Author’s note: Buffalo Beauts goaltender Kelsey Neumann and I have teamed up to interview and spotlight young ladies (11-14 years old) who play hockey in the Buffalo area. It is a chance for them to practice being interviewed and receive some additional recognition. This is the fourth in a series that we are doing together. This time we are spotlighting 13-year old forward Grace Laski!
I like quieter people. For usually when they speak, a lot of thought has already been put into their words beforehand and they are capable of saying something quite intellectual or profound. Grace Laski of the Buffalo Bisons impresses me as one of those quieter people. That being said, I am sure that she is not quiet all the time. But for at least this evening when we are conducting her interview Coach Kelsey Neumann reminds her that she needs to be speak up a bit so that the recorder can capture her voice. And is it turns out, I was exactly right. Grace Laski is contemplative and she offered a good number of deeper thoughts on hockey, especially the women’s game, some of which were indeed very profound.
Laski is a defender for the Buffalo Bisons girls 12U team. “I started playing hockey towards the beginning of kindergarten, so I was about 4-years old”, and while she could not remember exactly what got her interested in hockey to begin with, Laski knows full well what has kept her interested. She gets a big grin and says to me, “It’s just fun. Being with a ton of people. Being a team and working together to win. And if you lose, you just learn from it and have fun”. It impressed me that Laski is 13-years old, and she already appreciates the concept of “either you win or you learn”. I don’t think that I grasped that idea until I was into my thirties. It is a simple concept, but it carries a lot of weight to it.
Asked how she defines her style as a defender, and whether she considers herself an offensive-minded or a defensive-minded one, Laski seems to be more of the stay-at-home kind of defender (my personal favorite). “I like staying in the front of the net and picking up the opposing players’ sticks, or tying them up in front of the net. I like to help my goalie out and keep the crease clear”. Hockey teams need those types of players who have a net presence in their own end. A player like Laski who is defensively responsible and who does not mind accepting some of the less glamorous responsibilities of the game.
We start to talk about defenders who Laski emulates. Like most Buffalo-born youngsters, she admires a Sabre in particular. I guess that I am not surprised either that she chooses another softer-spoken defender for the team, though not necessarily for the reasons that I would have surmised. “Unfortunately some people might say that he hasn’t done a whole lot for the Sabres this season, but I admire Cody Franson”. I happened to meet Franson on a chance encounter over the summer at a Verizon store, and he was incredibly friendly and gracious as we chatted for about 10-15-minutes or so. So I know that he is a nice guy and likable. Franson also has a whale of a shot too. But why does Grace Laski like him? Coach Kelsey Neumann poses the question by asking Laski, “Okay is he your favorite because of A) looks, B) number or C) skill?”. We all laugh and Laski giggles, “Number”. Both Laski and Franson wear number-6.
Cody Franson has a big shot. That is the positive attribute that he is perhaps most widely known for. For other players, it may be something like their skating ability or having sound positioning. What does Laski consider to be her own best characteristics? One seems to fall more in line with the stay-at-home defender that she is, while the other seems to be completely opposite of where she feels most comfortable; regardless, both are great skills to have hold of, especially at just 13-years of age. “I can skate fast backwards. And sometimes when I am really into a play, I can have these really fast end-to-end rushes with the puck and get it up ice”. Being able to skate backwards at a high speed is not a skill that is easily attained, and the same can be said for end-to-end rushes. I pride Grace Laski on the fact that her skating is one of her strong suits. “The constant practices and having a ton of clinics over the summer, as well as having played for a lot of teams and coaches have all really helped with my skating ability”.
Defender is a unique position, in that oftentimes it is the most “helpful” position on the ice. Having a defense partner that one must be in tune with and develop a natural sort of “ebb and flow” with on the ice when playing alongside one another. Clearing loose pucks and protecting one’s goaltender. Getting pucks up the wing to the forwards. A constant state of helping the other players wearing the same colors as you on the ice. “You have to make sure that you are always watching the front of the net for anyone who may be hanging back. When you are in the corner, if the opposing player is in front of you but closer to the boards, stick on stick and body on body, don’t slash at them; pick up their stick with yours and try to chip the puck out”. You can tell that Laski is quite astute and very much a thinker of the game.
In another three or four years, Laski will begin looking at various colleges and universities and deciding where she would like to attend. Getting to play the game at the NCAA level would be a dream come true. “I definitely want to play college hockey. Right now I do not know what school I would like to go to, but playing hockey in college is definitely my goal”. In the meantime, Laski keeps herself plenty busy by playing for two different Buffalo Bisons teams. “I play with the 12U-A team for the Bisons girls, and just recently finished the season with a Bisons boys team and we won our playoffs”.
Laski’s family has supported her hockey aspirations, and a closeness with her older sister has helped Grace to believe in herself and in her dreams. “Well for starters, they get me to the rink”, which causes me to laugh. “My sister Hannah has helped me a lot. Especially with my slap-shot and shooting in general. If I am outside and I am really mad about something, like after a bad skate or a tough game, I’ll be shooting pucks for hours at the net, and she’ll show me how to shoot properly. She also helps me with my toughness”. Hannah Laski knows all about toughness, as she is a competitor in Buffalo’s roller derby scene. “Hannah helps me with both my posture and my balance. She has incredible balance from playing roller derby”, Grace tells me.
At the time that I am putting the finishing touches on this article, the Buffalo Beauts have been Isobel Cup champions for nearly 24-hours now. It was a moment that actually brought tears to my ears watching goaltender Kelsey Neumann and her Beauts teammates celebrating with sheer joy as a team out on the ice after doing the nearly unthinkable and knocking off the heavily Boston Pride. Grace Laski gets to work with Kelsey Neumann firsthand on a regular basis, and like many of the Bisons players, she has come to think of Neumann as another older sister. “It means a lot. I would think that all of the other girls on our team look up to her like I do, and I want to be like her and play in the NWHL too. She is there to show us how we should be acting both on the ice and off. Be kind to others and help them too”.
Maybe some eyes have now been opened from the fact that the Beauts won the Isobel Cup and brought the first professional hockey championship to Buffalo since 1970 when the former American Hockey League Buffalo Bisons won the Calder Cup. A large number of hockey fans in the Buffalo community today were either not born yet or were too young to even recall that the city once had a storied AHL team (me being one who was born a decade later). But now we have a professional championship team right in our own backyard. And it is not the Sabres. It is the Beauts. Maybe people will finally start paying the NWHL champs some proper attention and show the support that they most certainly deserve.
I ask Laski what can the Buffalo community do to support women’s hockey in our city, and perhaps capitalize on the Beauts’ success. “Just try it for a bit. See if you like it, and if you are a girl who likes to play, stick with your team and keep going. If someone is talking badly, and saying that hockey is only for boys, they’re wrong because there are already a ton of girls who play. You should pursue your dreams no matter what, and don’t listen to people who hate on you. If someone knocks you down, get back up no matter how hard it is”. Very well said, Grace. Nice job.
Winter storm “Stella” is wreaking havoc throughout the northeast of the United States. I am having to contend with it here in Buffalo, while the Boston Pride’s Jordan Smelker is assuredly braving the winter barrens in the Massachusetts area. And as a hockey player, Smelker’s style of play allows her to perform a little “wreaking havoc” of her own. “To put it bluntly”, she says, “I think the best way to describe me is someone who creates destruction in the offensive zone to hopefully create turnovers and help give our team scoring opportunities”. I do not know why, but as soon as she said this the refrain from the Drowning Pool song “Bodies” starts playing in my mind: “Let the bodies hit the floor/ Let the bodies hit the floor/ Let the bodies hit the floor/ Let the bodies hit the FLOOR!!!”.
Smelker goes on to say, “My favorite thing to do is forecheck, so if I can use my size to help regain or maintain possession and create scoring opportunities, then I think I’m doing my job. My playing style isn’t what you would call ‘pretty’ or ‘graceful’, but that’s okay with me because each player is different, and plays a unique and important role. That’s what makes hockey so great I think”. And that is made me want to interview Smelker. I find myself taking a liking toward players that embody a strong work ethic and an intense level of determination. Guts, to do it more justice. Smelker’s role throughout her young career has already brought her a CWHL Clarkson Cup championship and an NWHL Isobel Cup championship as well. I felt a strong inclination to learn more about her, and she was kind enough to grant me the opportunity.
Born June 19th, 1992, Jordan Smelker hails from faraway Anchorage Alaska (at least faraway from Boston and Buffalo). “Hockey is pretty big up there”, Smelker tells me. “I started playing when I was 6-years old. My parents got a flyer for the Alaska FirebirdsGirls Hockey Association from our elementary school, and decided to have my sister and I give it a try. From what I can remember, when we first started playing, there was really only one girls organization in Anchorage. There were many opportunities to play boys’ hockey, but aside from one year each playing with the boys, my sister and I stuck with girls hockey”.
When I think of Anchorage, Alaska, I always have the same image that comes to mind. That of big Mike Peluso, a former star for the University of Alaska Anchorage (UAA), sitting on the bench crying with beautiful emotion as he realized he was about to win the Stanley Cup with the New Jersey Devils in 1995. While Smelker did not closely follow the NHL while in Anchorage, she was very much aware and a fan of the more localized hockey in her hometown and that of Peluso’s alma mater: “In Anchorage we grew up watching the Alaska Aces of the ECHL and the UAA Seawolves. I didn’t really watch the NHL because we didn’t have access to the games to watch on TV, so I was more of a bandwagon fan whenever the Stanley Cup Finals came around. I did love watching the U.S. women’s national team in the Olympics and came to admire those players, many of whom I get to play with now on the Pride”.
Other than my visions of Mike Peluso, I would have to say that I have very little familiarity with Alaska and its many wonders. Photos I have seen make me marvel over its awe-inspiring beauty. And while I could try to imagine what it may be like to live there I know that I could never properly do it justice. For Smelker though, it is first and foremost home. “As far as growing up in Alaska, it was pretty typical for a hockey family. We would spend most weekends during the winter traveling to tournaments and playing games. During the summer we would go on camping trips or biking trips, and work on the house. We had some horses and some land, so we would spent a lot of time at home playing and working outside”, she says. While some of that may be typical like Smelker said, it also sounds quite nice.
In addition to being an elite hockey player, Jordan Smelker is also very much a superb all-around athlete. And while she has excelled in track & field, tennis, and cross country skiing, she is first and foremost a hockey player hands down. “I love sports in general”, she says, “and it was great that my parents allowed me to play whatever I wanted. But I have always been a hockey player. Not only did I love the games, but I loved training for it. The opportunity arose to play hockey at RPI, so it didn’t take much thought to jump on the chance”. Which leads our discussion into Smelker’s remarkable collegiate career.
From 2010 to 2014, Jordan Smelker excelled on the ice and in the classroom at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), whose team name is quite appropriately the Engineers. Many hockey fans recognize that RPI fostered elite players such as Adam Oates and Joe Juneau, but unfortunately not as many people seem to be aware that a number of premier players came through the school’s women’s program as well like Julie Aho, Alexa Gruschow, and Smelker. “I had met the RPI assistant coach Colette Youlen at NAHA (North American Hockey Academy) summer hockey camps up in Alaska. I visited RPI in June before my senior year of high school. The campus was beautiful and the rink was great. I wasn’t sure right away what I wanted to pursue as a career, but engineering did interest me. So the combination of a great education and the opportunity to play D-I hockey made the decision pretty easy”.
During her freshman year at RPI not only did Smelker appear in all 35-regular season games, but also finished second overall on the team in goals (10) and points (20). Academically, she would be named an ECAC Hockey All-Academic, which is an honor bestowed upon collegiate athletes who have earned a cumulative average of at least 3.0. I wanted to know from Smelker what that first taste of NCAA hockey felt like. She explains: “As far as the hockey goes, the best part of transitioning from the travel team in Alaska to playing college was that I got to play so much hockey. Every day was filled with training. I loved the grind of struggling through long days with my teammates. It sounds weird but I got a lot of fulfillment out of that and of course playing in the big rinks against teams like Harvard and Cornell was really awesome”.
It can be funny sometimes the things that our mind’s eye holds onto. For Jordan Smelker it was an image from her freshman season that held a lot of gravity to it, and which ironically enough is still very much in her life today. “I distinctly remember a moment during our first road trip to Wisconsin my freshman year. During the national anthem I was awestruck looking across the rink at the team spread across the blueline seeing names like Duggan, Knight and Decker. There were players that I idolized and watched on TV. I was in shock that I was actually going to play a hockey game against them. It is funny thinking about it now because I get to play with them everyday, which at the time was not even on my radar as a possibility”.
I look at Smelker’s sophomore campaign at RPI as arguably her most remarkable. Once again she played in each game (34) of the season for the Engineers and was a second time straight ECAC All-Academic, all the while leading her team in goals (10), assists (16), points (26) and penalty minutes (50). She laughs, “I’m not so proud of the penalty minutes statistic. I definitely had a temper which I think now I have finally conquered… hopefully (more laughter). As far as the other stuff you mentioned, I just think that getting pushed in the weight room helped me a lot on the ice. We had a pretty vigorous strength and conditioning program which helped us get stronger and faster on the ice. It helped me stay on my feet again college level players. I had spent a fair amount of my freshman year either falling on my face or flat on my back. Strength and speed definitely distinguished the vets from the rookies in the ECAC”.
Smelker’s third season as an Engineer brought more of the same accolades and success. This time it would be all 36-games for the squad while once again leading the team in PIMs (51) and finishing second on the team in assists (12) and points (21). A third in a row All-Academic honor in the books as well, by this point Smelker was a well-established junior who could also be a leader and a guide for the program’s younger players. “I was just focused on working as hard as I could both on the ice and off, in the weight room and classroom, and hopefully lead by example in that way”.
The 2013-14 season would be Smelker’s senior year and her final season at RPI. She would cap off her career at Rensselaer with a big bang. 19-points in 31-games are certainly decent numbers, but what speaks more to Smelker’s character, her skill level, and her leadership was that not only was she named the Engineers’ team MVP, but she was also a finalist for ECAC Hockey’s Best Defensive Forward award. Looking back on her collegiate career, Smelker is able to say “My time at RPI greatly impacted me as a person. I had to grow up a lot, and it was certainly difficult to manage school and hockey at the same time. I wouldn’t say that I am ecstatic about the results we had over the four years; I think we had potential for more success than we had. Having said that, I don’t regret the experience as I felt that I learned a lot and it helped me to grow as a person”.
Upon graduating from RPI, Smelker would sign with the Boston Blades of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League, and it would pay most wonderful dividends. The Blades were comprised of a roster that featured some of hockey’s finest. Brianna Decker. Hilary Knight. Monique Lamoureux. Kaleigh Fratkin. Tara Watchorn. Smelker. And I could go on even more from there. “It was a simple decision (to sign with the Blades)”, she recalls. “I wanted to continue playing competitively, and the CWHL was an option with structure and a high level of hockey, so it was a no-brainer”.
Even with a roster with legends such as there were, Jordan Smelker still finished sixth overall in team scoring for the Blades (8-goals, 7-assists in 22-games). Far more importantly though, the 2014-15 Blades would capture the Clarkson Cup trophy. Winning 3-2 in overtime against the Montreal Stars on a goal by Austria’s Janine Weber, Smelker and her teammates would hoist the Cup for the second time in the team’s history. For Smelker, not bad at all for a first season in the CWHL. Smelker tells me, “That was an awesome year. It was the best year of hockey for me up to that point. We had great team chemistry, and all my teammates were such great players; I really appreciated that team. That was the first championship that I had ever won, so it was awesome. But more importantly I loved my team and the friendships I made that year are some of the best I’ve had”.
The National Women’s Hockey League would hold its inaugural campaign during the 2015-16 season, and Jordan Smelker would become of the league’s fledgling members of the first paid professional women’s hockey league. Smelker would not have to go far either, as she would opt to sign with the city of Boston’s NWHL club, the Pride. Speaking on the fact that she could have likely signed with any one of the other four newly founded NWHL teams in Boston, Buffalo, New York, or the North Branford area of Connecticut, or even have signed with another CWHL team, Smelker tells me, “I had a job in Boston, so I didn’t want to move cities. It was an easy decision for me to stay in Boston so that I could have the same teammates who I love and also keep my job”.
The Pride’s first season would be exciting and a whirlwind at times too. Coinciding with having a great deal of success as a hockey club, perhaps largely due to the fact that most of the team was comprised of the same roster of players who had just previously won the Clarkson Cup the year beforehand (i.e. Knight, Decker, Dempsey, Bolden, Smelker, etc.), the team also had to face devastating adversity when teammate from both the Blades and the Pride, Denna Laing, suffered a severe spinal cord injury during an outdoor game. That being said, the team rallied behind one another and became that much more bound together by their heartstrings. Smelker would average better than a point per game by tallying 19 of them (9-goals, 10-assists) in 17-games, and the Pride would capture the first ever Isobel Cup championship in the first season of NWHL play. Teammate Hilary Knight would absolutely explode for 33-points in 17-games, plus 9-more points in 4-playoff games as Boston claimed victory.
“The first season was definitely eventful”, Smelker says. “There were times when the travel schedule was difficult, but the atmosphere at the games was awesome. That was the first year I experienced having a pretty large base of fans who would show up week after week. Sometimes walking around Boston I’ll see a Pride jersey, or a Denna Laing t-shirt, which is really cool. The thing that sticks out most to me is the feeling that I am a part of something that has made an impact on the game and has shown that women’s hockey has the potential to be something that people can get excited about watching”.
And this feeling that Smelker speaks of has by no means diminished. At the time of this article, the NWHL playoffs are set to begin tomorrow evening (March 16th, 2017) as Smelker’s Pride take on the Connecticut Whale in the opening round. The Pride only lost 1-game all season long, and look to repeat as Isobel Cup champions. They have also secured home ice advantage throughout the entire playoffs. According to Smelker, “The best part about playing in the NWHL is playing at home in front of our awesome fans. The atmosphere is phenomenal and we can attribute that to the fans. Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!”. In 15-games this season, Jordan Smelker scored 3-goals and 5-assists.
With the 2016-17 season almost at a close, Smelker also has some ideas on how we as a hockey community can continue to build the prosperity and the interest for women’s hockey. We discuss first the concept of “Grow the Game” – the idea of building the road ahead for women’s hockey, particularly for the young girls that comprise the next generation. Smelker explains her thoughts to me: “To me, ‘Grow the Game’ means doing the little things like staying for autographs, volunteering at clinics, and talking to kids who show an interest in meeting you. My teammate Jill Dempsey is an excellent example of the type of person that really helps grow the game. She always is making time for things like that, and it shows the impact it has because you see the number of kids that come to the games looking for a picture with “Ms. Dempsey” or an autographed jersey”.
But after “Grow the Game”, there is a need to garner support from their male counterparts that the NWHL players hope to attain, according to Smelker. “I think that support and recognition of our league from the men’s side would definitely help. It would go a long way for us to have prominent figures in the hockey world (men’s and women’s) to be vocal about their support of the league to help make it more visible nationwide”. Personally, I agree with Smelker’s sentiments exactly, and I think we are just starting to see support coming from the NHL at various functions where the top league in men’s hockey can spread the word on the great brand of hockey that players like Smelker are generating. Let’s just hope that continues.
Having played in and found success with both major North American women’s leagues, Smelker’s experience gives her the firsthand insight into what could potentially be a successful merger or partnership between the NWHL and the CWHL. But, Smelker even takes it a step further. Perhaps if Hockey Canada and USA Hockey both got onto the boat with women’s professional hockey, then it would a “natural hat-trick” of sorts. “I think another huge missing link is a collaboration of the professional leagues with USA Hockey and Hockey Canada. It would be incredibly impactful to have the three ‘pillars’ of post-NCAA women’s hockey work together to form or mold a league into something that can help develop players after college, and also feed into the development of the national team programs”. Definitely an interesting idea raised by Smelker; one I have not fully heard discussed as such before. I hope that there are some folks that are higher up who might be listening.
How Jordan Smelker and I end the conversation reiterates further that I was right in wanting to interview her. She tells me, “The most important thing I have learned while playing hockey is how to be a good person and how to work hard”. I do not think that there are two ideals more necessary than the two that she names. They exemplify who she is as a player and as a person. Jordan Smelker may look to create destruction when she competes out on the ice but that speaks most certainly to the hard worker that she is, and I happen to know that she is a very good person too.
Author’s note: Buffalo Beauts goaltender Kelsey Neumann and I have teamed up to interview and spotlight young ladies (11-14 years old) who play hockey in the Buffalo-area. It is a chance for them to practice being interviewed and receive some additional recognition. This is the third in a series that we are doing together. This time we are spotlighting 11-year old forward Julia Peters!
Salty beans. Jack Eichel. And Jerry Rice.
I may have met the only 11-year old girl who knows who Jerry Rice is. She is well aware of Rice’s many accolades and his importance to sports in general as one of the greatest professional athletes of all time. Julia Peters meets me at Moe’s accompanied by her mom and also one of her coaches (Buffalo Beauts goalie Kelsey Neumann). She offers me a firm handshake and a bright smile. She’s decked out in a Jack Eichel jersey; her hockey hero. And for some reason, the beans in our food are extra salty tonight.
Julia Peters is a forward for the Girls 12U Buffalo Bisons. One of the youngest players on the squad, Peters informs me that she has been skating since she could walk. “I started by skating on the pond in our backyard. From there, I started playing organized hockey when I was 3-years old. Even now I still go skating on the pond every winter; from 6:00pm until 3:00am sometimes”. One thing that you will learn about Julia Peters from this piece is that she is an incredible all-around athlete. Peters mentions that she also has a swimming pool and a trampoline in her backyard too, and she makes very good use of all in order to stay fit and excel in sports.
“My parents are really what got me started with hockey. I was so young when I started that I don’t even remember the beginnings. I think that they just put me into a program to get me going”. Peters is the youngest of four, with an older sister and two older brothers. “My sister plays hockey too. My one older brother is in college. He switched schools, so he couldn’t try out for the team right away, but he is going to try out for U.B.’s team (University at Buffalo). But we have each been playing hockey all of our lives. My dad played too”. Looking into Peters’ extended family, her mother’s four brothers all played hockey and her grandfather coached the game as well. “It is just a really big sport throughout my family”.
Much like Jack Eichel, Julia Peters has an affinity towards the center position. Peters even flashes me a “C” with her hands when I first ask the question; signing to me that it is her favorite position. Pun intended, I eventually learn throughout the course of our conversation that this little lady is a “Jack of all trades”, so to speak. “I feel most comfortable at center. It is a very important position. I am willing to accept that responsibility, and I always try my hardest”. Good girl.
Anyone who has seen Jack Eichel play knows that he is an incredibly skilled individual, and a very “crafty” forward. I ask Peters if she had to describe her own style, how would she define herself as a forward? “I would probably say a power-forward. I am definitely not a sniper”, she laughs, “because I only have one goal”. Coach Kelsey Neumann begged to differ and said, “I think you are more of a playmaker. Anytime I see you play you are always setting up some great passes”. Coach typically knows best, and after some reconsideration, Peters can see why her coach feels this way about her. “I like scoring goals, but the reason why I only have one is because I usually set them up. My linemates have some goals off of my passes; Molly (Leggett) has three”. Playmaker it is then, and it sounds like she is performing at the position quite well.
Centers, even those who like to dish the puck out more than keep it to themselves, need to have an array of shots. Much like her professional counterparts, Peters invests the time needed to develop her various shots so that she has some options. “I have been working on my slapshot lately; I really like that one. My wrist shot is kind of ‘missily’ (cool word that Peters just invented). I practice in my basement, and I practice out on the ice too. I try different techniques to find one that I really like. I did this one today where I went bar down on the shot. I also did this other slapshot where my stick hits the ice first and I turn my wrist as I am striking the puck. It helps the puck to go up more”. Here is where Peters really impresses me: “The first time that we tested the speed of our shots, I was at 56-mph”. Keep in mind that this is an eleven year old girl. That is some serious firepower!
With that ‘missily’ shot of hers, I ask Peters if she has most memorable goal that she has scored in her hockey career so far. “Oh yeah. When I was playing with boys two years ago, I scored the first goal of the season. It was a one-timer that went bar down”. Peters fell when getting the shot off but like all highlight reel goals falling only made it look ten-times cooler!
Peters is actually in her first year with the Bisons. Prior to that she played 7-years with the Hamburg Hawks, another local youth hockey club. In addition to club hockey, Peters plans on giving it her best go when she tries out for the varsity high school hockey team next year. Hailing from Orchard Park, she is excited to begin her high school career. The Orchard Park’s girls hockey team is part of a conglomerate formed with Lakeshore and Frontier high schools as well. For young girls who play hockey in the Buffalo area, having a professional women’s hockey team whom they can get up close and personal with offers a unique opportunity for inspiration. Having a coach like Kelsey Neumann imparting experience from the pro level is a rarer treat. “It’s actually very fun, and I can tell people – ‘I have a professional hockey player’s phone number!'”. A simple pleasure, but definitely a confidence booster for sure. Julia looks up to Kelsey, and her mom is grateful that she has Kelsey as a role model.
With confidence and a positive mindset, anything is possible. I asked Peters what dreams does she hope to accomplish in her hockey career. She says, “Oooh, my mom knows this one – I want to be the second girl to play in the NHL”. Okay, so Miss Peters, what do you need to do in order to accomplish that dream? “Work hard. Play hard. Get stronger. Build my muscles”.
It is not always easy though. Players can fall into slumps. Forwards can run into issues with coughing up turnovers or not finding the back of the net. “When that happens, I examine myself. Sort of look inside. I’ll even smack myself upside the helmet too to get my head back into the game. It helps me to get refocused. I stop and think about where I am at and what I am doing. I tell myself, ‘Get back in the game, or else you have to do pushups when you get home!’. I have actually made myself do pushups a few times”.
And there is family of course too. Coming from a long line of hockey players, Peters’ family is her cornerstone as she continues to move toward those dreams. “It seems like my mom and my dad are never out of the car. They always take me to all of my games and practices. Earlier this season, I arrived at the rink but I had forgotten my equipment. My dad drove all the way home to get it. I ended up only playing 6-minutes that practice, but what mattered most was that my dad took the time to go get my equipment for me”.
“The most important thing that I have learned from hockey is that you have to have confidence. If I have a teammate whose confidence is lacking, I’ll tell them, ‘It’s okay, just chill. Just forget about it'”. It makes me feel good to see that Julia Peters has her own strong sense of self confidence. A likeable self confidence at that. Confidence amongst young girls can be contagious, and when one is filled to the brim with that confidence, it is only natural for it to spill over and into others. Peters tells me, “I am a crazy, wild, nonstop, talkative, chatterbox”. It is perhaps no wonder then that she is also well known for coming up with a variety of cheers for her teammates to boost their spirits and get them into the game.
Throughout the course of our interview Peters even threw in a few “dabs”. And after originally attributing the “dab” to football’s Odell Beckham Jr. , she corrects herself by stating that it was quarterback Cam Newton who came up with the slick move. “I know a bit about every sport. I surprise my mom all the time. She’ll say, ‘how do you know this?’. I can play hockey, softball, gymnastics, badminton and swimming. I like football, but hockey is my life”. Asked who her favorite football player – “Jerry Rice”. I mean, wow.
With our interview at an end, it is her same self-confidence that leads Peters to approach one of the cooks and politely inform them that their beans are little salty tonight. No rudeness or discourtesy at all. Just an eleven year old young lady speaking her mind, and expressing something that she felt the workers may want to know in order to provide better service. Julia Peters has some pizazz and could have the world by the tail if she wanted too. And because of that unbridled enthusiasm, I would not at all be surprised if she does become the next woman to make it to the NHL. Great job, kiddo!
“I think that my best qualities as a hockey player would be my speed and my passing”. At 5-feet, 2-inches and 110-pounds, Alexandra Neryueva has the proper build to be a speedster for Arctik Universitet hockey club in Russia’s WHL (ЖХЛ). “In saying that though, I think that I am a more defensive player, but am also able to try and help in the attack”. Neryueva is a 20-year old, left-handed shooter and she plans on being a part of the WHL for many years to come. Neryueva and I have been chatting over the past couple of days, and she has been kind enough to share with me a bit of her story and her “hockey history”.
Born May 5th, 1996, Neryueva is from the regional area of Moscow known as Moscow Oblast, but is currently living in and playing hockey in the city of Ukhta; an industrial town that is about a 20-hour drive northeast of Moscow. According to Neryueva, “There are many opportunities to play hockey in both Moscow and in Ukhta. The sport continues to develop in both cities. I was 11-years old when I started playing hockey. In my family my older brother started playing hockey first, and when I saw his games I also wanted to give it a try. At first my parents didn’t allow me to play, but eventually I was allowed to. After the first training that I had I really enjoyed it and I decided to continue playing hockey for life”. Her commitment to this decision has never wavered since, and Neryueva’s career has only grown and blossomed further because of it. So much so that she now is a professional hockey player.
“I follow both the NHL and the KHL”, she tells me. “From Russia, I like Pavel Datsyuk and Artemi Panarin, and from abroad I like Sidney Crosby and Steven Stamkos. In Russia my favorite team is CSKA Moscow, and abroad my favorite team is the Pittsburgh Penguins. I like the tactics and styles of both of these teams and their professionalism”. Pavel Datsyuk ranks in my own top-five favorite hockey players, so I definitely appreciate Neryueva’s affinity for arguably the craftiest wizard with a puck that has ever played. I am also a bit jealous that Datsyuk has decided to finish his hall of fame career in Russia, and that Neryueva gets to see him far more regularly than I do now. But I guess fair is fair.
While she was still in her teenage years, Alexandra Neryueva would play her junior hockey for Atlant Odintsovo; a team from Moscow Oblast. During that time she would have the unique opportunity to represent her country at the 2014 Women’s U18 World Championships in Budapest, Hungary. Though Russia posted a record of 2-wins and 1-loss in the tournament, they would end with a fourth place finish after losing to the Czech Republic in the bronze medal game. Neryueva would play in all six games of tournament and score a goal in the quarterfinals against Finland in order to advance Russia into the semifinals versus Canada. Neryueva’s tally ended a deadlock with the Finns with just under 10-minutes left and was the decisive game-winning goal, putting Russia ahead to stay in a 3-1 victory. “For me the most special moment in my career thus far was getting to play for this youth team for Russia”. The international experience was invaluable, and further vaulted her readiness to play in the top women’s league of her homeland.
“When I grew up from junior league, I was invited to play with Kometa Mozhaysk“. Kometa was part of the women’s Russian Championship league, which was the precursor to the professional WHL. “Kometa was located in Odintsovo, so that was how I originally got into playing with the top women’s league in Russia”. Neryueva would spend two years with Kometa before the club ceased operations.
With the newly formed WHL set to begin play for the 2015-16 season, it would be no real surprise that a team would snatch up Neryueva to add her to their roster. “Two years ago when my previous club was shut down, Arctik Universitet called me and offered me a contract. I immediately agreed to sign!”. In Neryueva’s first season with Arctik she played in all 24-regular season games for the team. She would also finish in the top ten for team scoring 4-goals and 3-assists for 7-points on the season.
Speaking on the WHL experience, Neryueva tells me, “I think what makes playing in the league so enjoyable is the emotions of the girls, and the struggles and challenges that are felt between the players and the teams”. I will routinely watch the WHL games on my phone and the rivalries between the seven clubs that comprise the league is indeed intense. Now in the 2016-17 season, Neryueva continues her solid performance for Arctik and really strives to be the best player she can be for her teammates. In 28-games this season she has posted 3-goals and 2-assists.
What has impressed me most in talking with Alexandra Neryueva is not the fact that she plays in the WHL, nor that she scored a game-winning goal in an IIHF World Championship. Rather, it is her kind spirit and a love that she has for her family. Neryueva sent me a number of different photos to use for this article. Among them are photos with her mom and dad, and a photo with her three brothers. For Neryueva, the love and support of her family is what matters most to her and even makes her a better hockey player. “For me it’s important that my parents are proud of me, and that I become a good professional player and reach the best heights that I am able”. It would seem to me that although her parents initially were hesitant in allowing her to play hockey, that they are now most certainly very proud of their daughter and what she is accomplishing.
She expounds upon this more heartfelt side of playing hockey. “I have learned that there are a lot of good people in life, there are beautiful places, and that if you want your dream to come true then you need to work hard. You can never give up; you need to strive for more. Love your family and cherish it. Believe in yourself. You need to appreciate life, and if in your life there is a sport like hockey, it will make your life that much more interesting. And at the moment, hockey is a part of me which I really love!”
There are a large number of little girls in Russia who emulate players like Neryueva. And perhaps their parents might have some initial misgivings about their daughters playing hockey too. Neryueva shares her thoughts on this with me. “I would tell little girls to believe in themselves and to strive to develop in all directions of life. Sports like hockey can help you to find yourself, develop your character, find new friends and see many new cities. I wish all of them luck and hope that they make good achievements!”.
Special thanks and love to Alexandra’s parents and brothers which are depicted below:
Alexandra Neryueva with her parents and her brothers (Photos provided courtesy of Alexandra Neryueva).
“Yes, I am silly! I do not live a day without laughing. It puts me in a good mood and gives me energy. When you have fun, the better life is and it seems more beautiful”. I am speaking with Yekaterina Dobrodeeva, a 17-year old forward for Russia’s national women’s team and for the WHL’s (Женская хоккейная лига) Biryusa Krasnoyarsk. Dobrodeeva is all around kindhearted, fun-loving, most assuredly free-spirited, and just plain cool. When we were making plans for her interview, she even sent me a photo of herself sticking out her tongue and flashing me a peace sign; just to make me smile and affirm that she is uniquely herself.
I have had the pleasure of seeing Dobrodeeva play in two separate international tournaments. Firstly, in Buffalo at the IIHF U18 Women’s World Championships of 2015, and then secondly at the 2016 tournament in St. Catharines. But this is my first opportunity to actually interview her, and I am delighted because she makes the experience so much fun.
Yekaterina Dobrodeeva is from the far east of Russia in the city of Khabarovsk. This is also the same city where legendary hockey player Alexander Mogilny is from, of which I remind her of and that he is also one of my most beloved Buffalo Sabres from the team’s history. “I was eight years old when I started playing hockey, but for six years I had to play on a boys team because there were no teams for girls or women in Khabarovsk. My dad was an amateur hockey player, he invited into playing the sport, and from there I have loved hockey ever since”.
Her favorite players very much align with my favorite hockey players as well. “I really like the play of Patrick Kane, Pavel Datsyuk, Artemi Panarin, Sergei Mozyakin. But there are many more players that I like as well”, Dobrodeeva tells me. Kane is of course a native of my hometown Buffalo, while Pavel Datsyuk, like Mogilny, is one of my personal hockey heroes. And while North Americans may have gotten to know Panarin within the past couple of NHL seasons, it is unlikely that they are familiar with the incredible Mozyakin of the KHL’s Magnitogorsk Metallurg. The 35-year old Mozyakin exploded during the 2016-17 KHL season with 48-goals and 37-assists in 60-games. In the past 9-seasons of the KHL, his lowest seasonal goal total was 20, while five times he has surpassed the 30-goals plateau. Dobrodeeva goes on to add, “There is not really a specific team that I like; I just love to watch the games of both the KHL and the NHL”.
Dobrodeeva’s natural position is rightwing, though she has tried her hands elsewhere. “Although I play rightwing, I have actually tried to play all positions. Growing up playing boys hockey for 6-years I was a defender”. Regardless of her position, what I enjoy most about Dobrodeeva’s play is the role that she fills for her team. If you wanted to apply the title of “enforcer” in women’s hockey, Dobrodeeva would fit that role. I am not speaking of fighting, per say. I am referring rather to the grit and determination that are required for less glamorous but highly vital tasks for any hockey club. The transition plays between zones, forcing turnovers by the opposition, and “turning the tide” on the ice to give the momentum back to her team. Yekaterina is tough and physical, and that is one of her attributes that I admire most in her style of play. “I am the kind of player who fulfills the need for protection on my team, and I fight for transition on the ice because scoring does not always work. I really like to play the pass and play combinations out on the ice”.
Yekaterina’s first international experience for Team Russia came in Buffalo at the 2015 tournament for Women’s U18. With one win and two losses, Russia would advance to the tournament’s quarterfinals where they would dominate the Czech Republic to capture the bronze medal. Two of the team’s players, goaltender Valeria Tarakanova and forward Fanuza Kadirova, were named as tournament all stars. Having an October birthday, Dobrodeeva was one of the youngest players on the Russian squad in what would be her first of three U18 tournaments; the first opportunity of which would prepare her for future international success. “In Buffalo it was my first World tournament, and I had not much championship play prior either. But I was able to get a lot of experience, and it was the first time that I ever got to play against the national teams for Canada and the US. Winning the bronze medal brought a lot of emotion, and still gives me goosebumps”.
Moving onto the 2016 tournament in St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada, the Russians hoped for at least a repeat performance as bronze medalists. And while they finished the tournament with the same record as the year prior, they would lose a very tight 2-1 decision to Sweden in the bronze medal game. Regardless, Dobrodeeva was now a tournament veteran for Russia and recognized the benefits of an increased role. “At this tournament in St. Catharines, I got a lot more playing time, tried to help the team, and again to take the bronze medal. But alas, it did not turn out that way. But I did not give up, and even then began to prepare for the next season.
This January was Dobrodeeva’s third and final U18 tournament, and was held in the cities of Přerov and Zlín in the Czech Republic. Unfortunately for me, I was not able to attend the tournament and see Dobrodeeva play a third go-round. But for her, not only did 2017 prove to be a most exciting tournament, it also allowed Yekaterina’s U18 international career to come full circle. Perhaps most noteworthy was Russia’s quarterfinal game against arguably their biggest rival, the Czech Republic. The game turned into a highly heated affair, and while the Russian’s would take the 2-0 win, multiple scrums and fights broke out on the ice as the game ended. The two teams would be assessed a total of 113-penalty minutes; basically unheard of for women’s hockey. Obviously with it being such an important game between two storied teams, emotions and tension were at their peak. Dobrodeeva recalls, “The whole game was played very hard. Players from the Czech Republic tried to provoke us. They repeatedly would cling onto and hit our players. Eventually they hit our goalie which was when our girls came into the fight. We really wanted to win this game, which we did. The fights and the victory only made us more unified as a team”.
After losing to the US in the semifinals, the Russian’s would return the favor to Sweden in the bronze medal game by defeating them 2-0 and taking the third place finish. Remarking on her U18 career coming to a close with a second bronze medal, Dobrodeeva puts things into perspective. “I proved to myself that me going to the 2015 tournament did not happen in vain. This 2017 bronze medal is very important to me, and I will remember this championship for life”.
Beginning in the 2015-16 season, Yekaterina Dobrodeeva would begin playing in Russia’s Women’s Hockey League (WHL) for Biryusa Krasnoyarsk. The WHL being Russia’s women’s professional hockey league, it is being run with great success and features the country’s finest female players. Again only 16 at the time, Dobrodeeva adjusted to playing with the best players quite quickly and immersed herself in this elite league. “When I had my first game it was very exciting! I joined, and just started playing as best as I can. I really like playing in the WHL, but I still have a lot to learn”. In Dobrodeeva’s first season with Krasnoyarsk, she compiled 4-goals and 10-assists in 24-games, and was a very solid +11 for the season.
Part of the adjustment to playing in the WHL is being so far from home. As mentioned earlier, Dobrodeeva’s hometown of Khabarovsk is in the far eastern part of Russia, while Krasnoyarsk is in the centermost part of the country. “From Khabarovsk to Krasnoyarsk it is about 4-5 hours by airplane”, she says. “I love this city, but I miss home too”.
Her second season with Krasnoyarsk was outstanding, and really speaks to how Dobrodeeva is developing as a player. In 30-games during the 2016-17 WHL season, Dobrodeeva put up numbers of 8-goals, 14-assists, was a +2, and rifled a very solid 96-shots on goal. She just keeps getting better and better but attributes her success to having the support of her team, as well as a good sense of her own positive ideals. “I have very good teammates; we understand each other. I think part of what has helped me too is having strong character and courage. I think the WHL will develop more and more every year, and I really hope that they will have more teams”.
What I really hope for myself is an opportunity to see Dobrodeeva play in person again. There is a likelihood for that too, considering how young she is and how much hockey there is ahead of her. Yekaterina certainly has her goals too. “The most important dream is an Olympic medal. I will continue to work and go towards that goal”, she says. And for Dobrodeeva, that dream is attainable through her passion for hockey. “Hockey has given me a lot of friends. I have learned to be strong through hockey, how to be hard-working, and how to be open”. This is why I really like this young lady; her passion both on the ice and off. Like any player you admire, once or twice is not enough. So while I sincerely hope that she accomplishes her dream of an Olympic medal, my personal hope is that I can see her play firsthand at least one more time. Similar to her three times at U18, maybe it will come full circle for me and I can watch her skate and battle for her team once more.
Voskresensk Russia has been home to numerous heralded hockey stars, perhaps most notably Stanley Cup champions Vyacheslav Kozlov, Valeri Kamensky, and my personal favorite Igor Larionov. Numerous Soviet hockey greats hailed from Voskresensk too. Brothers Vladimir and Aleksandr Golikov, along with IIHF Hall of Famer and hockey legend Alexander Ragulin, all forged renowned careers; each played for the Soviet powerhouse teams that once dominated the hockey world.
But playing in Voskresensk these days there is a 16-year old whose best hockey is yet to come. She plays for the women’s junior club, Voskresensk Atlant; which is actually one of a handful of teams that she presently plays for. Meet Maria Serova. Already training with the U18 national team, this young lady is a shoo in for Russia’s squad that looks to improve upon their 2017 bronze medal finish that took place less than two months ago in January. And as the national program gears up toward the next go-round, Maria works hard toward becoming the best hockey player that she can be. She is also busy being a normal 16-year old girl.
“I have a turtle, a dog and fish”, she says with a smile, telling me about her pets. But along with loving her animals, Maria Serova loves hockey. “I began playing hockey when I was seven years old. I am from Balashikha (another city like Voskresensk that is located in Moscow Oblast, which comprises the area surrounding the city of Moscow itself and houses a population of over seven-million). There are a lot of opportunities to play hockey in my city. We have ice rinks, gyms, and artificial ice all for training”.
I guess that I am really glad that Serova has these opportunities. In my estimations the Russians are doing women’s hockey right, so to speak. Seeing the growing success of their Women’s Hockey League (WHL) which has been anglicized from Женской хоккейной лиги, it is apparent that Russia already has the next generation of women’s players waiting at the threshold of the country’s professional league. Serova is one of them. “I want to play with Dynamo St. Petersburg of the WHL”, one of the league’s top teams. Asked about what she would say to other young girls to encourage them to follow suit in women’s hockey, Serova says “I would say to them ‘Follow your dreams. Work hard. Listen to your coach. And don’t give up!'”. Having interviewed other Russian women’s players and with a few more interviews coming in the near future, these sentiments of Serova’s are widely distributed amongst all girls and women who play the game in Russia.
Serova tells me about the other teams she plays for besides Atlant. “I play for ‘Olimpiets Balashika’ which is a men’s hockey team. I also play for the Moscow regional team (Moskovskaya Oblast) in the Russian Championship league, and I now play for the U18 national team for Russia too. And once I even played on the adult team and got to play alongside great players like Olga Sosina and Anna Prugova”. In her time with Olimpiets Balashika, Serova has racked up 13-goals and 12-assists in 72-games.
As a youngster Serova’s father used to take her to the KHL’s Balashika MVD’s hockey games. Prior to the team merging with Dynamo Moscow after the 2009-2010 season Balashika MVD played in the league from 2008 until 2010, and included a large number of North American-born players like Jame Pollock, Matt Ellison and stellar netminder Michael Garnett, in addition to numerous native Russian players. “My father and I would go to all of the games, and that is when I fell in love with the sport”.
Currently though, Serova’s inspiration comes from one of the NHL’s most talented forwards. “My favorite player is Nicklas Bäckström. I remember when he played for Dynamo Moscow along with Alexander Ovechkin. Now of course they both play for the Washington Capitals, who are also my favorite hockey team”. It is perhaps little wonder why Serova admires Bäckström in particular. By far one of the craftiest players, the Swedish center is superb at dishing out passes and oftentimes seems to be a “jack of all trades” when handling the puck. So much so that Bäckström has six-times reached 50-assists in a season, and is presently only a handful away from doing it for a seventh time. Serova tells me, “I play forward too because I love it, and I get to play in all different positions”.
I am impressed that a 16-year old has played in as many games and for as many teams as Serova has in such a short period of time. And within those games there would have had to have been some memorable moments that Maria recalls fondly. The one moment she shares with me though must also be the coolest, if not the fiercest. “The most special moment in my hockey career so far was winning at the select competition in Sweden. I was playing for the Spartak Moscow hockey team at the time. We only had ten girls on our team, and we defeated the Swedish team in the finals to win the championship. When we won, we all screamed together ‘This is Sparta!'”. A team of just ten girls defeating all comers. Guts, determination and fortitude from Serova and her other nine teammates.
What is perhaps most exciting about Maria Serova is that she is right on the cusp of where female hockey players want to be in Russia. In a year from now, Serova will have completed her first U18 World Championship. In a year from now, she will be playing hockey professionally in the WHL. To make that leap to playing professionally and internationally, Serova knows that she must keep things in perspective but she most assuredly has the right mindset. “You have to be focused on the game and your hockey training. I am fortunate to have played on many different teams for both boys and girls, and I learned that you always have to be a part of the team and taking that seriously”.
I would like to re-interview Maria Serova in a year from now. I hope that she will oblige me, as I think much will have changed in her life and her hockey career in a most exciting fashion. Because pretty soon Maria will be the next Sosina, or the next Prugova, or Belyakova. The hockey world is at her fingertips and is hers for the taking. I want to see her take that puck and go with it. Look to see her become a mainstay for both the national team and the WHL; it is just around the corner. Serova is the model example of grooming players properly for the future of women’s hockey. I will state it again – Russia is doing it right.