Kirsten Whelan

Alex Carpenter's Playing for the Joy of It

Alex Carpenter didn't expect she'd be spending the last weekend of January, 2018 in Boston. No one did. When she flies halfway around the world this week, it'll be towards Shenzhen, China with Kunlun Red Star, instead of Pyeongchang, South Korea with Team USA. But she's determined to make the most of it.

"It's been a lot of fun right now," she said. "It's obviously difficult to come into a team in the middle of the year, but just knowing a lot of girls from previous events, I think it kind of helps and they've just been more than welcoming.

"You kind of just sit back and watch a little and try to learn what the team's about and how they act," she added. "I think you try to just fit in as best as you can, and you try to adapt to what they're doing. So far it's been great. It's unlike any other team I've ever been on, and it's kind of special to be able to come in and try to help these girls, as well as play well in the CWHL."

Carpenter made waves last summer as the most prominent player to enter the CWHL draft. She'd heard about the Chinese expansion earlier than most -- her dad, Bobby, sits on the Kunlun Red Star International Advisory Board and recently took over head coaching duties for the club's KHL team -- and registered with full intent of joining the Red Star this season. (Editor's note: the same day that this story was published, Kunlun Red Star of the KHL announced that Bobby Carpenter would not be re-signed as a coach but will remain on the Advisory Board.)

"Regardless of when I was done with USA Hockey I was going to come over," she explained. "Whether that'd be now like it is, or whether it was after the Olympics ... [I was going to be] available as soon as I was done with my commitment with USA Hockey."

Still, that wasn't supposed to be this soon.

Several of Carpenter's Kunlun teammates have spent time in the USA Hockey program, and they passed on word about the cuts as soon as they heard. Head coach Digit Murphy quickly reached out and arranged to have a sport ambassador contract put in place and bring Carpenter over to China.

After "sitting around for a couple weeks after it happened," Carpenter joined the group in Toronto in early January. Initially, she hoped having a new team and competitive games to focus on would take her mind off of the surprise dismissal.

"It's done more than that," she said. "It's really helped me as a player and as a person, so I think that that was the most important factor in continuing the rest of the season."

As a sports ambassador, she's also embracing a dual role on the ice.

"Something I've done for a while is just lead by example," she offered. "I kind of liked the idea of having different kinds of players on the team. Obviously spreading the game of hockey is a big, important thing to a lot of women in North America and especially spreading it out to China, I think that was a big reason of wanting to go over there and play. And also being able to still play with some of the best players in the country."

Her dad's Kunlun connection is another perk. The team will have a week off during the Olympic break, allowing Chinese players to celebrate the Chinese New Year with their families. Carpenter's looking forward to spending that time with family, too.

"I'm planning on seeing my dad out there," she said. "I haven't seen him since July, so [we're] trying to figure that out."

With just a handful of matches under her belt, she's scoring at a pace of nearly two points per game, but the statistics aren't her priority. Coming into the league at the halfway mark of the season, her focus for the rest of the year is less on reaching individual milestones than on maintaining her love for the sport, and sharing it with her teammates.

"Just having fun is one of the big things that I'm trying to do. Obviously leaving USA Hockey in that fashion wasn't what I had planned, but I think part of the reason for coming back and playing was that I wanted to have fun and I wanted to not leave hockey on a bad note. So I think that that's one of the big things, and then at the same time, enjoying it and making sure the Chinese girls enjoy it and love the game."

(Photo credit: Jess Bazal/Markham Thunder)

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