“I thought that this would be the year,” Emily Costales said of the 2021 campaign, which ended abruptly after positive COVID tests on Ufa forced a postponement of the finals. “It’s just sad to end it like that, and not be able to be [celebrating] in the Sky Bar like last year. Everyone had their hopes up — ‘We’ll be back at the Sky Bar, get the drinks ready.’ We had an idea of how we wanted the season to end, and then it just completely got snatched away.”
A fellow returner to the Shenzhen roster, Leah Lum offered similar regrets — but expressed gratitude that the WHL was able to stage a championship in the first place. “It was just something to be thankful for — that we were able to do what we love to do,” she said, having recently returned home after a brief pitstop in Florida.
Vancouver-born Costales made appearances for Syracuse and the University of British Columbia before joining the Vanke Rays in 2019. She spent most of the season paired with KRS newcomers Lindsay Agnew and Alexandra Vafina, and is among the heritage players hoping for a spot on Team China at the upcoming Beijing Olympics. A fellow native of British Columbia with eyes on Team China, Lum represented the University of Connecticut before joining Shenzhen in 2018. She was drafted 11th overall in the CWHL Entry Draft — the former home of KRS until the league folded two years ago — and was named to the WHL All-Star Team last January.
I caught up with the globetrotting pair of forwards from home, where they completed the final days of a two-week quarantine. We discussed the unique season, some new hobbies born of the pandemic and more.
Gillian Kemmerer: Were you surprised that the WHL was able to stage its season in the midst of the pandemic?
Leah Lum (LL): Yeah, we were so thankful that we were even able to play. I know so many leagues have been postponed and whatnot. Even at the start of the season, everyone still had no idea [what would happen]. Usually we head over to China at the end of August, but August came around and really nothing was said. Then we finally heard that the season was going through, so that’s when we first headed over to Russia. It was just something to be thankful for — that we were able to do what we love to do.
GK: What were some of the highlights of this atypical season?
LL: I think the second half in general was a huge highlight. The first half was super long. Many of us got COVID, and so there was a lot of quarantining in the first half and postponed games. In the second half, we were just rolling, playing game after game, not too much practice. There was the last road trip that we had — Yekaterinburg, Ufa and then Siberia. We ended up winning the regular season, which we didn’t do last year because Ufa had beaten us out. That was super cool to do in Siberia, and then we had a nice little team party at the end of it. Realizing a few weeks later that it was our last game was kindof sad to look back on.
GK: How was the news first broken to the team that the WHL Finals had been postponed?
Emily Costales (EC): We had practices for probably a week prepping for the finals. During that time, I was just scrolling on Instagram one night — and it was pretty late too, so not all of the players were awake. I saw a story from the WHL and it said, “The finals are postponed due to COVID. There have been positive tests on Ufa.” I remember screenshotting it and sending it directly to Bose and Wong like, “What is going on? Have you guys heard about this?”
Usually the older girls know what’s up, but that time they were like, “What? No. What the heck?” We messaged in the group and some of the girls were sleeping still, so they didn’t even see it until the morning, but everyone was just freaking out. That was the initial reaction, but then we started to think, “It’s okay. We’ll play maybe a week later, or a week and a half later.” As we got more information, it seemed that more of the girls tested positive for COVID and obviously they were all in the same bubble. Our team was in a weird spot because we didn’t know whether we were playing or not.
A few days later, we found out that most of their team had to quarantine for two weeks. And by the time their quarantine ended, our Russian visas would be up. That would have been hard to fix, especially in the midst of all of this. A lot of the girls were going to national camps too, so that would have gotten in the way. I’m sure [Ufa] probably didn’t want to play against us after sitting out for two weeks. They probably would have wanted a week or so to come back.
GK: After you found out that the finals had been postponed, how quickly did the team leave Stupino?
EC: It was honestly so fast. One day, I was walking into the grocery store like, “When are we going home? What should I buy?” I figured we’d be there for another three weeks, so I just loaded up on everything. Then literally we got back to the hotel and they were like, “We’re looking at flights home.” Some of the girls left the following day, and I left two days later. It was so fast that I barely got to say bye to most of the girls, because some of them just left. It was sad because everyone was gone right away. We just wanted to get home.
GK: Pandemic aside, were there any other qualities that set this season apart?
LL: When we first came on the scene, we were given a role in the development of the Chinese girls. Obviously this year it took a turn because we only had four of them on the team. We had a lot of Europeans and Olympians from everywhere around the world. It was super cool this year to be around so many different cultures, and to ask them about all of their experiences from the Olympics that they’ve been in and all of that. We had so many high-quality players and personalities.
GK: This roster does not normally have a ton of Russian players. I would think their presence was super helpful given that the team based itself in the Moscow region.
LL: Sasha was the GOAT. At one point she was the “Sasha Express.” If you needed something, you went to her and she was your go-to. She’d order it off of Russian Amazon — Ozon. Sasha was the ultimate plug for us, that’s for sure.
GK: Did you get to fly back with a group of your teammates?
EC: We were lucky to all be on a flight together — me, Miller, Wongie, Mel and Wilk. All of the girls going back to the West. We flew Moscow to Amsterdam, Amsterdam to Calgary and then Calgary to Vancouver. We had to stay three days in a hotel in Calgary for quarantine until we got a negative COVID test. We were all in separate hotel rooms, but we could go out for walks, so we scheduled those at the same time. We were only able to hang out together for like half an hour. After the quarantine, we were able to fly the rest of the way home.
GK: What did you do during quarantine?
LL: I watched more Netflix than what I normally do — an absurd amount in the first half. I don’t really watch a lot of Netflix, even when I’m home for the summer. I’m an outdoorsy person. The amount of shows I watched or had on was insane. I watched Peaky Blinders, just a bunch of movies. Minttu gave me a puzzle once, which took me a long time to do. Emily was my neighbor, so we’d open the doors and just chat with our doors open at some point. Wilk was on my other side, so we’d go on the balcony and have conversations on the balcony. Sometimes, we’d all yell on our balconies and then everybody would come out. It would be so nice to see a familiar face, because in quarantine, you don’t see anybody. You miss human interaction.
EC: Nothing. I’m so used to doing nothing, it’s like I’m like retired. My sister jokes, “You are literally a sixty year old, retired, living the dream.” I was like, “I know.”
GK: You should take up knitting!
EC: Oh, Minttu did during the year. So many girls had different things. I play the ukulele. Kim likes to sing, so I’d just play and she’d sing. It was hilarious. We did a duet to Ed Sheeran’s “Perfect” once.
GK: Did you have a team meeting to discuss the future before departing Russia?
EC: Yeah, we did — Claire [the Vanke Rays’ GM] had a meeting with us before we all left. It wasn’t fully, “We won’t be playing,” but we questioned the odds that they were going to fly us back in June or later. There are so many like Bose and Carp who have National Team camp. They’re just rolling into the Olympics now and have so many things leading up to next year already. I don’t even think it would be plausible to have the exact same personnel on the team. I’ll be praying that those girls get centralized [for the Olympic Team], but if they do, they’d be fully off the team. It’s hard to even think about that given how the season ended. We might not be able to ever play with them again.
Some of the girls’ contracts are done in March, so who’s to say what is going to happen next? I guess it’s up to the company and everyone’s separate agreements. The meeting pretty much ended with, “Have a safe flight home — stay healthy. We’ll let you know if we need you.”
GK: When did the gravity of the situation hit you? I can imagine there was a lot of disappointment in light of how strong the Vanke Rays looked, and how your playoffs personally ended last year.
LL: We were having so much fun in the second half, and we ended the regular season on the highest note that we could by winning it. We were so pumped to go into the last championship series, whether it was Ufa or SKIF, on such a high. Having it end like that was just the biggest bummer, because you worked so hard the whole season. If we had known that we had played our last game, we would have cherished it a little more.
EC: I think it kind of hit me when I was in Calgary, sitting in that hotel room. I was like, “Shit, this is done. I’m home.” It was pretty devastating. We had such a special group this year — it was just so unfair. We meshed really well together, and we all went through so much stuff like having COVID together. So many games were canceled or postponed, but we were rolling toward the end of the season. Obviously I got hurt last year and couldn’t be on the ice when we won. I thought that this would be the year.
It’s just sad to end it like that, and not be able to be [celebrating] in the Sky Bar like last year. Everyone had their hopes up — "We’ll be back at the Sky Bar, get the drinks ready." We had an idea of how we wanted the season to end, and then it just completely got snatched away. I think that was the most upsetting part because we all expected such good things together, and obviously it was really sad when it didn’t come through.
GK: Are there specific instructions for what to do in the meantime?
EC: Realistically for everyone, when they go back home — all of the rinks are pretty much closed unless you pay a lot. If they do decide to reschedule the finals in August or whatever, I hope that we can take a week or two weeks before [to prepare]. That’s all we need though. Everyone’s working out consistently, so it’s just the on-ice that would need to be subbed in.
GK: Do you believe that one team was impacted by the postponement more so than the other?
EC: I think it’s both. I don’t want to say fully Ufa, but I think it was pretty tough to come out of the semis playing five games in a row, and then to play against us three days later. Things happen, though. They couldn’t really control COVID. But I think that we were rolling, and I think that our team this year was pretty strong.
LL: I think it impacted us more. We knew the potential that we had because the group of girls was amazing. We are a pretty talented roster. I think we knew that we could have gone back-to-back.
GK: Have you heard anything about a possible return to Shenzhen next season?
EC: No, sadly. It doesn’t look too good for next year. I think we really miss the community. We used to go to different shops, we knew certain people. We often wonder how they’re doing. It’s just a different atmosphere completely. It’s really nice being in a city where it feels small enough that you know people, even though you can’t fully speak with them.
GK: How will you plan to train this summer?
LL: Ice time is definitely a sticky situation. I’ll probably do what I usually do in every off season, just train. I’m not sure about gyms either, but I have a couple of things at home and I like to go on bikes and hikes with my dog. Anything that I can do to utilize the outdoors and get my training done will be good.
EC: Last year, we were in the same boat with COVID closures and ice time. I like to do road riding and then workout at home because I have a pretty good setup there. It hasn’t been too hard. Luckily I have some gym equipment at home, so mostly just staying in shape, riding whenever I can and then working out a lot. Hopefully I’ll be able to get on the ice a little bit. Mel, Kim and Leah — all of us are from British Columbia — so I think we’ll be able to link up at some point and get on the ice together.