MOSCOW -- When U.S. national team defender Megan Bozek signed with the Shenzhen KRS Vanke Rays of the Russian-based Women's Hockey League in November, she met the team in Nizhny Novgorod, Russia, for an away game. Bozek and fellow American teammate Alex Carpenter dropped off their equipment at the hotel's front desk.
The next day, before the game, Bozek asked Carpenter: "Do we have to grab our bags?"
"What do you mean?" Carpenter replied. "They're already at the rink."
Bozek was taken aback: "Are you serious?"
Sure enough, when they arrived at the arena, the players went to the visitors locker room where their jerseys were pressed and hung in the stalls; their pads, skates, helmets and gloves were neatly waiting. And the visitors locker room was available to the team two hours before the game, something Carpenter last saw in college.
"When I think of this league, I think of little things like that -- what is normal for a professional athlete," Carpenter says. "But nobody had done them for us in the past, so it doesn't seem normal."
In 2015, the KHL -- Russia's top men's hockey league -- began backing women's professional hockey. There are eight teams in the WHL -- seven in Russian cities and one in China, which was absorbed from the now-defunct CWHL. The KHL shares its resources with the women, everything from arenas to trainers to promotion (for example, they discuss women's hockey often on KHL TV, which is the Russian equivalent of NHL Network). Earlier this month, the KHL put on an outdoor All-Star exhibition for women's hockey players and celebrities in Moscow's Red Square, a pricey endeavor that attracted some 3,000 spectators. There was no equivalent men's event.
"As long as I am the president, women's hockey will be in the budget of the KHL," KHL president Dmitry Chernyshenko said in an interview earlier this month. Shortly after, Chernyshenko accepted a job in the Kremlin as a deputy prime minister, so the KHL is searching for a replacement. Chernyshenko, however, noted that support of women's hockey is all part of the KHL's holistic approach. The KHL also sponsors junior teams, which is a talent feeder to their professional clubs.
"Few people are supporting women's hockey like this," says former Northeastern University forward Rachel Llanes, who played in both the NWHL and CWHL before joining the WHL this season. "That's what I've found being here. The KHL supporting each of their women's teams is awesome and great to see. I wish that the NHL would step in and do the same, and I'd like to be a part of that someday, but for now, I like the spot I'm at. I'm grateful it exists."
What's more: Carpenter and Llanes both said they are making a living wage in the WHL, and the salary would even be considered a living wage in America. The WHL does not disclose salary figures, and it is important to note that both Carpenter and Llanes are playing for the Chinese team, which is subsidized by the Chinese government to build hockey before the 2022 Olympics in Beijing. Nevertheless, Carpenter said she believes a "decent amount" of the Russian players make living wages too. "I think it depends on the team," she said. "But they are making more than you can [in America.]"
All Russian national team players currently play in the WHL, and Chernyshenko said the country views the WHL as a development model outside of world competitions. Yekaterina Lebedeva, a Russian national team player and captain for Agidel Ufa, has been in the WHL since its inception. "Growing up, I never imagined I could be able to make a salary playing this game," Lebedeva said through a translator. "But that is a real possibility now."
North America is a powerhouse in women's hockey. Either the United States or Canada has won every World Championship since 1990. Yet when it comes to professional women's hockey, both countries are in flux. The Canadian-based CWHL folded last year, citing an unsustainable business model. That left the American-based NWHL as the only pro league in North America. And although the NWHL is growing by many metrics this year, players still do not earn a living wage in that league, as most hold full-time jobs away from the rink. Roughly 200 women's players -- including most Olympians -- are boycotting the NWHL this season, hoping for something "more professional." And they've alluded to wanting the NHL to help back a new league.
It is Russia that is setting the model.
"We've said all along -- and you look at the history of women's startup leagues and where they've had success -- being associated and working with the male league has shown us that it can be very successful," said 2018 U.S. Olympic captain Meghan Duggan, one of the boycotting players. "Is that the only way? Of course not. But our relationship with the NHL is certainly important to us."
That's exactly what women in the WHL are finding.
"When it started five years ago, the interest was nothing," Lebedeva said. "Nobody wrote about it. Nobody took pictures of the game. Nobody knew about me playing in it besides maybe three neighbors. Now there is great progress. Because of the internet -- Instagram, Facebook, all the networks -- plus support of the KHL, so many more people know about women's hockey and the interest is huge."
One way the WHL has achieved growth is through cross promotion. And one of the women's biggest allies is Daria Mironova, a broadcaster who works for KHL TV and Match TV. Quite frankly, she is one of the faces of the league.
"Every time I have to work in the KHL studios, I talk about the girls," Mironova said. "Everywhere I go I bring the girls up."
Mironova is constantly asking the women to send them TikToks or videos she can share on her social feed, the league's social feed, or something she can incorporate into her television coverage. While she's seeing results, it hasn't always been easy to promote the women's game.
"It's still very hard, especially in Russia," Mironova said. "I don't want to say that people feel that it's inappropriate for the girls to play hockey, but you can feel it. All of the girls who play hockey here are extremely strong, because you have to beat the stereotypes. People either say to me, 'Wow, we admire you for pushing women's hockey', or they're saying, 'why are you doing that? Nobody cares. Nobody needs that.'"
American players note other cultural differences in Russia. For example, Llanes was one of several women invited to demonstrate skills at the KHL All Star Game, but she was told she had to get her hair and makeup done before going on the ice. The KHL put out a promotional calendar for the WHL -- which featured players posing naked, covered only by plants.
"Part of being over here, you have to accept culture, even though there are some things you don't agree with," Llanes said. "The calendar, for example, I definitely don't want to be in that. But it's just the culture. Some things you can fight, some things you just go with. I'm playing hockey for a living. I don't need to complain."
Lebedeva and Mironova both said that the increase in North American-born players is a positive thing and helps ramp up the competition. "We want to play against the best, because it will help us get better," Lebedeva said. When asked about the competition level, Llanes says the game is a little slower than what she was used to last year in the CWHL, "but it has allowed me to work on a few things, individually, to improve my game."
"There are a few teams that are really good, then a couple teams that aren't very good," Carpenter said. "But it's getting better, and any team beats any team on any given day."
As the future of women's professional hockey in North America remains murky, both players said they can see a situation where more players will sign with WHL teams next season.
"I think people in North America don't take it as serious," Llanes said. "People go to Europe to play in the Swedish league or stuff like that, because they don't know about the WHL. Before signing here, I didn't really know about it, either. But I'd recommend it to anyone -- especially if you can get a full-time salary, why not come over here and have the experience?"
Adds Carpenter: "We're in this gap year now, and with the possibility of having another gap year next year, I'd expect more North Americans to sign in Russia or China if the word gets out. When teammates ask me about my experience, I just say: This is probably the most put-together league I've been a part of."