Kimberly Newell thought she had skated away from hockey, and that the sport had left her behind as well.
It had been nearly two years since she played after graduating from Princeton University, and in 2016 when it came time to choose a career she didn’t see a path to one day playing goal for Team Canada at the Olympics.
She had already played goal for Canada once when she was the starter for the team that won the under-18 world championships in 2013. But ahead of the Sochi Games in 2014 Newell was at the back of the line on a reserve list for Team Canada. At the time, she took that as a sign.
So Newell took a job as a financial analyst for Credit Suisse in New York. It was, she decided, the practical choice.
“The career opportunities that you’re afforded when you go to an Ivy League school, that’s kind of why you are there.”
But in 2018, Newell received a phone call that changed her life and years later has led her to becoming a star in goal for Team China this month at the Beijing Games.
Her eye-catching dragon pads and helmet made her a viral sensation before she stepped onto the ice, and her superb play helped Team China win its first preliminary games in 24 years.
More importantly, it has helped Newell, now 26, continue to reconnect with her heritage in a way she never did growing up in Burnaby.
Newell’s mother Jan was born in China and moved to Vancouver to complete a PhD in electrical engineering at the University of British Columbia. There she met her future husband Nick, who was doing a masters on the same subject.
Nick had grown up playing goal in Salmon Arm, B.C., and put Newell and her older brother Victor in hockey when they were young. One day Newell was waiting for her brother’s game to finish when she spied a nearby goalie camp.
She was fascinated, but her parents weren’t keen on the idea. She chuckles now at a memory of bugging her mother for equipment at a hockey store.
“I’m looking at the goalie gear secretly and then I’m like, ‘Mom, does your credit card work for the goalie gear?’ And she’s like, ‘No, sorry, doesn’t work for that.’”
Eventually she broke them down, and the family bought in to her dream. When she was 16 they moved to Nelson so she could spend a season playing with the Kootenay Ice major midget boys team, which she credits with helping her become more resilient.
“One of the things my parents always taught me was you have to do your best every single practice, every single game. You can’t take a practice off because people are watching you and they are looking for an excuse to basically not play you.”
After Nelson she went to Princeton in 2012, where Newell became the Tigers’ career wins leader and earned a degree with a major economics.
While she was at university, she also took Mandarin classes. Growing up she had only occasionally visited relatives in China, but Newell couldn’t speak the language and struggled to connect with her grandfather. After graduating, she returned to China to tour the country and finally have a conversation with him.
It was at this time she also decided her hockey career was over.
In 2018, two years removed from the game, Newell received a call from Margaret (Digit) Murphy. China wanted North American players with Chinese heritage to help grow the game and eventually play for Team China at the 2022 Winter Games. Murphy, who was coaching the Kunlun Red Star, asked Newell to join the team.
Newell missed playing, but said yes to Murphy for another reason.
“It was about developing sport, reconnecting with my heritage, speaking Chinese and learning more about Chinese culture. There’s so many more things to it than just the hockey that I was like, this is more of a life experience and a unique one that you’re not ever get ever again.”
The Red Star changed their name to the Shenzhen KRS Vanke Rays and joined the Russia-based Zhenskaya Hockey League in 2018 as its only Chinese team. Newell played understudy to Noora Raty, an Olympic star with Finland and one of the world’s great goaltenders.
Newell, who abroad uses her Chinese name Zhou Jiaying, thrived with the team. The Vanke Rays won the league championship in 2020, and last season Newell led all goalies in wins.
After she was named to Team China in January, Newell went viral with her choice of pads and helmet, made by Canadians Chris Joswiak and Sylvie Marsolais respectively. Newell said it was important to her that viewers would be able to identify the dragons as Chinese.
The uniform was a hit, and has inspired artists to send Newell their own caricatures of her.
“I wanted it where when Chinese people would see it, right away they would feel like this was something Chinese. The style of the dragon, even on the helmet I really wanted it to be a Chinese-style dragon. Just the spirit of the art itself, they can feel that kind of kinship with it.”
Hockey is still in its infancy in China, where basketball and soccer reign and rinks are typically found in malls instead of standalone arenas. China doesn’t allow dual citizenship, but as host country has the right to compete in every sport in Beijing. To do that, it relaxed its rules to include foreign athletes with Chinese heritage.
On the women’s hockey team — which was essentially the Vanke Rays roster — Newell was joined by several Canadians including defenceman Jessica Wong and forward Hannah Miller. Although the sport is dominated by Canada and the United States and blowouts at the international stage are common, China held its own.
In their first game, China lost 3-1 to the Czech Republic. Newell didn’t play that game, but suited up for their final three appearances, a 3-1 win against Denmark, a 2-1 shootout win over Japan and a 2-1 loss to Sweden.
The shootout win over Japan was celebrated in China — Newell compares the China-Japan rivalry to that of Canada-U.S. — and has given Newell hope that more young girls in China pick up hockey sticks.
Now that her Games are over, Newell has returned to family in Burnaby for a break before resuming the season with the Vanke Rays. She’s also begun to consider what more she can do for Chinese hockey, such as bringing players to North America for camps and helping train Chinese coaches.
Discovering her heritage, she believes, means giving back to it as well.
“There’s huge potential there, right? So it’s just a matter of how do you year-by-year, step-by-step start to build that.”
Canada went on to win the gold medal Wednesday against the United States. But in a way, what Newell won is more valuable.