Wong’s grandmother Violet immigrated to Canada from the southern Chinese village of Taishan when she was eighteen, in pursuit of a future far less certain than the humble surroundings she left behind. Her courage underpins each accolade that Wong has collected on the ice, from an U18 World Juniors silver medal in 2009 to a WHL Championship last March. When Kunlun Red Star presented an opportunity to live and play in China, the offer extended beyond employment. It was an invitation for Wong to explore a heritage she had only known from afar, preserved in the traditions that her grandmother carried across an ocean.
“It opened my eyes, especially because I had the chance to go and see my grandmother's village,” Wong recounted of her first season in Shenzhen. “It actually brought me to tears, just from how my grandmother started her life to where she's at now. It's something that I'm very proud of, and I'm thankful to her and my family for what they've done.”
The pride is undoubtedly mutual. Wong’s hockey war chest is packed, to put it lightly—including two gold medals for Team Canada at the Meco Cup, and a 2010 NCAA Championship for Minnesota-Duluth (Wong scored in triple-overtime to deliver the title). She was selected first overall in the 2013 CWHL Draft, retiring two seasons later to work for Hockey Canada—although her hiatus would not last long. Wong joined Kunlun Red Star in 2017, a team she is now leading in pursuit of back-to-back WHL championships.
I caught up with the Vanke Rays’ co-captain from Stupino, Russia, where the team is temporarily housed due to COVID-19.
Gillian Kemmerer (GK): Let’s start from the very beginning. What are your earliest memories of playing hockey?
Jessica Wong (JW): My earliest memories would probably be when I was back home in Cape Breton. My parents would drive me an hour each way, two times per week for practices, and then again on the weekends. I'd be playing in Inverness and Port Hood and would be driving right after school. I would practice, then come home, go to school the next morning and then do it all again.
GK: That is a big commitment—not just for you, but for your family.
JW: Cape Breton is so small that there's not the same opportunities for young athletes as there would be if you were in a big city. You had to do what you had to do to play on the best teams. I was lucky enough to have my family behind me, and they were willing to drag me to practices and games.
My dad actually grew up playing hockey. Supposedly he was a good player—as he tells me all of the time! Growing up, he played and then my sister and my brother played as well. Its just kind of been in the family.
GK: You were one of very few Chinese heritage players at that time in Nova Scotia. Did you ever experience racism in those early days of competition?
JW: Back then, I didn't really notice it until there were a few things said to me. Not so nice things. Obviously being young, you don't really notice those things as much as you would nowadays. But back then, I had the odd [slur] said to me on the ice.
GK: How did you process those moments as a kid?
JW: I had heard it from my dad beforehand. My dad had said like, “This is something you’ve got to deal with, and it's not okay—but don't let it get to you.” And back then, if they said something to you, it was alright to say something back. But I was never that kid, I just kind of shrugged it off and—like my dad said—went about my business.
GK: Unfortunately, it sounds like he was speaking from experience.
JW: Yeah he was, and he had warned me that there had been things said to him— that it’s just society and it is what it is. It's definitely something that shouldn't have been, but it was a long time ago. But yeah, my dad did fill me in on some things.
GK: If we could turn back time, what would you have wanted from the coaches and leaders around you?
JW: I think that you have got to stick up for that kid. You’ve got to stick up for all of your players no matter what, but also move forward with it. Don't let it be okay. It's not something that should ever be brought up or said. It's not acceptable and there should be a little bit more awareness of it—but that being said, I think they're doing a fairly good job now.
GK: What was your relationship to your Chinese heritage before you moved to China?
JW: Honestly, it was through my grandmother—she came to Canada when she was eighteen. She brings our heritage out and always reminds us of where we've come from, and I appreciate what she does for us, and what she has done for us to pave the way.
She cooks a lot of the Chinese meals for us, but also gets us together and keeps a few [religious] traditions. She makes sure that we have certain meals on certain holidays or on our birthdays for good luck. She's definitely always looking out for us, I'll tell you that.
GK: We are in the midst of Lunar New Year. What would she be cooking up if you were home?
JW: Dumplings, chicken, vegetables, stir-fries and noodles. All of the good stuff!
GK: I interviewed Melanie Jue not so long ago, and she said that living in China really strengthened her relationship to her heritage. Have you experienced something similar?
JW: Yeah, I would definitely have to agree with that. That's something that I had always wanted to do—to travel to China. It opened my eyes, especially because I had the chance to go and see my grandmother's village. It was my second year toward the end of the season. I asked Jojo [a former KRS employee] if she could take me. It was about a six-hour drive from Shenzhen. One of my grandmother’s brothers was able to come from Vancouver, Uncle Jim. He goes to the village every few years.
That trip was very eye-opening. It actually brought me to tears, just from how my grandmother started her life to where she's at now. It's something that I'm very proud of, and I'm thankful to her and my family for what they've done. I don’t even know how to describe it, but it was one of the best experiences for me.
GK: You represented Canada at U18 Worlds. How does the prospect of playing for Team China in 2022 differ?
JW: That was one chapter, obviously, playing for Team Canada. But this is definitely something I'm excited [about]. It's a lot closer to my heart, especially with my grandmother. It's half my heritage and it's a great opportunity. I hope that it all works out in the end, but obviously there are some kinks that have to be worked out. I guess it's just more of a waiting game now.
GK: You left retirement to take the Kunlun opportunity. What was the draw?
JW: I was working at Hockey Canada and I had gotten a few phone calls that there was an opportunity to mentor the Chinese National Team. As soon as I heard that, it was definitely something I was interested in. Whether it was going to happen or not, I wasn't sure, but I definitely was willing to take the chance. It's something that I have loved doing in the last few years—mentoring the [Chinese-born] players. I love these girls dearly.
GK: You and your defensive partner, Megan Bozek, played college at the same time. Did you face one another?
JW: Yeah, we played against each other. We ended up looking at the exact same school, University of Minnesota. I think she was looking at the school the same time I was looking, but we ended up going separate ways. We actually met again at the CWHL All-Star Game. We were paired together and then ended up playing together here. It was pretty funny.
GK: You’re one of the best defensive pairings in the league. What is the source of your chemistry?
JW: I think we read off of each other well. Honestly, if I do something, she knows right where I'm going to be. It has worked out ever since. Bozek's a great player and I know she covers my butt a lot, so I have got to thank her for that!
GK: You won the WHL title with Kunlun last year. How would you compare this year’s squad to last year’s championship team?
JW: Honestly, it'd be unfair of me to say I really knew the team last year, just because I was in and out quite a bit. I was really only with the team for a few weeks, so I didn't get to know the girls as much as I have this year. Honestly, this team is such a great group. I don't think I've ever been on a team where we all get along. I can't say enough about the group that we have here, especially with the hard times right now. The only time we really get to socialize is at dinner, breakfast, or some type of meal, and at the hockey rink. We have a lot of laughs when we are together. This group is pretty special.
GK: You are captaining the team this season. What has that meant to you?
JW: It means a lot to get the respect from the whole team. I'm honored to wear it. Half the time, I share it with Carp, but there's definitely a lot of girls on the team that deserve it as well. I appreciate it and want to do everything I can for the team and definitely put the team first. I just love the group.
GK: What will be the focus for your remaining regular season games?
JW: We definitely have a tough schedule coming up. I think it's going to take a lot of determination, grit. We’ve got to stay healthy as well, especially with all of the travel and the back-to-back games, and then heading into playoffs. We're definitely hunting down that cup again, but we’ve got to get through some pretty good teams first. Sometimes we get ahead of ourselves and try to make the best pass or whatever, but if we do the right thing and keep it simple, everything will work out for us.
GK: What do you miss about living and playing in Shenzhen?
JW: The weather and the palm trees and my scooter! And honestly, the people in our community. It's amazing to see when you’re driving your scooter that they're trying to say hi to you and they're smiling. Our facility's next to none. I don't think anyone has the facility we do. If someone ever has the chance to go, Shenzhen is definitely a place to visit in China. It’s an amazing city—up and coming.
GK: What are the off-ice passions that keep you grounded?
JW: I love golfing. And honestly, just being with my dogs. That's my therapy. When I'm here, I do a lot of reading and watching movies and stuff. I recently read Brian Burke’s book. I’ve been watching a lot of reality tv shows and mindless stuff that take my mind off of COVID and all of the anxiety associated with it. Its been a struggle, but everyone’s going through it. I've never meditated before, and I started meditating recently. Honestly, I try to do everything I can to just get my mind off of things.
GK: When you look back on the experience at Kunlun someday, what will have constituted success for you?
JW: That’s tough. Success? I don't know. I just am proud of the girls and everything that we've done for them, and what KRS has done for us. We wouldn't be able to do this and experience this amazing life if KRS wasn't here. I never knew that I was going to be able to travel to China and see where my grandmother was brought up, but I was so lucky that I've been to China many times now. And I've been to many other countries because KRS has given us this experience.
GK: Could you have ever fathomed playing pro hockey in China as a kid?
JW: No. That's what I say to these girls. This is such an amazing opportunity for you. Coming straight out of college, this is a dream.
GK: What is one lesson from hockey that you will take with you always?
JW: Probably a lot of lessons. Teamwork is a big one because you need that growing up, and especially as I have a husband now, I bring that into my relationship. Teamwork, hard work, determination—those are all of the things that I'm going to bring into my life. As an athlete, that's what you need to be successful.