“To be honest, my grandfather was my main motivation. I felt like I wanted to have a real conversation with him,” she described of studying Mandarin as an undergraduate, despite a grueling course load. “I didn't want to regret never having really talked to him. My Chinese wasn’t perfect, but I got to see that I could actually communicate and get to know him in a way that would have otherwise been impossible. I'm super grateful that I did that, because that's actually the last time I saw my grandfather.”
Poignant reconnection with family and heritage aside, the British Columbia native uncovered new heights for her resurrected hockey career. The former U18 World Juniors Champion now has sights set on an Olympic berth for Team China, and picked up the WHL’s top prize in March of 2020. While the Vanke Rays were unable to repeat at the COVID-postponed finals this month, Newell took home the award for goaltender of the year and posted her best-ever professional showing.
I caught up with the Russian league’s top netminder from Moscow, where the Shenzhen Vanke Rays prepared to take on newly-minted champions Agidel Ufa. We discussed her reworked Olympic dream, adventures in China and much more.
Gillian Kemmerer (GK): You played college hockey for Princeton University. Back then, did you ever imagine that your career would turn pro?
Kimberly Newell (KN): I think that for a lot of women’s hockey players, college is our quote-unquote professional career. And at the time, I had aspirations to play for Hockey Canada as I'd been in their U18 program. I thought that playing at Princeton was going to be the be-all and end-all, but it's funny how things come around in ways that you couldn't have expected. I had absolutely no idea that I would play professional hockey.
GK: You didn’t move straight from Princeton to Kunlun Red Star. What did you do in the gap?
KN: That’s right, I actually took two years off. Well, to be more accurate, I retired and then made a comeback.
GK: That sounds cooler anyway.
KN: When I was playing at Princeton, I thought that was going to be my last four years of hockey. I'd studied economics and finance, and ended up getting a job in finance working in New York City. I put hockey behind me and was like, “I’m off to be a career woman.” But in the middle of that, I was contacted by Digit Murphy who coached Kunlun Red Star in their first year. She was like, “Hey Kim, you should come play for us. We have a team in China.” I thought to myself, “Sorry, what? There’s a hockey team in China? This has got to be a scam or something.”
But I talked to her and did a lot of thinking, because obviously after two years off, it would be a lot of work getting back into playing shape. But I figured, why not? There are so few chances to play sports professionally, in China to boot. I had taken Mandarin in college as a way to reconnect with my Chinese roots and to communicate with my Chinese relatives. I felt like this was the perfect opportunity for me to continue that in a deeper way, living in China and experiencing the culture and playing with other Chinese players. It was such a unique opportunity that I couldn’t pass up.
GK: Had you been to China before signing with KRS?
KN: A few times. I don't know if this is a tradition everywhere, but when we were kids, if you made the playoffs, you had to dye your hair blonde. So my brother and I both dyed our hair all blonde and then we went to China. This was a little more than fifteen years ago when there were barely any foreigners in China—and although we are half, we looked white to them. Strangers everywhere were asking to take our pictures!
GK: Several players on the Vanke Rays have said that their experience in Shenzhen really strengthened their relationship to their Chinese heritage. Would you say the same?
KN: Before I moved to Shenzhen, I definitely felt very disconnected from that heritage, in the sense that my mom moved to Canada and had completely embraced being in North America. We barely spoke any Chinese growing up, and our Chinese relatives all lived on the other side of the world. The couple of times that I was in China, I felt like an outsider. They were obviously very warm and welcoming, but I couldn't communicate with them and that really had an impact on me. It fueled my motivation in college to take Mandarin classes despite the heavy course load, and I think that was part of my motivation for wanting to give this experience a try.
Living in China definitely gave me a new appreciation for the depth of the culture. Chinese culture is so vast, and also it's not a monolith. It is a country comprised of all of these different regions, different traditions, different accents and different ways of doing things.
GK: Did you get that chance to reconnect with your family as your language skills sharpened?
KN: After the first season, I took a week and went to visit my grandfather and family that were living in Hangzhou. To be honest, my grandfather was my main motivation. I felt like I wanted to have a real conversation with him. I didn't want to regret never having really talked to him. My Chinese wasn’t perfect, but I got to see that I could actually communicate and get to know him in a way that would have otherwise been impossible.
I'm super grateful that I did that, because that's actually the last time I saw my grandfather. He had a stroke that fall, and then this past Christmas he passed away. So it's almost like it was meant to be. I just remember thinking when I made a decision to take Chinese classes, even my mom was like, "Why are you doing this? You don't need to do this. It's going to be so much work." And I had this one thought in my head—I just want to be able to have one conversation with my grandfather. And I am so grateful I did that.
GK: That is an incredible story. Part of the Kunlun Red Star mission has always been to ice the Chinese Olympic Team for Beijing 2022. While I know the final roster hasn’t been set yet, what does that potential Olympic opportunity mean to you—particularly as it relates to representing China?
KN: Growing up, playing for Team Canada was always my dream. I was on the U18 National Team when we won the World Championship. It was definitely really tough letting go of that when I retired from hockey. It's one of those things where you think to yourself, “Oh, it’s high time to grow up,” but it's almost like the passion dies a little bit. I’ve had it reignited, but in a different way. It's not going to be the same as when you were growing up. It’s more mature now. It doesn't burn as bright, but it's a more steady flame—if that makes sense. It’s definitely a very meaningful opportunity to have another shot at something that I always had in the back of my mind as the ultimate goal or achievement.
GK: Has there been any clarity offered on what the final roster will look like?
KN: There’s not a ton of clarity yet. Right now, we have a roster of Chinese players, college players and pro heritage players. We have around 30 or so. I would expect that different players are going to be given chances to play, and then things are going to shake out according to everyone's level and chemistry. It will also depend on the passport situation.
Given how many heritage players are here right now and how much they're investing in us, I think they will do what they can to make it happen. There are no guarantees, but we will have to see.
GK: You were awarded goaltender of the year for last season’s performance. Were you consciously aware that you were having a breakout year at the time?
KN: It was definitely one of the toughest seasons that I ever played, and to be quite honest, most of the season I had actually no idea. I was just literally going day by day and game by game. It was only near the end when I looked back and I was like, “Oh, I'm actually doing well this year! Why don't I just keep doing the same things I've been doing?”
When you focus too much on the result and worry too much about the outcome, you kind of forget about what you're actually doing right now. When you just forget about it and focus on working hard and improving, not worrying about all the other stuff, things just seem to take care of themselves. And then you look back and think, “That turned out pretty well, didn’t it?”
GK: That’s an understatement. It feels like you just summarized the ideal mindset of a goaltender in a nutshell.
KN: The number one takeaway that my dad taught me was just to focus on the next shot. If there's one thing, one mantra, one reminder, one motto—that would be it. All you can focus on is the next shot, which is really the only thing that you have the ability to change at this point.
GK: I take it your dad was a goalie.
KN: Yeah, he was. People think that's the reason why I became one, but he actually didn't want me to be a goalie. He was like, “It's so stressful!” Sometimes he would have to leave my games growing up, because he would get so stressed to the point of feeling nauseous. I remember one game, there were these double doors and there was a little glass window you could see through. He was literally standing outside the door like, "I can't look."
GK: How did you wind up there anyway, despite your parents’ better judgement?
KN: I was waiting for my brother after his practice and there was a goalie camp. I was just standing there watching these goalies, and I thought, “Wow, this is so cool!” I begged my Mom to bring me to the store and buy me the goalie gear. She told me later that I asked her, "Mom, does your credit card work for the goalie gear?" And she told me, “No it doesn’t.”
Eventually, my parents relented. They ended up buying me pads, but they got them shipped home. It was so exciting that I would finally be a goalie. The pads arrived and we went to the rink, but then I realized that they sent me two of the left pads and we had to send them back. When I finally had everything all set, I was just the happiest kid in the world.
GK: How would you describe your relationship with Noora Räty, and what role did her mentorship play in your award-winning season?
KN: A huge role, for sure. Simply playing with her and seeing her professionalism in practices and around the rink definitely helped me to develop as a player. She definitely helped me take my game to the next level. I wouldn't be here with this wonderful award and with the skills that I have currently if it weren't for her, so I'm super grateful and fortunate that I've been able to play with her and to have her as a mentor.
GK: Another contributing force was inevitably the Vanke Rays’ blue line, which has undergone some changes since last season.
KN: It’s never a team of one, you have to have six players out there. And defense is huge—last year, the communication was good, the work ethic was good, and obviously I owe a lot to them. It made life a lot easier coming to work. I miss some of those players that weren't able to come back—Mel Jue, Megan Bozek, Minttu Tuominen. I definitely appreciate all of my D.
GK: On the subject of turnover, you played the delayed finals this month with a very different roster than you had in the regular season. I can imagine that loss was tough in light of last year’s difficulties.
KN: It was definitely very disappointing. We did have almost a completely different roster. Aside from the heritage players, it was not the same team at all. I think that definitely played a huge factor in how the first game went, but even the second and third games. For some of the girls who were at Worlds, we didn't even have a single practice before playing a game. I don't know how much you can really expect in that kind of situation. We had a few practices with maybe 50% of the team, and then one practice with 80% of the team, and then a game. It definitely showed. We struggled to find chemistry. A lot of the new girls, they are very skilled and good players, but I think that there was a bit of a disconnect from those of us who came back from last year. It meant a lot to us having gone through what we went through.
GK: What are your expectations for this reformulated KRS team?
KN: The KRS team that played in the finals is almost completely different from the one we have now. We don’t have import players anymore, so it is just Chinese-born and Chinese heritage. We're a much more toned-down version of the KRS team from last year, so we're going to have to spend a lot of time developing our ability to play as a team, while also continuing to develop individuals. I suspect that we're going to improve as the season goes on. It's a little unfortunate we're playing the two best teams right at the beginning.
GK: What was the toughest goal you’ve ever let in, and what did you learn from it?
KN: My own D took a shot and scored on me. I was playing on a girls’ spring team, and my defenseman was coming around behind the net. I think I relaxed because I thought she was going to wheel around and break it out. I think she tried to make a D to D pass but off the boards. It came off her stick wrong and she was above the goal line. It turned out to be literally the perfect shot, right inside the posts and I was not ready for it. I tried to fall into it but completely missed. There was one really good takeaway from this: be ready for anything. Anything at any time can happen. If you think you've seen it all, you cannot make this stuff up.
GK: Last question: what are your passions off the ice?
KN: I have a lot of interests, and when I retired from hockey, I developed this super exploratory mindset to be open to new things in a way that I wasn't before. I had always been super fascinated by martial arts, so I joined this Wing Chun school while working in New York.
I'm a pretty introverted person by nature. I'm not comfortable in front of crowds, especially doing things that could be potentially super embarrassing. But I was like, “You know what? It’s personal development.” So I decided to learn how to sing. Last season, Emily Costales brought her ukulele with her. When the finals were being delayed, we were sitting around the hotel with nothing to do and decided to have a jam session. She would play whatever songs that she knew, and I would just try singing them. We started attracting an audience of other teammates and had a full-blown concert in our hotel room.