Digit Murphy has a dream.
Four years from now, she sees her Chinese women’s team harnessing their considerable resources and peaking for the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing. She sees them on the Olympic stage in their home country with the force of 1.4 billion behind them. She sees them gain momentum in the round robin and make it to the playoff round.
They record one upset, then another. They find themselves in the gold-medal game against — and this is just a guess — Canada or the U.S., where it all comes together in one transcendent moment for the country and her players.
She sees this as clearly as she’s seen anything in her life; China wins gold, her own Miracle on Ice.
“We’re going to win,” Murphy, the architect of China’s woman’s national team program, says from a training facility in Shenzhen. “We’re going to do something special. If you say it, you can do it.
“In the men’s game, you can only leap forward by a foot. In the women’s game, it can be a whole football field. This country is behind our initiative and if you get a competitive team together, you’re a hot goalie and some luck away from winning a medal.”
Sounds simple enough, right? It’s just the reality might be a little more difficult.
Murphy, the long-time coach at Brown and a life-long force in women’s sport, has been charged with the seemingly impossible task of resurrecting the Chinese women’s program, ranked 18th in the world, and making it a world power by the 2022 Olympics. To that end, she’s been given the necessary tools to start the reconstruction: a sparkling new training centre in Shenzen, located just north of Hong Kong; two new teams in the Canadian Women’s Hockey League bankrolled by Chinese investors Xiaoyu Zhao and Billy Ngok; and a data base which has begun to identify potential players with Chinese ancestry.
Couple that with her own boundless ambition and a women’s pool which, 20 years after Nagano, is still as deep as your average puddle and, suddenly, her dream doesn’t sound that far-fetched.
Or maybe she just presents a compelling argument.
“At 55, this is my dream job,” Murphy says. “This is a gift for me and I think I’m giving a gift to this country.
“We don’t want to make the Olympics because we’re the host team. We want to earn our spot. We’re going to teach these kids to win. We’ve got some high end players and they’re going to get better and better. Their work ethic is phenomenal. It’s really cool.”
Go ahead. You argue with her.
These days, Murphy’s dream job consists largely of overseeing the two China-based teams in the CWHL out of Shenzen. With the CWHL schedule about to start, Murphy will be coaching the Kunlun Red Star team while Rob Morgan, the former women’s coach at Yale, will coach Vanke Rays. Kunlun has already attracted forward Kelli Stack, a fixture on the American women’s team who won silver medals in Vancouver and Sochi and Finnish goalie Noora Raty, one of the best ‘keepers in the women’s game.
The rest of the rosters are a mishmash of North American players, North American players with Chinese ancestry and Chinese nationals, mostly from the Harbin area in the country’s northeast. The two CWHL teams will also form the foundation of the national team program, all with a view towards 2022.
“2022 changed everything in China,” says IIHF president Rene Fasel. “This is catalyst for ice hockey. Winning a medal will be difficult. But why not? That would be great for the development of women’s hockey That would be unbelievable.”
“They’re going to be held together now,” Murphy says of the national team players. “The North American kids are phenomenal. When you marry them with the Chinese players we should be competitive right away.”
That would be a great story. Here are a couple of others. The one-child policy in China led to a number of baby girls being adopted in North America. One of the CWHL players was left on a door step to a steel mill in China before she was sent to an orphanage and adopted by a couple on the Eastern seaboard. Another was left at a fire station before she was adopted by a family in Michigan.
“You could write a book about every one of my players,” Murphy says.
This summer, Murphy ran identification camps in Toronto and Vancouver to begin identifying players for the national team. The camp in Toronto attracted some 60 players, including Vancouver’s Leah Lum, a fourth-generation Canadian who’s entering her senior year at the University of Connecticut.
“We’ve got four years to work out the passports,” Murphy says matter-of-factly.
“You have to be the right human to be part of our organization,” she continues. “We took players who have a genuine passion for growing the game.”
Murphy took over the Chinese program in March after a whirlwind courtship. Scott McPherson — a long-time hockey man who sits on the Kunlun board with, among others, men’s head coach Mike Keenan, Phil Esposito and Bobby Carpenter — proposed a Kunlun women’s team, then approached Murphy, who reached out to Morgan.
“I said, ‘Hey do you want to go on an adventure,’” she says of her sale pitch to Morgan.
“Next thing you know they’re flying me in and offering me a job. It’s been a wild ride.”
And if you believe in dreams, it will get even wilder.
The Canucks in China
The development of Chinese players in North America and China at an elite level.