Self-reflection has been the best medicine for Claudia Kepler as she looks back on her second professional hockey season and thinks about the next chapter of her life.
The 2013 Verona Area High School graduate helped the KRS Vanke Rays win the Russian Women’s Hockey League championship in the team’s first season in the league.
“The experience I had was awesome,” Kepler said. “I got paid to play professional hockey in a bunch of different countries and see so many different things. My teammates and I always made the joke that we were part-time tourists and full-time hockey players.”
Journey begins locally
Kepler, 24, was a forward for the Madison Capitols of the Tier 1 Elite League throughout her high school career, serving as a captain her senior season. She tallied 77 points (44 goals, 33 assists) and helped lead the Capitols to third place at nationals in 2012.
Kepler never played hockey for a WIAA-sanctioned team, but she was a standout third baseman at Verona. She was named second team all-Big Eight Conference her junior season and first team all-conference as a senior.
A blast in the Big Ten
The University of Wisconsin showed interest in Kepler coming out of high school, but she ultimately chose to play for one of the Badgers’ conference rivals.
“Wisconsin had a lot of players my freshman year who turned out to be All-Americans and Olympians,” Kepler said. “I wanted to go somewhere I could play right away. There were a bunch of different factors why I chose Ohio State, but it all worked out for the best.”
Kepler led the Buckeyes in goals in her three seasons with the program. She found the back of the net 39 times in 107 games and recorded a team-high 25 points her junior year.
“I didn’t become aware of playing overseas until my junior year at Ohio State,” she said. “It was something I didn’t really even know existed when I was growing up. My dad played college hockey and had me and my brother play. We always saw the Wisconsin women play, so that was my end goal growing up.”
With one year of eligibility left, Kepler decided to pursue her lifelong dream of playing for the Badgers. She had to sit out the 2016-17 season due to NCAA transfer rules, but became a co-captain for Wisconsin as a redshirt senior.
Kepler paced the Badgers with 22 goals and finished fifth on the team with a +26 rating. She led the Western Collegiate Hockey Association with nine power-play goals, ultimately earning second-team all-WCHA honors.
Kepler appeared in all 38 games for Wisconsin, which reached the NCAA Frozen Four but lost 4-3 to Colgate in double overtime.
“I was happy and appreciative to come back home,” she said. “I tried to take moments to look around and take it all in, seeing my mom and dad among thousands of fans in the stands. I felt a huge sense of pride every time I put the Badgers jersey on.”
Opportunities arise abroad
After her stellar senior season at UW, Kepler signed a one-year professional contract with HV71 in Jonkoping, Sweden. She recorded 31 points (15 goals, 16 assists) in 39 games.
“I learned a lot about myself in Sweden,” she said. “It was a great stepping stone for me to make it in China. There were more similarities to the U.S. and I had more American teammates in Sweden. It was such a different culture in China.”
Kepler was planning to participate in Professional Women’s Hockey Players’ Association events in North America in 2019-20. Her plans changed last September when Peter Elander – the coach who helped her get settled in Sweden – suggested she look into an opening with a team based in Shenzhen, China.
Elander contacted Brian Idalski, the former head coach at North Dakota and current head coach of the KRS Vanke Rays, about Kepler. She said her first instinct was to turn down the opportunity in China, but she gradually started to think it was a good idea.
“My life got flipped upside down in five days,” Kepler said. “I had nothing tying me down at home like a house or child, so I just thought I should go for it.”
Whirlwind season in Shenzhen
Kepler racked up 18 points (eight goals, 10 assists) in 29 games as a left winger for the Vanke Rays.
On Jan. 5, the team landed in Hong Kong and found out the novel coronavirus was spreading throughout the region.
Before the league’s Chinese New Year break in late January, KRS team officials told players to pack for a six-week stay in Russia to finish the season. The Vanke Rays played in front of 4,000 fans in the first game of its final series before the holiday break, but the second game had no fans due to the virus.
“It was a really cool experience to see the game growing and more fans coming to our games,” Kepler said. “We had about 4,000 fans for every home game. The game isn’t as developed as it is here in the (United) States, but the hope is to see more people buying into the future of the women’s game.”
Kepler packed two hockey bags for a trip to Thailand with her parents over the break, then returned to the team in St. Petersburg, Russia on Feb. 11. KRS played the remainder of its games on the road.
The Vanke Rays swept the best-of-three semifinals. Shenzhen then traveled to Ufa, Russia, for the best-of-five finals against two-time defending league champion Agidel Ufa.
KRS had lost three of the four regular-season meetings against Agidel, but the Vanke Rays swept the championship series.
“I really enjoyed the celebration. It was really professional and similar to American hockey,” Kepler said. “We did snow angels with gold streamers coming down. There was a big trophy that was hard to lift over your head.”
KRS played its final game of the 2019-20 season on March 11. After one day of celebration, Kepler began the 30-hour journey home.
Kepler sat through three flights – Ufa to Moscow, Moscow to New York and New York to Chicago – before driving the rest of the way to Madison. She then left for a two-week self-quarantine with her parents in northern Wisconsin.
“I’m taking it day by day and using the time for some self-reflection,” Kepler said. “There are a few different careers I could go into, but everything is still so unknown, especially with sports.
“Sports thrive on fans, and if we’re going to grow women’s hockey, we need people in the arenas to watch us. Whether it’s coaching or playing, I still want to be involved in hockey.”