Idalski coached the University of North Dakota for ten seasons before the program folded, joining the Shenzhen KRS Vanke Rays in 2019 and leading them to a WHL title in their league debut. His first foray into professional women’s hockey from the NCAA lacked neither drama nor superstars, with Team USA phenoms Alex Carpenter and Megan Bozek joining four-time Finnish Olympian Noora Räty and Hockey Canada’s Jessica Wong to round out a spotlight-stealing roster.
The Vanke Rays were forced to evacuate Shenzhen in late January due to the coronavirus outbreak, and spent the next two months on the road—logging stops in Saint Petersburg, Dmitrov and Ufa. Despite losing to Agidel in three of four matchups during the regular season, the vagabond Vanke Rays swept the two-time reigning champions in a thrilling final.
From Kunlun Red Star’s debut in the WHL to a health crisis that rocked the entire world—but his locker room first, Idalski and I caught up this week from our respective self-quarantines.
Gillian Kemmerer (GK): This year was a roller coaster for the Vanke Rays—a new league, new leadership and of course, the outbreak of the coronavirus in China. How did the news unfold that you would not get to return home for the rest of the season?
Brian Idalski (BI): I was in my apartment in Shenzhen. One day we got a message posted in WeChat: “Hey, there’s a virus.” The picture with it literally had two people in hazmat suits rolling out a dead body. You can imagine, when I went to practice the next day, how the players were freaking out about it—and this began the process. Our medical staff began researching, talking to people, and then we addressed the whole team. At the time, they were trying to contain [the coronavirus] in Wuhan, which was not close to us. We started to look at going to Saint Petersburg a week early. Everyone was about to take off for Chinese New Year, and they did—but then we were like, “We need to go, and we need to go now.” The men’s team had already packed up and they were staying in Russia, and the VHL team too. They wanted us to leave China in two days. We started recalling everyone from vacation—some kids were in and around Southeast Asia and had to go back to China. The Chinese kids came back, and a group of kids were in North America and met us in Saint Petersburg. It came together pretty quickly.
GK: So some of the team have apartments in Shenzhen that they have not seen since the day they left for Chinese New Year in January. They never came back.
BI: Absolutely—myself included. As I am still settling in at home, I realize my external hard drive is still in China. Some of my tax forms that I need and my receipts are still back in China. [Equipment manager] Steph Klein had packed up a lot of things before she left, but she was back in the States. A small group of us basically moved all of the gear to Saint Petersburg. We forgot a couple of things, I don’t even remember what now—but they were minor and we went out and got them. I have experienced a fair amount of stuff, but that was pretty surreal.
GK: All of this culminated in the Vanke Rays playing the whole of the post-season on the road. What was that experience like for you?
BI: For the older KRS kids, who had been through the CWHL and would spend a month and a half at a time in Canada, it was old hat for them. They had experienced that and were pretty good about it. Honestly, the maturity level of our club from the beginning was super high. We were tested early in the season when we could not go home because a curling competition was in our rink. We played in Beijing for three weeks, and then went back to Russia. We were on the road at one point for 52 days. That felt even longer than this last trip. We were starting to get a little squirrely at the end, and I have told people that we were pretty united in wanting to get things over with quickly and be done. We were pretty jacked up to do what we needed to do to finish the season quickly.
GK: The Vanke Rays dropped 3 of 4 regular season matchups against Ufa, and then swept the finals. How did you retool elements of your forecheck and power play to become more effective?
BI: The players had a lot of input throughout the year, and they really wanted to do some things differently on the power play. We were all for that. We always had in the backs of our minds that we wanted to throw some different looks [at Ufa] down the stretch and catch them off-guard. The big adjustment for me was the power play, and obviously Jessica Wong and Megan Bozek were big parts of that. Switching Alex Carpenter to the other side took some of the focal point off of her. I don’t think, especially in that first game when there were so many power plays, that [Ufa] were super prepared for that.
Breakout-wise, the way Noora Räty plays the puck limited some of their forecheck as well as the ability of Wong and Bozek to break the puck out. The addition of those two really limited some of the tough minutes for Snow Qi and Liu Zhixin, and you saw that they were better playing fresher.
Forecheck-wise, we had gone aggressive against Agidel the last couple of games and really wanted to get after them. I thought we counter-attacked, and really in a 1-2-2, did a nice job of scoring in transition. We slowed them down and their forecheck a little bit through neutral.
In the penalty kill, we were a little more aggressive. I thought we did a better job of being in shooting lanes, but again, your best penalty killer is always your goalie—and Noora was terrific.
GK: Adding one of the best goaltenders in the world, it certainly doesn’t hurt…
BI: [Laughs] No, it definitely makes coaches look much smarter.
GK: What role did bench management play in your success?
BI: You need to put your players in the best situations to be successful. I really thought, match-up wise, we were able to do a good job. I thought our third line was very solid and held their own. We also protected them a fair amount, and were able to keep them away from Olga Sosina and Alena Mills—even though Mills, early on, moved back to defense because of the injury Ufa had on their blue line to Maria Batalova. That was a big difference for them that weakened some of their forward lines. We could get Carpenter’s line in some good situations, and Hannah Miller with Leah Lum and Amy Menke really stepped up and played well. Overall, it was just a perfect recipe—we had great goaltending, some solid individual efforts from our best players like Carpenter and Bozek, and we got some secondary scoring from Miller’s line.
GK: Lum, Miller and Menke did not start playing together until the playoffs.
BI: Lum had been with Alex Carpenter and Rachel Llanes. Carp and Rachel were terrific, and we really thought we were going to need secondary scoring. We put Lum on that next group just to see if we couldn’t get that line going a little bit. Alex was always going to get her points, and Alex and Rachel had really good chemistry. Regardless of who was on the wing with them, they were going to produce. Having that second line was huge for us, and quite honestly Ufa’s second line scored a fair amount. They’re kindof similar [to us], where Sosina and Mills were going to get theirs. And they still did, but we were able to control that second line a lot more than we did during the regular season.
GK: How did you see the Carpenter-Llanes connection evolve over the year?
BI: I have a ton of respect for Rachel, just the way she goes about her business. She moves so well without the puck to get the spots. And Alex is so good at seeing the ice and moving the puck to set up for other people. It was just a good fit. Rachel works so hard, Alex is so smart—those two definitely had it going on together most of the year, and it did get better and better. We struggled to score early in the season, but by the end of the year, those two knew where each other were looking and what kinds of spots worked for them.
GK: Rachel was initially hired as a strength coach and was intended for the third line. It’s hard to believe after watching her all-star season.
BI: Some of that, culturally, was from Digit Murphy in the original setup [Murphy coached Kunlun Red Star in the inaugural season]. I knew that Rachel was quite an accomplished strength and conditioning coach, and when she goes home, she trains a lot of people. She is in great shape and always shows up. But this year, she was more dedicated to just being a player. You saw a big jump in her stats, and obviously there was a change in league that contributed to that, but I also think the focus on herself really helped to develop her game.
GK: Do you find that there is still a high level of mentorship between Chinese-born players and imports on the squad?
BI: Without a doubt. We don’t control our [Shenzhen] facility, so it’s not like we can pop out whenever we want. We’ve got a couple of hours of time to work with, and on the road, we are buying ice. We have two hours. You make goalie world and some skills time, and then we would have our standard practice for everybody. We would try to make some time at the back-end to work with players individually, and it wouldn’t be uncommon for the imports to grab a couple of the Chinese players and work on shooting or skills on top of the coaching staff. That was un-prodded and un-asked for, and just some of the culture from before that you help those players out.
GK: The Vanke Rays’ locker room is staged so meticulously that it is almost impossible to ignore. Do you think that this level of attention-to-detail contributes to on-ice success?
BI: There is no doubt that environment is important. When you walk into a place, you can tell if it’s special or not special just by the way it’s kept. That is a huge part of culture within organizations. I think Malcolm Gladwell discusses this with thin-slicing and the broken window theory. I gave a fair amount of leeway to Steph Klein because one of the things I noticed when I interviewed was how OCD she is! [Laughs] I read that you can tell more about a person by walking into their room and looking around for five minutes versus talking to them for hours. When I walked into Klein’s office, it was meticulous—everything was in a box, and it was numbered, straight, organized. I was just like, “Yes—that’s awesome.” A lot of that fell on her, and a lot of that was her taking the lead. The signage when we were in Ufa and making that locker room look like ours, I really thought it was professional and that the players appreciated it. You want to be surrounded by people who go that extra mile.
GK: How was the team’s reception in their first WHL season?
BI: In talking to a lot of people, I think [the Russians] were excited about having some different players and new people to compete against. I think a lot of those players have grown up playing against each other. As a new franchise with some North American players, it was exciting [for the Russian players] to compete against and compare themselves to an Alex Carpenter or Noora Räty. I thought they were very respectful and hoped that we would help to elevate the league. I think we were able to do that.
GK: I want to shift focus to your transition from coaching in the NCAA to professional women’s hockey. Were there any nuanced differences that you did not expect?
BI: My first coaching job twenty-some years ago was as an assistant coach in the Central Hockey League. I did have a little bit of pro experience in that regard after playing. When it came to women’s hockey and what was going on back in North America—the folding of the CWHL and talk of the NWHL not being professional enough for some of the elite players—I knew from the interview process that [Kunlun] was trying to do things right. My concern was being an English speaker with no Chinese or Russian language skills—what if I was in Russia and something happened? As far as the adjustment with everything else, it was difficult to speak with the referees or understand what was transpiring at different points in different games. That was difficult at times, but it was probably good for me because I learned to let it go! There was nothing I could do about it, so I focused on the task at hand and just played the next shift.
GK: How did you adjust to your new life in China and Russia?
BI: [Laughs] I told my wife that everyone spoke English in Shenzhen! I was at the hotel, I went to the rink—I had zero problems. When I moved there and we started going out on our own, she was like, “They don’t speak English!” It was very interesting to be abroad and navigate some of that. I loved having a scooter and zipping around town. Those were probably the biggest things—language, learning how to navigate the subway, being comfortable to go out on your own and grab something to eat. I absolutely loved the history of Beijing, Saint Petersburg, and Moscow. As a kid who grew up in Detroit with the Russian Five and the 1980 Olympics, it was surreal. The coolest thing. I thought Russia was absolutely awesome and that the people were terrific. It was a wonderful experience all the way around.
GK: Were there any individual players on opposing teams who stood out to you across the course of the season?
BI: First and foremost, we had a ton of respect for Ufa. Just the depth, the compete level. I thought they were a very complete team early-on and really handed it to us on a couple of occasions. That goes to Mills and Sosina.
Anna Shokhina from Tornado is one of the top-three women’s hockey players I have ever seen. Her ability to see the ice, control the puck, edge control…she made a couple of plays this year that made my jaw drop. One was at the All Star Game—she had a 2-on-1 and was staring at the winger on the other side. She doesn’t even look at the net and beats Kim Newell over the shoulder, by her ear in a tiny spot. That ability to move people with your eyes and look things off is super rare in women’s hockey.
The other is the big power forward for Biryusa—Valeria Pavlova. That kid is stronger, meaner, and more physical than Hilary Knight. I was not that familiar with Russians because they don’t tend to come over to [U.S.] colleges and are playing in the WHL. I was blown away with some of the individual talents.
GK: Looking ahead to next season, do you foresee any big changes? Will the team continue in the WHL?
BI: A lot of that is over my pay-grade, but I would think it’s a good fit. What will be interesting is within Hockey China—are we going to have more Chinese national players? I know the player pool, and there isn’t a lot of heritage players graduating college this year. There is a great group of younger players who are freshmen and sophomores in the U.S. and Canada. What will that look like? Will they add more [national] players, and will we have fewer imports? Those are conversations that are above me with management, but I think it will shake out in the next few weeks.
GK: Usually I ask KHL players what they do to entertain themselves on the road, but since these are unprecedented times…how are you keeping busy in self-quarantine?
BI: I’m reading The Romanovs by Simon Sebag Montefiore and I’ve been studying Russian on my Duolingo app. I would say I am a pretty weak yoga person right now, but without being able to go to the gym, that’s really all I’ve got.