“The middle of November and December were tough here,” said Megan Bozek, a U.S. Olympic silver medalist and mainstay of the KRS defensive core. “We’d wake up and it was dark, and we’d get back from the rink and it was dark. We would miss the only two hours of visible light that we had. It definitely takes a toll on you.”
After COVID-19 ransacked the globe, the Vanke Rays were exiled from their home in the southern Chinese tech hub of Shenzhen, forced to play the entirety of the WHL postseason on the road. They were crowned league champions from Ufa, where even the arena termed their “home rink” was located on rival turf. While some travel restrictions have eased since the start of the pandemic, the team was unable to return to Shenzhen for the 2020-2021 season. They have been temporarily housed at a health resort in Stupino, a small city ninety-nine kilometers south of Moscow. Local winters plunge to depths of -19°C in January, a far cry from sun-soaked Shenzhen where players cruise the city on scooters and visit hotel rooftop pools on coveted days off.
“That rink in Shenzhen is probably one of the hottest rinks I’ve actually ever played [in],” Bozek said of the Universiade Arena, located in the city’s Longgang district. “Even the glass gets fogged up.”
Climate adjustment aside, the Vanke Rays find themselves under much tighter restrictions in light of the pandemic, unable to dine-in at restaurants or visit local shops. It is a tough reversal for a team that often bonded over hot pot in China, an interactive meal where diners cook their own meat and vegetables in a communal pot of soup. Grocery store runs are limited to once per week, and distancing measures are equally enforced on the road. The team has taken to exploring the functions of the health resort where they are housed, including horseback riding through the grounds and an occasional visit to the banya. The addition of Russian teammates Alexandra Vafina, Maria Pushkar and Milena Tretyak this season has helped to bridge language and cultural barriers.
More suited to Muscovites on weekend retreats than a professional hockey team, the resort complex did not have all of the comforts of home ice—particularly where training facilities were concerned. “For the first five weeks, we didn’t have any weights because the gym had ping pong tables and one spin bike, very old equipment,” said Bozek. “To work out as a team, there wasn’t even enough equipment for two people.” While it took several weeks to sort out logistical snags, gratitude for the opportunity outweighed short-term discomfort. “We’re lucky that we’re still playing, to be honest,” she added.
The Vanke Rays share their home rink with Kapitan Stupino, a club in Russia’s Junior League (JHL) that has become a makeshift fanbase. Bozek said that the boys often stay an extra hour or two after practice to root on their temporary neighbors. With attendance numbers that range from 2,000 to 3,000 during the regular season, the Vanke Rays have sorely missed the Shenzhen hockey community that flourished with their inception.
In spite of extenuating circumstances, the Chinese club remains within striking distance of perennial league powerhouse Agidel Ufa, only three points separating the rival squads. Anchored by high-profile international talent including five-time World Champion Alex Carpenter and four-time Finnish Olympian Noora Räty, the reigning champions will be difficult to dethrone.
The most recent series versus Agidel offered little opportunity for the Vanke Rays to catch their breath after the season break. Several of the players had only returned from North America twenty-four hours before the double-header, a rematch of last year’s finals. Agidel took a 5-1 lead in the first period until KRS stabilized, waging a three-goal comeback that fell just short of equalizing. The Vanke Rays split the series twenty-four hours later, winning a tight 4-3 clash before sweeping Biryusa.
“[Ufa] has that scoring touch from both forwards and defense,” Bozek said. “Their top lines log probably 35 minutes, so it’s tough to play against them. And obviously they’ve been playing together for a while, so I’m excited to face them again leading into the playoffs.”
While the WHL postseason is only one month away, another challenge looms further ahead on the horizon: national team selection for the 2022 Olympic Games in Beijing. Several of the Chinese heritage and national players will hope to wear the host nation’s colors in their Olympic debuts. Megan Bozek and Alex Carpenter, both of whom represented the United States in Sochi, were left off of the 2018 PyeongChang roster that took home gold. The bitter disappointment of four years prior could have broken another athlete. For Bozek, it illuminated the depth of her resilience.
“With how the 2018 selection went, it taught me a lot,” she said. “You can be defeated, you can get knocked down, but there’s always more. There are decisions you have to make with continuing on or calling it a career, but I never lost that passion. I never lost that drive.
I felt like I had more to give.”