Defying expectations would become a central theme of Llanes’ hockey career—beginning with an initial hire as a player-coach for Kunlun Red Star in 2017. The decorated forward was told to aim no higher than the third line, focusing the bulk of her energy on strength coaching and the mentorship of China’s Olympic hopefuls for Beijing 2022. Despite the pressure of this dual mandate, Llanes steadily shifted focus to her own game and emerged this season as a top-line point sniper, the perfect foil for U.S. Olympian Alex Carpenter. The up-level was rewarded with a 2020 All Star nod, culminating in an outdoor game on Red Square versus none other than Russian superstar Alexei Yashin.
I caught up with Llanes on her way to Stupino, Russia for the 2020-21 WHL season. We discussed her expectations for the year, Olympic aspirations and more.
Gillian Kemmerer (GK): The Vanke Rays’ regular season performance versus Ufa was no prediction for the Finals. Did you expect to dominate them in post-season?
Rachel Llanes (RL): In a sense. When you add Jess Wong and Megan Bozek to the lineup—defense wins games, right? We had Noora [Räty] in net too. Up to our last practices leading into the Finals, we were all on the same page. We were saying, "Three and 0. We don't want to push it because we know this team—if you give them any hope, they'll stick around." You have to give Ufa so much credit because they made it a battle. We had to take three tough games from them, but it's easier to put those games together when you have confidence in your top core. We had a really good second line as well, so we were pretty confident going into it.
GK: How would you compare playing styles across the North American leagues you’ve competed in versus the WHL?
RL: I would say that the Russian style is definitely more disciplined. We take more risky chances, but that's because we're very confident in each player. If we make a mistake, each player is going to make up for that mistake. It's not like they give up on plays. I definitely felt a little bit more confident doing things or making plays that I normally wouldn't if we were playing in the CWHL, because those plays might become turnovers. In this league, because they do back off and they trap us, you have more space to work with, so you have more space to make mistakes and also make up for those mistakes.
We're able to play that more creative style we want to play, especially off the rush. I don't know the exact statistic, but most of the goals scored in professional are off the rush. Our team was definitely able to regroup in the neutral zone, which is something we worked on a lot in practice, and attack the zone and try to get odd-man rushes.
GK: You have quite a few newcomers this season. How do you think that the high-profile additions will impact the culture?
RL: What I'm really excited about is the competitiveness that we're going to have on the ice. Last year was a little bit tough for me, I'm not going to lie or sugarcoat it. Not in terms of conditioning or how hard the practices were, but I thought that I could have been pushed harder. And especially if I'm thinking about the  Olympics, I need to be pushed to a place where I feel very uncomfortable. I didn't feel that way.
With the new lineup, I love it. Look at [Alexandra] Vafina, for example. I actually played with her last summer in a tournament and I love the way she plays. She's a really smart player. There's been a couple of other new additions who are just huge, big players. I want players to be able to push me around, because I need to push through that stuff. I'm super excited for every practice because I know it's going to be competitive, plus having Noora there to shoot on. You need a perfect shot, every shot, to score on her.
GK: You were hired as both a strength trainer and player in year one. How did you balance those responsibilities?
RL: In 2017, Digit Murphy was coaching at the time. [Kunlun] brought me in and they said, "We want you to have a dual role.” This was true of a lot of the players at that time. Everyone knew that if they weren't strictly a coach, they were going to be a mentor. That was the main reason you were there—to mentor the Chinese players.
With my position, it was clear that I was going to be both a strength coach and a player. Digit was really good about it. In terms of [on-ice] expectations, it was like, "You're going to be a third-line forward. Don't expect to move up in the lineup, but at the same time, you can make such a big impact off the ice. Don’t get scored on, and mentor your Chinese linemate.”
That allowed me to focus on the strength training side that first season, and that was probably the most important season to get to know the Chinese players and develop relationships. I wanted them to understand what I was saying, and to do that, I definitely had to meet them where they were, so that took a lot of patience.
GK: I can’t imagine that “standing down” on the ice, so to speak, would be easy for any player who still had gas left in the tank.
RL: I’m a competitive athlete. You want to score because you can, but I just didn't have the mental energy because it was being spent on coaching as well. I had to warm up the team. I had to cool down the team. I had to train the team—on game days, even. If we had a 7:00 PM game, I would train myself at 8:00 and then train two different groups right after me to get whatever they needed in.
We had a great culture that year. Kelli Stack was our captain, and she did a very good job keeping everyone in line, but also making sure everyone understood what we were trying to do and trying to accomplish. So that was the first year. And believe me, I had times when I was so tired mentally that I'd be throwing stuff around in the weight room. You're trying to relay principles and concepts and sometimes they just don't get through, and you're just frustrated because you don't know another way. You have to learn on the go. I had a lot of those moments.
GK: How did things change once you were able to put your playing career first?
RL: Transitioning into the 2018-19 season, I was told, "You're not going to be the strength coach anymore.” I was still mentoring the girls off the ice—making sure that nutrition, recovery and all that stuff was covered—but I didn't make it my number one priority. I was able to work after practice, and that’s where I started working with Mel [Jue] on some skills. She started giving me her own concepts, her own principles—making me work smarter, and not harder, was a huge stepping stone for my career. She had me focused on things that I was going to excel at and execute in games, and we worked on that for the season.
With Brian [Idalski] coming in last season, he was straightforward. He was like, "I'd rather have you focus 100% on playing and not have to worry about [coaching].” I was on the ice with Mel before practice at Goalie World and post-practice. If we knew we were playing a certain team, we’d say, "Okay, these are their tendencies. These are your tendencies. Here's a higher-percentage play." We would work on that for the days leading up to those games, and it clearly worked.
GK: Kunlun initially set out to train a Chinese National Team ahead of the Beijing 2022 Winter Games. Do those Olympic dreams still play into your day-to-day training and mentorship?
RL: When I was coaching, I wanted to make sure that we were doing something every day that added to our foundation, that would help us to be successful when we go to 2022. That was always in the back of my mind.
We don't speak about it now, but as a strength coach in 2017, I was looking at these players and thinking, "At least ten of these girls are going to [make the Olympics], so focus on the ones who you know." Even the borderline ones and the younger players, introduce them to elite, professional hockey and what you need to do—not just how to train, but how to recover, and your habits outside of the rink. That’s culture, right? You can't change that overnight. You can't change that in a year. It was more of just stating what needs to be done, and leaving it up to them.
With the Chinese players, they have tough lives. I know what's happening day in, day out with those players. They're always on the ice. Right now, they're on the ice. They've been on the ice since June, I think, and I still talk to them and give them recovery work.
We haven’t been with the same group for the last two years. In our second year, we had pretty much the same group. They had cut one team, but the Chinese players were still there. Last year, they sent many of the Chinese players to Minnesota. We still had ‘Big Liu’ [Zhixin Liu], but the other players we had were younger. I don't think they're expected to be on the 2022 roster, but it definitely helped them to be in a high-intensity environment. The real group that we needed to work with wasn't there. I watched a couple of games at their Worlds last year, and I'm pretty bummed because [the level] is not where it needs to be. This is the year when you need to put things together. I don't know what's happening with [Chinese Olympic selection] at the moment, or how the North Americans are going to merge with the Chinese nationals.
GK: Are your own Olympic aspirations behind the bench, or on the ice?
RL: I hope to be on that  roster, and if not on the roster, I hope to be a strength coach. I think I've made that clear to our General Manager that I want the option for both. I've kept data from every single player who has been through our program. I keep that up on a yearly basis just to show them where they were, versus where they are or where they need to be. Even if it's not asked of me, I'll do it because I care.
If I go as a player, that'd be awesome. I think for me, that would be the pinnacle of my career. The way I'm going now with Mel helping me, and being able to still compete in a league, I think I'll be at peak position to compete at the Olympics if I'm given the opportunity.
GK: How did you get into hockey in the first place?
RL: I started when I was twelve, and it was just on a whim. I had been invited to a birthday skating party. It was the first time that I was on the ice. When I stepped on, I can't tell you how natural that feeling was. It’s probably because I had rollerbladed all of the time, but a lot of people tell you that no one is good their first time on the ice. But I just took to it right away. I wasn't a pretty skater—I looked like I was running on the ice, but I was really fast. I kept with it.
My dad kept making deals with me: "If you can skate around the rink backwards without falling or hitting somebody, I'll get you a piece of equipment." So I had to earn all of my equipment, and then he told me,"I don't want to sign you up for a league because I don't want you to embarrass yourself." Being twelve, the girls and boys that I was playing against had been playing since they were six or eight. I had a huge disadvantage in that sense, but being older, you're more mature and you understand what the coaches are telling you at the time. You learn faster. I picked the game up pretty fast, and speed helped. I think everyone loves someone who has speed, so I was always up there. I played boys' hockey until I was 14 and then switched over to the girls' side. Or not switched over, I was playing both.
My parents loved it because they got to spend hours inside the rink in ninety-degree weather. And to me, I think the best part about it was that I never expected to go so high in hockey. I was only doing it because I really loved it. I was in love with the game—in love with how hard it was to learn and get good at things. Whatever reason I started playing, I don't know, but I'm glad I did.
GK: You played against NHL and KHL veteran Alexei Yashin at an outdoor game on Red Square this season. Describe that experience.
RL: [Laughs] Honestly, at first, I tried to get out of that game. I was like, "I don't want to go play with this other team of girls who probably hate my guts!”
When I got there, the jersey had my last name spelled in Russian. I was like, "That is absolutely sick. This is my favorite jersey." I have it hung up in my gym. And then Yashin, knowing his history in Russia and with the Olympic Team, I realized that this was going to be a cool opportunity. My favorite part was probably that breakaway goal I scored because it was the longest skate of my life. I was like, "This is taking really long!”
GK: I was there, and it definitely didn’t seem like the other girls hated your guts!
RL: Thinking about it, being scared of playing with the other Russian girls, I enjoyed it a lot because they were so welcoming. They knew who I was. I think they were even making fun of me in Russian at one point! They made sure I was included. The captain for Ufa took me under her wing and I felt really comfortable. Normally I only see them on the other end of the ice, when I’m playing against them. I got to see how smart they are as hockey players, and how much more they communicate and how they see the game. That was a once-in-a-lifetime thing—I mean, who gets to do that? A North American playing in Red Square. It's just another part of my career that I'm super thankful for.
GK: I hate to even ask this question as a dog mom myself, but…how hard will it be to say goodbye to your pups?
RL: Oh man, why'd you have to bring that up? It’s a bummer, but I’ve been trying to spend more time with them. I think they see my bag so they know it's coming, and that's what makes me so sad. I’ve been taking them on their favorite walks and stuff.
I brought home two dogs from China, and one of them is mine. They're just the comfort that you need to get you away from whatever's bothering you. So yeah, it's going to be hard. I think it’ll be harder on them to be honest—they’re not going to have their nice walks and extra treats. Titan, my corgi, will sit in my suitcase on the days leading up and just look at me. He’s like, "Don't do that!”