A short walk away from the bounce houses, food, games and fun that headlined Mercyhurst University's annual Hurst Day festivities, a global gathering of two different cultures and a shared passion for women's hockey unfolded at Mercyhurst Ice Center.
The Lakers women's team stood shoulder to shoulder with Team China before going head to head against their guests from halfway around the world in a scrimmage that concluded the opening day of the roughly 60-person contingent's four-day trip to Erie.
It encompassed merely an hour or so of what will be Team China's nearly five-year journey to growing the women's game in its country, and hopefully joining the world's elite hockey-playing nations in time for the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, China.
Yet, the Lakers cherished being a small part of the process, and gaining a perspective on the state of women's hockey in that country that Mercyhurst alumna and current Team China ambassador Emily Janiga has experienced since moving to China in August.
"Things are getting much more structured, and they have the great North American players like our Emily Janiga over there to show them the ropes," said Lakers head coach Michael Sisti, who secured this stop on Team China's extended North American tour a few weeks ago through his hockey connections, namely with Janiga, a four-year standout for the Lakers and 2016 graduate.
"This is the first year," Janiga said. "Everyone hopes to see years and years of growing."
China has 25 years of international experience in women's hockey. Still, the International Ice Hockey Federation reports that China has 294 female players in a nation of more than 1.3 billion people. In comparison, the United States and Canada, which feature the top women's national teams in the world, have a combined 162,757 female players among a total population of 359 million people.
Team China is the "unconventional" blueprint for bridging that gap, said head coach and general manager Digit Murphy, the former longtime coach at Brown University who finished her NCAA Division I career in 2011 with 318 wins. The team features players who skate for the Kunlun Red Star and Vanke Rays, professional expansion clubs that join the Canadian Women's Hockey League this season.
Rosters for both clubs include five North American skaters, such as Janiga (Vanke) and two-time U.S. Olympic silver medalist Kelli Stack (Kunlun); five North American skaters of Chinese descent and 10 players from China. Each team has one North American goaltender, such as Finnish-born Olympic bronze medalist Noora Räty, and two Chinese netminders. Murphy said players are paid as "ambassadors of the game" by Chinese businessman Billy Ngok, who owns the Kunlun Red Star men's professional club.
By "injecting a whole bunch of resources and expertise" into the game, said Murphy, who also oversees the high-performance programs in China, her staff can "infuse knowledge and education in not only the coaches, but more importantly the players" on the path to what Murphy believes will be the team's first Olympic medal in 2022. Facing skilled teams like Mercyhurst is part of the plan.
"It was a really good experience for our Chinese players to play against this kind of caliber (players)," said Team China defenseman and former Cornell University standout Melanie Jue, who will join her teammates in signing autographs during the Lakers' home game against St. Lawrence on Friday as part of World Girls Ice Hockey Weekend before heading to Buffalo, New York. The tour began two weeks ago in Vancouver, British Columbia, and will take them into the start of the CWHL season next week.
"It's a good thing they're doing over there, growing the game," Lakers senior Jen MacAskill said. "Having them here is really exciting."
This article is written by Victor Fernandes from Erie Times-News, Pa. and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.