to make it to the final eight teams,” she answered, “while the women’s team is aiming for the gold medal.”

It can be difficult to know how literally to take such claims. Some call them aspirational, but Mark Dreyer, the founder of China Sports Insider, went as far as to suggest it was delusional. After decades of unprecedented economic growth and feverish infrastructure builds, he says, China is approaching sports the same way.

”There is kind of an assumption which nobody really talks about, from the authorities and the Chinese people, that if China puts its mind to something, it can achieve it,” he told SB Nation. “Problem is, when you’ve got humans involved, you can’t speed it up … they’re kind of applying principles to sports that don’t necessarily work.”

There were reasons the Chinese found Digit Murphy perfectly suited for the job. She was a hall-of-fame player for Division I Cornell University and is still ranked fourth all-time in points at the school. She then coached at Brown University, also Division I, for 20 years, and is currently ranked No. 15 in the list of all-time winningest coaches in U.S. women’s college hockey. In 2012 she went on to coach in the Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL), at that time the preeminent women’s league in North America, where she won two championships in three seasons with the Boston Blades.

Murphy had plenty of experience with promoting and establishing women’s sports as well. Together with her life partner Aronda Kirby, she established the world’s first-ever pro league for women’s lacrosse in 2016. They also created a company to establish more pro leagues for women, along with a non-profit meant to advance gender equity in sports at large.

Murphy views herself as an innovator and disruptor. Over time she came to believe women’s sports were being stifled by their structures. Women’s sports needed money, but that often left them dependent on institutions with mostly male decision makers. And this very dependence kept women’s programs from devising new business models custom-built around women’s strengths specifically.

When China called in February 2017, Murphy saw an opportunity. Growing women’s hockey in the biggest country in the world? With a real budget?

“It wasn’t even a question when they asked me to do it,” she says. “I looked at it like a legacy play. I thought of it as something it was my calling to do.”

That month, Murphy was named coach of Kunlun Red Star’s brand-new women’s team; four months later, it joined the Canadian Women’s Hockey League. Like the men’s team, it was meant to nurture and improve both native-born Chinese talent, and North Americans of Chinese descent who were intrigued by the prospect of playing for Team China one day. (A second Chinese team, the Vanke Rays, joined the CWHL later that year.)

The subsequent challenge was getting these players up to an international level. But Murphy was eager to institute an idea she’d been nurturing for years. She made a proposal: Bring in a small team of Western players, not just to push the pace, but to proactively help the Chinese players develop their skills.

“You cannot keep the same players together and expect them to make each other better,” she says. “So if you practice with better players, then you can make your Chinese athletes better — stronger, faster, more educated, more skilled, and smarter about the game.”

The concept of a “player-coach” isn’t a new one in hockey. Usually, it refers to a veteran who takes a shine to the younger players. Murphy’s idea was to formalize that, and then take it a step further. She called them “ambassadors” — top Western players imported to China not just to play hockey, but to share and promote the game across a cultural divide.

It would seem the logical next step was figuring out how to pay these ambassadors, but in women’s hockey, paying players is a relatively new concept. The CWHL didn’t pay its players at all until the 2017-18 season, when a compensation structure was established that paid players between $2,000 and $10,000 a year, depending on their time in the league. One of the founding missions of the National Women’s Hockey League, which started in 2015, was to pay women players, but financial pressures forced it to reduce that salary in 2016. Meanwhile, the NHL minimum wage is half a million dollars.

“Let’s face it, you cannot go to China for this journey, leave your job and your future for no money,” Murphy says. “What would it say about us as leaders if we again expected women to take less and not value them?”

Team China ultimately approved a salary-based “ambassador” program. Murphy wouldn’t specify how much each player was earning, but she called it a “living wage” for China.

By spring 2017, Murphy was in recruitment mode. She began calling around her old networks and searching for players and coaches who were open to an adventure — and in her assessment, had the mettle for it. Kelli Stack, a surprise cut from the U.S. Olympic team that January, was an early recruit.

“There were a lot of unknowns when I thought about the opportunity in China, but one thing I knew for sure was that I trusted Digit. I had known her for years and I felt like she would lead us in the right direction,” says Stack. “My mindset was, ‘What do I have to lose?’”

Stack, a scoring forward, had played 100 games for Team USA and won silver twice at the Olympics. Pedigree was a priority for Murphy, and Stack came from the top echelon of women’s hockey. But Stack quickly learned how much more her role as an ambassador would entail than simply playing hockey. She found herself hosting public events in Longgang District, the home of KRS’ arena. She was playing street hockey with kids, hosting skating clinics and “try hockey for free” sessions, even holding media appearances to promote the team and the game.

And that was just the sales part. Her other duty was to her Chinese teammates.

”We taught them specific on-ice skills at practice like correct shooting mechanics and footwork, how to battle for a loose puck, and how to be a more efficient skater,” Stack says. “We also got to know each other off the ice and developed a friendship. We did team building to learn about each other’s cultures.”

Murphy’s read on previous national teams was they lacked offensive punch. So she and her player-deputies worked on getting the Chinese players out of their defensive crouch and into an attack mentality. They showed them how to take an odd-man rush, how to jam in the corners, and when to call for the puck. Make a mistake? Mei wen ti.

Digit Murphy and coach Sun Rui hold KRS team practice at Canlan Ice Sports facility.
Toronto Star via Getty Images

On the ice, Murphy wanted them taking risks. But off the ice, she wanted the Chinese players to master every facet of a pro lifestyle, down to sleeping, eating, and training. This brought points of friction, some of them cultural. Diet was a frequently mentioned and seemingly sensitive topic. Zoe Hickel, an ambassador who’d played in college and the NWHL, described it with some tenderness.

”Nutrition and learning what to eat before, after, and during training sessions, or maybe their habits at home, are much different than the way we train and fuel ourselves in the U.S.,” she says.

Somehow, things came together. Stack led the CWHL in scoring. The team made the playoffs and slugged its way to the Clarkson Cup championship game in March, where they lost, 2-1, in overtime to the Markham Thunder. It was a remarkable run for a team with only a handful of players who’d ever played at that level.

But for the purpose of progressing talent in China, was it really a milestone? As some observed, it was the Westerners like Stack — not the Chinese players — who’d logged the most ice time. A more direct measurement of the Chinese talent came in April, when Murphy coached Team China at the World Championships in Asiago, Italy.

Before the tournament, Murphy told China Sports Insider that her metric for success was goals rather than wins. China scored seven goals in five games, finishing fifth in their six-team group. A little more than two weeks later, Murphy’s tenure as coach came to an end.

For much of the last year, Chinese state media has been probing the question of whether China’s hockey teams are good enough to make the Beijing Olympics. The discussion has been less about merit and more about perception: What’s worse, being embarrassed on home ice, or not being in the Olympics at all?

This is the question that fell to the IIHF, the major international hockey body. Under IIHF rules, teams have to win their way into the tournament, but an exception can be made for host nations. In a dramatic development on May 17, an IIHF Congress in Copenhagen voted to qualify the host country on account of its positive trends.

“Since being awarded the 2022 Olympics, promising changes have been made in China,” the organization said in a release that day.

China still has time to develop, and hockey fans know never to say never. But this year’s Olympics in Pyeongchang showed just how chastening the games can be for an upstart program. Korea — skating players from the North and the South — qualified as the host nation, for example. In five games, the women scored two goals and allowed 28, placing last. Currently, the IIHF ranks Korea four slots above China.

Meanwhile, Team China is considering what to do with the foundation Murphy built. As of June 12, the organization has hired Murphy’s replacement: Bob Deraney, another American and former head coach of Providence College. In a June 12 release, KRS said “he understands what the team really needs.” The release thanked Murphy and said she “will continue to play an active role as the board member.” The exact nature of that participation remains to be seen, and it isn’t clear whether Murphy’s revolutionary ambassador program will continue within the organization.

Today, Murphy’s back in Providence, spending time with her partner and six kids. She says she’s still in contact with the team owners, and she hammers home the point that she’s not done there: “China wants to win. I want them to win. I’m invested in their success as a hockey program.”

Her hope is that China sees the big picture. If kids in the country will now grow up playing hockey, it’ll be a game changer.

“In 2026, that’s when you should see the Chinese nationals playing,” she says. “In four years, you’re not going to make better players. You just can’t. Not in hockey.

“The sport’s too hard.”