China! China! China!
The cheer was raised from the second the puck dropped to the second the buzzer sounded to end the game. The atmosphere was outstanding, and the game was well worthy of the racket.
The event that brought a boatload full of Chinese supporters to Varsity Arena was an exhibition match on Thursday night, between the women’s Chinese national hockey team and the undefeated Varsity Blues. The Chinese team has been touring Canada since the beginning of November, playing games against university squads across the country.
“It’s a great experience for the players,” said Blues head coach Karen Hughes. “We had a great crowd and it was a good opportunity for fans to see an excellent game.”
The Chinese team is currently ranked seventh in the world by the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF), which is exactly where they finished at the 2002 Olympics. Meanwhile, the Blues are ranked second in Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS) rankings, on the heels of a heartbreaking overtime loss in the championship game last season.
The Varsity Blues proved their skill against the international competitors, however, and Thursday night’s noisy crowd wasn’t disappointed. Every time a Chinese player touched the puck a roar was raised to the shaking rafters. The thunder hit its peak when Chinese star Sui Rui scored a power-play goal at 7:25 of the first period to give her team a 1-0 lead.
The weight was being thrown around and the saves were flying throughout the rest of the opening frame. Diminutive Blues captain Jenny McRae threw a nice neutral zone hit early in the period and China’s Jiang Limei made a pair of outstanding saves to keep the Blues in check.
Hughes was not surprised by the physical nature of the action: “China is a notoriously rough team. This was actually a less physical game than I expected.”
After a flurry of action in front of the Chinese net, Bree Kruklis scored with 1:56 left in the first to tie the game at one. The offense hit a brick wall throughout the next two periods. The netminders stepped up their games, protecting their caged homes with everything they had. The highlight of the game was a massive glove save by Toronto goalie Lisa Robertson to rob China of a goal.
The Blues failed to score on a two woman advantage power-play in an intense final minute of hockey, and the end score in this rowdy exhibition match was a 1-1 tie.
“We played really well in the first period,” commented Hughes. “We slipped a bit in the last two, but still had a strong game. We had some good chances in the third.”
The Blues coach felt that her squad was able to learn a lot from playing against a national team like China. “China plays hard and works hard,” she said. “They make us think a lot about what we are doing on the ice.”
Following the game, gracious players posed for pictures and signed autographs for eager fans, some of whom travelled from out-of-country to see the Blues take on China.