CWHL's Kunlun Red Star part of big picture for women's hockey
First-year Chinese-based club will play for Clarkson Cup title on Sunday in Toronto
Jessica Wong wasn't seeing a Clarkson Cup championship team when she arrived in China last fall to play for Kunlun Red Star.
A few months later, the defender from Baddeck, N.S., feels Red Star is capable of winning the Canadian Women's Hockey League trophy in its first season.
The Red Star face the Markham Thunder in the Clarkson Cup final Sunday at Toronto's Ricoh Coliseum.
Half of Kunlun's roster is Chinese and the other half is North Americans and Europeans. Wong, 26, is one of two Canadians in the lineup.
"We're going to bring everything we have on Sunday," Wong told The Canadian Press.
"As a team, we've grown so much together over the course of the year and you have to. We're coming together at the right time."
The former Calgary Inferno defender, who played for Canada's under-18 and under-22 women's teams, was essentially retired prior to joining the Red Star.
Wong saw a chance be part of something bigger when she moved to Shenzen, China.
With Beijing the host city of the 2022 Winter Olympics, China is plowing resources into winter sport to have a competitive host team.
China getting two teams into the CWHL — the Vanke Rays was the other expansion club — was done to develop female hockey players for 2022.
"Any woman you talk to, we've always wanted to grow the game internationally," Wong explained. "I'm just so happy I can help and give back to the game that's given me so much.
"The way I'm doing that is trying to help these Chinese players achieve this goal that they've always dreamt about, and have the goal of medalling in 2022, especially in their country. What an unbelievable experience that would be for them."
When Wong first met her Chinese teammates, she didn't think they understood the importance of weight training or had even touched a weight.
"We had a few of them just really step up and we saw them getting better at little things," Wong explained.
"Our defence, we have the two Chinese [defenders], they're playing a ton of minutes. They've probably never played this many minutes before. They're going up against Olympians right now and they're doing well."
Wong's paternal grandmother is from the Shenzen area. But Wong doesn't speak Mandarin and thus had to navigate a language barrier in China.
The travel schedule was also arduous. The Red Star flew to North America four times this winter for three-week stays to play games.
"It's a grind," Wong admitted.
The Red Star posted a 21-6-1 record behind Les Canadiennes de Montreal at 22-5-1. The Thunder, who relocated from Brampton to Markham prior to the season, went 14-7-7.
But Markham upset 2017 Clarkson Cup champion Montreal by winning a best-of-three semifinal in two straight games.
Kunlun had a more tense semifinal against the Inferno. The deciding third game went to triple overtime, with Red Star's Alex Carpenter scoring the lone goal of the game.
The Clarkson Cup was donated by Canada's former governor general Adrienne Clarkson.
Much-needed financial help
The money from five-year licensing agreements that accompanied the Chinese teams helped the CWHL pay its players for the first time this season.
Players were paid between $2,000 and $10,000 with teams' general managers determining compensation under a salary cap.
"All the girls on all teams in the CW can say this is the right step," Wong said. "I think China is going to help out a lot as we can see right now."
Kelli Stack, a two-time U.S. Olympian, led the CWHL in scoring with 26 goals and 23 assists in 28 games for the Red Star.
Jamie Lee Rattray of Kanata, Ont., paced the Thunder with 22 goals and 17 assists.
Stack, Rattray and Les Canadiennes forward Ann-Sophie Bettez are finalists for league MVP, which will be announced Friday in Toronto.
Wong is up against Calgary's Katelyn Gosling and Montreal's Cathy Chartrand for top defender.
Red Star goalie Noora Raty, who backstopped Finland to an Olympic bronze medal in February, led all CWHL goalies with a 16-3 record and tied a league shutout record with six.
The Thunder worked a tandem of Erica Howe (8-5-2) and Liz Knox (6-6-1). Raty, Howe and Montreal's Emerance Maschmeyer are finalists for the league's goaltending award.
Rays forward Cayley Mercer, Inferno forward Sophie Shirley and Toronto Furies forward Brittany Zuback are rookie-of-the-year finalists.
Calgary's Tomas Pacina, Montreal's Dany Brunet and Toronto's Jeff Flanagan are finalists for coach of the year.