After spending two months on the road due to the coronavirus, Brian Idalski's team wins WHL title
It was late January and former UND women's hockey head coach Brian Idalski was in Shenzhen, China.
He was in the midst of his first season coaching the Kunlun Red Star Vanke Rays, a Chinese-based team in the top Russian hockey league, the WHL.
That's when he first heard of the coronavirus, which was sweeping through Wuhan, China.
"At first, it was like, 'Hey, there's this virus, don't worry too much about it, it's a couple provinces away. It's not a big deal, but it's out there, so don't panic,'" Idalski said. "A few days later, it was like, 'We're going to leave a week earlier to Russia (for the next road trip).' Then, it was like, 'We're leaving in two days. Get your stuff.'"
The KRS Vanke Rays packed up their gear and spent the final two months of the season on the road in Russia. Several players were vacationing during the Chinese New Year and re-routed return flights to St. Petersburg, which served as the team's make-shift home.
They also spent time in Dmitrov and Ufa. Four different arenas became their default "home" rinks.
Yet despite the craziness, Idalski's team, featuring his former UND players Rebekah Kolstad, Amy Menke and Taylor Flaherty and assistant Max Markowitz, thrived.
The Vanke Rays finished second during the regular season, then swept both of its playoff series to win the WHL title. They clinched the championship this week, beating back-to-back champion Agidel (Ufa) 4-2 to sweep a best-of-five series. The Vanke Rays became the first foreign team to ever win the WHL title.
"It's been pretty surreal," said Idalski, who was named the league's top coach. "Just the whole experience of being in China, then spending 50 days on the road (in the first half of the season), being in Beijing for about three weeks, the virus, spending almost another two months in Russia down the stretch and winning the title."
Despite losing three of the four regular-season meetings against regular-season champ Agidel, the Vanke Rays won all three games in the finals. Menke had a goal and an assist, while former Boston College star Alex Carpenter was named MVP.
"We had an older team," Idalski said. "They were very mature. We threw a lot of different stuff at them at the end to prepare for Ufa. They executed everything. We changed the forecheck, we changed the penalty kill and we changed the power play within a week to take advantage of some things we thought and give (Agidel) different looks. The kids were great."
Winning with old foes
Idalski relished winning a title with Kolstad, Menke and Flaherty, who he brought to UND as players. They were all members of the program when it was eliminated in 2017 due to budget cuts.
Menke was a senior. Kolstad transferred to her hometown team, Minnesota State-Mankato, and Flaherty went to Vermont.
"It's obviously special," Idalski said of winning a title with them. "There's a bond with those kids with everything we went through with UND's program, coaching them at UND and then them coming along for this ride."
Idalski said it was just as special to join forces with some old foes.
The closest UND got to an NCAA national championship with Idalski at the helm was in 2013. That year, UND lost to Minnesota 3-2 in triple overtime in the NCAA quarterfinals. The Gophers went 41-0 that year and won the national championship.
In that game, Minnesota's top defenseman was Megan Bozek and its star goalie was Noora Raty, who was widely recognized as one of the top two netminders in the world. Raty made 50 saves in that triple-overtime game.
Seven years after Raty and Bozek kept a championship out of Idalski's hands, both joined his Vanke Rays team and helped him win a championship.
"It was also really special to have them considering how much respect you had for those players and what they did at Minnesota," Idalski said. "To be able to coach them, Claudia Kepler from Ohio State and Wisconsin, and having some of those old WCHA kids I was familiar with, was awesome. It was really fun to coach them and work with those kids after all those years competing against them in the WCHA."
Idalski, who will coach the Vanke Rays again next season, credited the team's ownership for quickly moving the entire program -- including its men's team and junior team -- to Russia after the coronavirus outbreak, despite the extra expense.
"(Ownership) is one of the reasons I was OK with taking the job," Idalski said. "It was the closest thing to North Dakota, considering the resources and wanting to be good, of anything I had interviewed for. I was looking for a place to go that was doing it right. That was KRS."