China's Kunlun Red Star officially joins CWHL
New team means big changes for women's hockey on both sides of Pacific
As odd as it sounds, playing for the expansion Chinese team in the Canadian Women's Hockey League actually means less travel for Kelli Stack.
"But I won't be driving a car, I'll get to fly in a plane," the newest member of the Kunlun Red Star said Monday of her commute from Boston to Connecticut when she played in the National Women's Hockey League.
In The Great Hall at the Hockey Hall of Fame on Monday night, The CWHL and the Chinese Hockey Association made it official — China will have a team in the CWHL.
"It's a marriage across the Pacific," Xiaoyu Zhao, chairman of the Kunlun Red Star, told the packed hall.
The Kunlun Red Star hockey club already has a team in the Russian KHL. The women's team will play in Shenzhen, just outside of Hong Kong.
"Hockey is already a popular game in China," Zhao said. "But our problem is we are not exposed to international [hockey] ... new technology in terms of hockey, in terms of management, training, nutrition ... so we need to learn. So that is why we feel it is the best way to hook up with the CWHL."
The deal was eight months in making and is easily the boldest move in the CWHL's 10-year history.
"China is a powerhouse and the CWHL wants to be part of the powerhouse," CWHL commissioner Brenda Andress said.
By expanding to China, the CWHL hopes to become more attractive to sponsors who also might want to crack the Chinese market.
"It allows us to grow on an international level," Andress said. "It allows us access to their fans, to the broadcasting rights, the media rights and all of those together gives us the opportunity for more sponsorship,more dollars."
The CWHL season will be expanded to 30 from 24 games. The five Canadian-based teams will travel once to China for three games against the Red Star, which in turn will travel to Canada for three games against each CWHL team.
That's a lot of travel money for a league that doesn't pay its players.
Red Star Chairman Zhao confirmed the new team is paying to play in the CWHL.
"Certainly," Zhao responded with a smile when asked about an expansion fee. "We follow market practice."
He did not say how much.
"It's got to be win-win, never one-sided," Zhao said. "We would like to see the CWHL expand and grow also with the support and effort of my club. In return, we benefit from being a member of this league."
For Stack, it's a bit of homecoming. She played for three seasons in the CWHL before jumping to the upstart NWHL two years ago.
"I thought it would be a totally different experience," Stack said of why she will make the move to China. "I'm just excited to grow the game in China.To be part of that, I'm really excited."