Kimberly Newell thought she had skated away from hockey and the sport had left her behind as well.

It had been nearly two years since she had played after graduating from Princeton University, and in 2016, when it came time to choose a career, she saw no path to a day to play a goal for Team Canada at the Olympics.

She had already played in goal for Canada once when she was the starter for the team that won the 2013 World Under-18 Championships. platoon on a reserve list for Team Canada. . At the time, she took that as a sign.

Newell therefore accepted a position as a financial analyst for Credit Suisse in New York. It was, she decided, the practical choice.

“The career opportunities that come your way when you go to an Ivy League school, that’s kind of what you’re here for.”

But in 2018, Newell received a phone call that changed her life and years later led her to become a star in goal for the China team that month at the Beijing Games.

Her eye-catching dragon pads and helmet made her a viral sensation before she hit the ice, and her superb play helped the Chinese team win their first preliminary matches in 24 years.

More importantly, it has helped Newell, now 26, continue to reconnect with her heritage in a way she never grew up in Burnaby.

Kimberly Newell poses at the Olympic Village in Beijing. Newell took an unlikely route to becoming an Olympic athlete. Photo: Submitted

Newell’s mother, Jan, was born in China and moved to Vancouver to complete a doctorate in electrical engineering at the University of British Columbia. There she met her future husband Nick, who was doing a master’s degree in the same subject.

Nick had grown up playing goaltender in Salmon Arm, British Columbia, and put Newell and his older brother Victor in hockey when they were young. One day, Newell was waiting for her brother’s game to end when she spotted a goalie camp nearby.

She was fascinated, but her parents were not enthusiastic about the idea. She now laughs at the memory of bugging her mother for equipment at a hockey store.

“I secretly look at the goalkeeper’s kit and I’m like, ‘Mom, does your credit card work for the goalkeeper’s kit?’ And she’s like, ‘No, sorry, it doesn’t work for that.’

Eventually, she broke them, and the family bought into her dream. When she was 16, they moved to Nelson so she could spend a season playing with the major male midget team at Kootenay Ice, which she credits with helping her become more resilient.

“One of the things my parents always taught me is to do your best in every practice, in every match. You can’t stop a practice because people are watching you and looking for a excuse not to play you.

After Nelson, she went to Princeton in 2012, where Newell became the Tigers’ career wins leader and graduated with a major in economics.

During her university studies, she also took Mandarin lessons. Growing up, she only occasionally visited relatives in China, but Newell didn’t speak the language and struggled to connect with her grandfather. After graduating, she returned to China to visit the country and finally have a chat with him.

It was around this time that she also decided her hockey career was over.

In 2018, two years into the game, Newell got a call from Margaret (Digit) Murphy. China wanted North American players of Chinese descent to help develop the game and eventually play for the Chinese team 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 the sport, reconnecting with my heritage, speaking Chinese and learning more about Chinese culture. There’s so much more to it than the hockey I was in, it’s more of a lifetime experience and a once-in-a-lifetime experience that you’ll never have again.

Red Star changed their name to Shenzhen KRS Vanke Rays and joined the Russia-based Zhenskaya Hockey League in 2018 as the only Chinese team. Newell played understudy for Noora Raty, an Olympic star with Finland and one of the best goalkeepers in the world.

Newell, who uses his Chinese name Zhou Jiaying abroad, has thrived with the team. The Vanke Rays won the league championship in 2020 and last season Newell led all goaltenders in wins.

After being named to the China team 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 could identify the dragons as Chinese.

The uniform was a hit and inspired artists to send Newell their own caricatures of her.

“I wanted it to be where when the Chinese saw it they would immediately think it was something Chinese. The style of the dragon, even on the helmet I really wanted it to be a dragon to the Chinese. 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 rule and rinks are usually in shopping malls instead of stand-alone arenas. China does not allow dual nationality, but as the host country it has the right to compete in all sports in Beijing. To do this, it has relaxed its rules to include foreign athletes of Chinese descent.

On the women’s hockey team — which consisted primarily of the Vanke Rays — Newell was joined by several Canadians, including defenseman Jessica Wong and forward Hannah Miller. Although the sport is dominated by Canada and the United States and blowouts on the international stage are common, China has held firm.

In their first match, China lost 3-1 to the Czech Republic. Newell did not play this game, but has prepared for his last three appearances, a 3-1 win over Denmark, a 2-1 shootout win over Japan and a 2-1 loss to Sweden.

The shootout victory over Japan was celebrated in China – Newell compares the Sino-Japanese rivalry to that of Canada and the United States – and gave Newell hope that more young girls in China will pick up hockey sticks .

After China's 2-1 shootout victory over Japan, Kimberly Newell received several fan art of her.

After China’s 2-1 shootout victory over Japan, Kimberly Newell received several fan art of her.

Now that her Games are over, Newell has returned to her family in Burnaby for a break before resuming the season with the Vanke Rays. She also started thinking about what more she could do for Chinese hockey, such as bringing players to North America for camps and helping train Chinese coaches.

Discovering her heritage, she believes, is also giving back to her.

“There’s huge potential there, isn’t there? So it’s just a question of how to start, year by year, step by step, to build that.

Canada won the gold medal Wednesday against the United States. But somehow, what Newell won has more value.

@tyler_harper | tyler.harper@nelsonstar.com

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