Rebekah Kolstad and a few of her teammates were in Vietnam, enjoying a vacation during a two-week break from the hockey season for Chinese New Year, when the call came in:
They needed to return to Shenzhen, China, home base of their professional team ASAP, pack up their gear and get ready for a long, long road trip.
“We had 24 hours,” Kolstad said.
The coronavirus outbreak had just begun in China, and the Kunlun Red Star Vanke Rays decided to make a run for it, get out of the country and avoid it, if they could. They would be spending the rest of the season on the road in Russia, where the rest of their competition resided.
The Vanke Rays are a professional hockey team, part of the Russian Women’s Hockey League. Kolstad joined the team as a rookie last summer.
Two months of living in hotels and traveling around Russia, starting in St. Petersburg, for the final four games of the regular season and the league playoffs ended happily for Kolstad’s team, as it won the WHL championship with a three-game sweep over Agidel Ufa, the two-time defending league champions.
“That was the cherry on top,” Kolstad said.
After winning the title, the Vanke Rays didn’t have much time to celebrate. They were quickly on the move again.
The morning after they won the title, President Trump announced travel restrictions from Europe because of the spread of the coronavirus, and U.S. players needed to get home as soon as possible.
“It was a best-of-five series, and we won the first three games so it was perfect timing,” Kolstad said.
Kolstad flew from Ufa to Moscow to New York to Minneapolis last Friday. Back at her parents’ home in Mankato, Kolstad is self-quarantined for 14 days.
The irony isn’t lost on her.
“It’s been crazy,” she said. “I thought we escaped it when we left China. … We knew it was spreading, but to come back home in the midst of everything, it’s been wild.”
Kolstad was an all-state player in high school, compiling 233 points over six seasons for Mankato East/Loyola. She went on to North Dakota and played college hockey for two seasons before UND decided to drop women’s hockey as a sport.
She returned to Mankato and played two seasons for Minnesota State, finishing there a year ago. For her college career, she played in 139 games and had 37 points, including 19 goals.
Last July, Kolstad was encouraged to sign with the Vanke Rays by her coach at North Dakota, Brian Idalski, who had just been hired to coach the Shenzhen team. The Vanke Rays previously had been part of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League but joined the Russian WHL after the CWHL folded.
“The experience, as a whole, was amazing,” Kolstad said. “It was something I never thought I’d do in my life. I got to travel to new places and the team dynamic, with Chinese teammates, former Olympians and Division I players I played against, was kind of amazing.”
Her teammates included two former North Dakota teammates, Amy Menke and Taylor Flaherty, as well as several other former U.S. college players and Olympic players. U.S. Olympian Alex Carpenter of Boston College was the WHL playoff MVP. The Vanke Rays’ goaltender was Finnish Olympian and former Minnesota standout Noora Raty. Another former Gopher and U.S. Olympian, Megan Bozek, was also on the team.
For the Vanke Rays, Kolstad played in 30 games, including playoffs, and had nine goals and five assists for 14 points.
“I had a pretty good season,” Kolstad said. “The league is still growing, which is pretty cool to see. We had a very skilled team. Our biggest competition was Ufa. I think next year the league will be a lot more competitive.”
Travel was tough throughout the season, as Shenzhen is located in southern China. The WHL’s other teams are located in western or west-central Russia, which meant the Vanke Rays had long road trips, including a 50-day trek in the middle of the season in addition to playing the last two months on the road.
“Half the games were at home, the other half were away,” Kolstad said. “Being in Russia, there were 10 hours of flight time and time in airports. … So you learn to live out of a suitcase.”
Idalski has already committed to coaching the Vanke Rays again next season, and Kolstad says she’s interested in going back, too.
“It depends on what happens with the whole coronavirus thing,” she said. “I hope it settles down sooner, rather than later. But it’s definitely a possibility. It was pretty special playing for (Idalski) again. I have a lot of respect for him as a coach, even more so as a person.”