Gillian Kemmerer Gillian Kemmerer
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My first meeting with U.S. Olympian Alex Carpenter took place one degree south of the Tropic of Cancer, nearly one year ago to the day. The clawing humidity of September in southern China was hardly the autumn I knew. Carpenter grew up in Massachusetts, where dropping temperatures and black ice would have been unmistakable heralds of hockey season. In Shenzhen, flowering vines and lush Southern sunsets categorize the brief and mild winter, if you can even call it that. China’s sprawling tech hub is perhaps among the most unlikely destinations for a women’s hockey capital, and yet, they boast one of the most decorated and visible captains in Alex Carpenter.

“Carp is the type of leader who seems to always be doing the right thing at the right time, said Max Markowitz, assistant coach of the KRS Shenzhen Vanke Rays, the WHL’s reigning champions. “When we need someone to dig in and lead by example, she is right there leading the charge.”

Carpenter’s resume is impossible to summarize with brevity. She is a five-time World Champion, a Patty Kazmaier Award recipient (given annually to America’s top female college hockey player), a perennial All Star nominee and an Olympic Silver Medalist. Any degree of introversion or reticence I sensed at first meeting could hardly be misconstrued as timidity. Carpenter has achieved a level of success in the women’s game that goes without saying—her presence within the locker room, one of fierce determination and unshakable professionalism, radiates what superfluous words and medals would struggle to do justice. When she chooses to raise it, her voice has gravity—an asset that Markowitz and the coaching staff prize in their twenty-six-year-old leader. “When we need a voice in the locker room backing a message,” he said, “she has no problem stepping up and being vocal.” 

The typhoons that strike Shenzhen’s shores in early autumn are an apt metaphor for the Vanke Rays’ performance in their first WHL season. The Chinese club swept back-to-back champions Agidel Ufa in the Finals, with Carpenter nabbing the decisive goal in Game Three and solidifying her position as the league’s top point-sniper in both regular and post-season play. Her sustained dominance led to both WHL and NHL All Star nods from Moscow to St. Louis, and a full-page feature in the New York Times.

The Kunlun Red Star organization has a knack for attracting hockey scions—on the men’s side, Jake Chelios and David Bondra lace up in the tradition of their celebrated NHL fathers. Carpenter’s father Robert (“Bobby”) was a Stanley Cup-winning player and coach who logged over 1,000 NHL appearances. He preceded his daughter in China as the former head coach of Kunlun’s men’s team, but it was ultimately Alex and the women’s squad who delivered the first hockey title in China’s history.

I caught up with Carpenter during quarantine to discuss the makings of her championship season. While the Vanke Rays will have a temporary new home in Stupino, Russia due to the COVID-19 crisis, they will find comforting familiarity in their leadership.

Gillian Kemmerer (GK): Let’s briefly travel back in time to March. You scored the goal that ultimately clinched the WHL Championship. What do you remember from that moment?

Alex Carpenter (AC): It started from the D-zone. I remember the puck came out somehow to the middle to me. I don't really remember if it was passed or if it had ricocheted off of something, but then I just remember going. Ufa may have been on a change—I think they were, and had gotten trapped below us. I ended up just taking it to the right, wide, and I knew Rachel was driving with me. I realized that I could beat that D, so I took it around her. I was trying more than anything just to get it on net, not looking for a spot in particular. It ended up just squeaking under her glove. We didn't really know it went in until a couple of seconds afterward. I just remember being there with Rachel and we were like, "Wow, it went in." It was a good cushion for us at that point.

GK: Your chemistry with Rachel Llanes, and the productivity of that top line overall, underpinned much of the Vanke Rays’ success last season. How long did it take for the two of you to establish momentum? 

AC: Two seasons ago, we ended up playing together before Rachel got hurt—so that’s when it started a little bit. Over time, we got more comfortable with each other as the season progressed. I think that both of our playing styles complement each other nicely, and Rachel works so hard on and off the ice. It's always fun to go out there and play with a team that you know is going to give 100% in practice and in games.

GK: Your head coach [Brian Idalski] echoed something similar—“Rachel works so hard, Alex is so smart.” Where did that superior hockey sense begin to take shape? 

AC: I grew up around the game. I always had a game on, and whether I was watching it or just listening to it, I think that seeps into your subconscious. Even when my dad coached, he would pick me up from school and I would go to a practice and do homework at the rink. I was just always around it. When he coached junior teams, he wanted company in the car, so I would go with him and watch the games. Being in that atmosphere made a big difference in understanding the game, both on and off the ice.

GK: You grew up playing with boys. Do you feel that influenced your game in a particular way? 

AC: I honestly didn't play girls until...gees, I don't even know. Once the weight and the height got a little too much for me, I switched to girls, but I played both at one point. I think it's just different, boys' hockey, because they're so competitive with everything. Not saying that girls are not, but I think the speed and the strength of the game made a big difference for me growing up. I was actually one of the biggest for the longest time. Even just being in that environment, I think it was helpful in my early years to be able to learn the game at that pace, both physically and mentally. I was able to take that to the women's game as it was still developing.

GK: Naturally a lot is made of your father’s influence on your career, but I read somewhere that your Mom is no stranger to the ice. 

AC: Yeah, she was a figure skater in Boston for a long time. She grew up doing it, so she was always around the rink. That's actually where my parents met. I remember when my Dad used to build the rinks for us in the backyard, my mom would teach us how to skate. It was a family affair, for sure. We would always be out there playing five-on-five or something like that.

GK: Did your Mom’s expertise aid in the development of your skating ability? 

AC: I was one of the worst skaters growing up. I remember some coaches were like, "Well, she can't skate." And then someone would answer, "Well, she can get from point A to point B quicker, so it doesn't matter how it looks." That's kind of where I was. Once I started to listen and learn the finer points of figure skating, you can tell that it's just so much smoother and so much more fluid—it's a lot less effort to skate when you learn that. My mom can pick players out watching a game. She's like, "Oh, he's a good skater," or "he's a bad skater," just from a couple of strides. She can tell. Having that in the family definitely helps.

GK: The Vanke Rays have set a number of attendance records in the WHL. What was your expectation versus reality regarding crowds and support in China for women’s hockey? 

AC: I actually don't know if I ever thought about that. I guess I was just used to not playing in front of people in North America. That sounds bad, but even in college, we didn't have many fans. I think we were just used to not having that atmosphere. Maybe at World Championships we had somewhat big crowds, in Ottawa in 2013, but other than that, I didn't associate crowds with pro hockey.

Coming over, I was kind of surprised that we had the whole section behind our bench filled with people and they were excited about it. I think that was the best part. Seeing how much they want to learn and how much they enjoy the sport, whether they know a lot or a little about it, I think that was something that was really refreshing to see in China.

GK: Do you have any superstitions or rituals that you adhere to on gameday? 

AC: Just a routine, really. I mean, I have the same music. Pretty much eat the same thing before every game.

GK: What do you eat?

AC: We have early games. Usually an omelet or some oatmeal when we play those 12:00 games we had in Ufa, and then chicken and rice is my go-to.

GK: You are one of the fastest tapers I've ever seen, male or female. Is there a story behind that? Some players are really precise about how they tape their sticks. 

AC: I have to change mine in between every period because of the tape that I use, so I don't really care what mine looks like. I know people like it to look nice and flat and all that. I use friction tape, so I can kind of bend mine any way I want, but it's sticky on both sides. I’m not the biggest fan of taping my stick, so I just wrap it on and go with it.

GK: You aimed for a spot at the 2018 Winter Olympics, but unfortunately, you were not named to the U.S. team. A lot is made of the psychology of a “near miss” in sports. Do you think that experience refueled your ambitions or propelled you in a new direction? 

AC: Oh, definitely. I do think that even if I had made the team, I was going to come over to China [eventually]. It’s a testament to Billy [Ngok], Monna [Ao] and Claire [Liu], who were able to put this together and give women a place to play for a living and not have to have a side job. I never dreamed that would happen, especially with all that's going on here.

That opportunity is something that I think a lot of people haven't been able to have. I know everybody's been able to play professionally, but not for the same living that we make. We have a professional environment with professional equipment and video and all of that, all of the perks that should come with being a professional. I think even though I did miss out on the Olympics, in the overall scheme of things, it could not have worked out any better than it did for me.

GK: You received All Star nods in both the WHL and NHL this season. What were those experiences like for you? 

AC: For the WHL All Star Game, we didn't know what to expect or what was going to happen this season at all. I think we just went in with an open mind, and when we got there, everyone was like, "We need to win this game." We were like, “Oh okay, this is a real game!” We had a pretty decent crowd there for being in such a big building. That was pretty cool to see, and it was a lot of fun—even the events between the periods. I think we made the most of it and there was a decent amount of us there, so we were able to have fun with that.

The NHL one was unbelievable. A lot of travel again, but it was nice to be able to head to St. Louis. I'd never been there before, but with their Cup run and all of that, it was a lot of fun. It is always nice to be around professionals and to see how they conduct themselves. I mean, I’m always learning. I think it was an overall great experience, and especially for women in hockey, I think that was a big step in the right direction. 

GK: You attempted a lacrosse goal versus Dynamo Saint Petersburg. Can we expect a repeat effort this year?

AC: I had tried it once before in another game just because the puck was on edge behind the net, and I missed it. I think I was just standing behind the net and no one was coming and no one was open. So I was like, I might as well try it. It was at the beginning of a period. I was going to try again, but then we got to the Finals…

GK: The Vanke Rays will kick off the season in Stupino, Russia. Is there anything you will miss about life in China? It must have been quite an adjustment at first.

AC: I got used to living there after a while. I think at first it was culture shock, just different than anything you're ever used to. I miss my scooter a lot. I miss being able to scoot around to the rink and back. I mean, I think more than anything, I miss the food there. We found some really nice spots. There are a couple of good, cheap, dumpling places that were my favorites, but you can't find those [in America].

GK: It has been an unorthodox offseason to say the least, and now you enter the WHL season in a new home. How are you feeling about round two in Russia?

AC: I’m very excited to head back to Russia with KRS and begin our second season in the WHL. It’s always a lot of fun playing with veterans like Rachel Llanes, Megan Bozek and Jessica Wong, and I’m especially excited to play with many of our newcomers like Lindsey Agnew and Alena Mills. We have a great roster and more importantly a great group of women, and I’m excited to get the season started with this new team and begin working towards another championship.

Gillian Kemmerer Gillian Kemmerer
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