British Columbia

China rising: One country's grand plan to dominate Canada's game

What will it take for another county to break the stranglehold Canada and the United States have on international women's hockey? China thinks it knows.

Foreign talent and big money all part of China's strategy to transform into a women's hockey superpower

China's head of female high performance Digit Murphy helps to drop the puck as UBC takes on China in an exhibition game. Murphy, an American, has been hired to to speed the development of the game in China. (Ben Nelms/UBC Athletics)

What will it take for another county to break the stranglehold Canada and the United States have on international women's hockey?

Digit Murphy thinks she knows: Use the hockey capital of both dominant nations as a springboard to development by bringing together the best available coaches and players in a well-funded system.

That, in a snapshot, is what China and Murphy — its newly hired female hockey high performance director — have undertaken as the nation looks to dominate at the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing. 

China's Kunlan Red Star professional women's team is a mix of domestic Chinese players, North Americans of Chinese descent and elite international players. (KRS)

Considering the short timeline and monumental challenge — China is currently ranked 18th in the world and failed to qualify for the 2018 Winter Olympics  — it's a mission that looks impossible, at least from the outside.

But Murphy is undaunted.

"The end goal is to actually win a medal in 2022," she said, matter-of-factly. "We have five years."

Pulling out all the stops

Murphy is in Vancouver leading Chinese teams in an exhibition series against the UBC women's hockey team and Team B.C. 

The trip is also a scouting mission for the former U.S. national team and two-time Clarkson Cup winning coach. Four UBC Thunderbird players with Chinese heritage could be eligible to play for Team China in the future.

"We're looking for kids that want to play for us after college," said Murphy. "We're not in the business of plucking them out of school to play for us, but we'll invite them to the [Team China] camps and tryouts and the best players are going to play."

UBC's Emily Costales is all smiles after scoring against China Thursday night in an exhibition game. Because of her Chinese heritage the Vancouverite is being scouted by the Chinese national team. (Ben Nelms/UBC Athletics)

UBC forward Emily Costales is one of the players she'll be keeping an eye on. 

Costales is already on the Team China radar after attending a July talent identification camp in Toronto which brought together 70 players from across Canada and the United States, ranging from age six to 26.

"It was really good experience," said Costales. "I didn't know there were that many girls of Asian descent who played hockey in North America."

Fast track to hockey superpower

Costales and UBC will face not only the Chinese national team, but the two new professional Chinese women's teams — Kunlun Red Star and Vanke Rays — which begin playing in the Canadian Women's Hockey League next month.

Both teams were formed as part of China's grand plan to become a hockey superpower.

Kunlun Red Star has signed four elite American players to help develop the Chinese players on the team. From left to right: Zoe Hickel, Kelli Stack, Shiann Darkangelo, Stephanie Anderson. (KRS)

Each is made up of 10 domestic Chinese players, five North American players of Chinese descent, and — most importantly — five elite non-Chinese players who are there to mentor the others.

Five-time world champion and two-time Olympic silver medallist Kelli Stack signed on with Kunlun over the summer. The team has also recruited Finnish star goalie Noora Räty.

"What we're doing is putting the Chinese kids into a faster environment so they get better quicker," said Murphy.

"When we introduce the better players to help them, and then the coaching and educational pieces like nutrition, hydration and sleeping, they start to improve astronomically."

A real paycheque

No woman has ever become rich playing hockey. In fact, most CWHL teams will start paying players for the first time this season. The amount though would barely cover a cellphone bill — somewhere between $2,000 and $10,000 per year.

In comparison, Kunlun is paying its players substantially more. Murphy won't divulge how much, but does describe it as a living wage.

"They don't get paid to play hockey, they get paid by the Kunlun Red Star marketing program ... to be brand ambassadors," she said

A paycheque isn't the only perk of a program the centralized Chinese government is willing to spend millions on. 

The Red Star women are already big in China according to Murphy, thanks to a swell of media coverage.

"They have us all over the news," she said. "They're gaga about us and we haven't really started." 

Exhibition game schedule


Karin Larsen


Karin Larsen is a former Olympian and award winning sports broadcaster who covers news and sports for CBC Vancouver.