“Emotions of the game” ~ Alexandra Neryueva, HK Arctik Universitet forward (WHL/ЖХЛ)

“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”.

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Alexandra Neryueva looks on intently during warmups before Arctik Universitet’s game (Photo provided courtesy of Alexandra Neryueva).

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.

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Alexandra Neryueva is a defensive-forward for HK Arctik Universitet but who can also make contributions offensively as well (Photo provided courtesy of Alexandra Neryueva).

“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.

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With a bright smile upon her face, #88 Alexandra Neryueva loves the game of hockey and loves playing for Arctik Universitet (Photo provided courtesy of Alexandra Neryueva).

“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.

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Shown here against Hungary, Alexandra Neryueva scored the game winning goal versus Finland in the quarterfinals of the 2014 U18 Women’s World Championships, and vaulted Russia into the semifinals against Canada (Photo provided courtesy of Alexandra Neryueva).

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.

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Arctik Universitet ‘s Neryueva (#88) fighting for the puck along the boards against Ekaterina Prozorova (#11) of Sverdlovsk Region Yekaterinburg (Photo provided courtesy of Alexandra Neryueva).

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:

“Life Seems More Beautiful” ~ Yekaterina Dobrodeeva, forward for WHL’s (ЖХЛ) Biryusa Krasnoyarsk

“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.

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Dobrodeeva, second from right, celebrating the bronze medal victory with her teammates at the 2017 U18 Women’s World Championship in Czech Republic (Photo provided courtesy of Yekaterina Dobrodeeva).

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”.

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Dobrodeeva possesses concentration and intensity on the ice for the WHL’s Biryusa Krasnoyarsk (Photo provided courtesy of Yekaterina Dobrodeeva).

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.

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Yekaterina Dobrodeeva represented Russia at the 2015, 2016 and 2017 U18 Women’s World Championships (Photo provided courtesy of Yekaterina Dobrodeeva).

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”.

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One of the youngest players for Biryusa Krasnoyarsk, Yekaterina Dobrodeeva is part of the exciting future of Russia’s Women’s Hockey League (WHL). (Photo provided courtesy of Yekaterina Dobrodeeva).

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”.

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Yekaterina Dobrodeeva is exemplifies leaderships skills and has the utmost respect from her teammates (Photo provided courtesy of Yekaterina Dobrodeeva).

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.

 

Maria Serova ~ 16-year old Atlant Voskresensk forward.

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.

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16-year old Maria Serova plays for Russia’s U18 national women’s team. (Photo provided courtesy of Maria Serova).

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.

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Maria Serova is a forward for Atlant Voskresensk. The city of Voskresensk is one of Russia’s “hockey hotbeds”. (Photo provided courtesy of Maria Serova).

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”.

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Practice makes perfect! Maria Serova works hard and respects her coaches immensely. (Photo provided courtesy of Maria Serova).

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”.

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Maria Serova is an exciting member for the next generation of Russian women’s hockey. (Photo provided courtesy of Maria Serova).

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”.

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Maria Serova celebrating a goal with Moskovskaya Oblast. (Photo provided courtesy of Maria Serova).

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.

 

 

 

Dasha Martynyukova, the next generation of Russian women’s hockey

Saturday afternoon in November. I have brought my mom to a National Women’s Hockey League game between our hometown Buffalo Beauts and the New York Riveters. My mom, a beautiful and kind woman in her early-60s but not a big sports fan by any means, has taken a liking to the game of the NWHL. The speed on the ice that these women generate blows her mind. Around this same time last year we had attended another game together between the Beauts and the Riveters, and my mom had an opportunity to meet one of the fledgling members of the NWHL and one of its most exciting players at the time, the Riveters Lyudmila Belyakova.

Since that time, Belyakova has left the NWHL and returned to her native Russia to play for her homeland’s own professional hockey league the “Zhenskaya Khokkeinaya Liga”  (Женская хоккейная лига),or Women’s Hockey League (WHL) as it is anglicized. Thinking of Belyakova’s return to Russia, I began to ponder whether Russia’s newly christened WHL is having the same impact on many young girls – their next generation of women’s hockey – much in the same way that the NWHL is doing for girls throughout North America. I end up finding my answers within a 17-year old Russian netminder, Dasha Martynyukova.

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Goaltender Dasha Martynyukova leads Atlant out onto the ice. (Photo provided courtesy of Dasha Martynyukova).

I show Martynyukova a photo of Lyudmila Belyakova and myself, and ask her if she knows who it is. “Of course I do! She is very famous in women’s hockey”, she responds with a smile. Perhaps I have my answer right there. Belyakova plays for the WHL’s Tornado, presently the top team in the WHL – the same place that Martynyukova aspires to play next year. “I really want to play professional next year because my league only goes up to age 18”. So the wheels are already in motion for the WHL to foster many years of young players to come, including Dasha.

“I am 17-years old now, but I started playing hockey seven years ago in October 2009”, she tells me. “When I was 10-years old, the coach for my current team came to our school to talk about hockey and the possibility of playing – I knew immediately that I wanted to give this a try”. Martynyukova was one of five goaltenders for Russia’s junior team to be invited to training camp with the national team this past September. The hope is that she will be a member of Russia’s squad for the 2017 Women’s U-18 World Championships which will be held in Zlin and Prerov in the Czech Republic in January of the coming new year.

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Making solid saves between the pipes, Dasha Martynyukova plays for multiple Moscow regional women’s and boys’ hockey teams. (Photo provided courtesy of Dasha Martynyukova).

Dasha is from one of Russia’s “hockey hotbeds”; the Moscow regional town of Odintsovo. There are six teams in the junior women’s league, and Odintsovo typically finishes among the top teams. “Women’s hockey is really developed in my city, and it provides a really great workout”, she tells me. In fact, Martynyukova has opportunities to play with three different hockey teams, if not more. “I play on a team in Atlant (another regional town of Moscow), in the town of Odintsovo, and sometimes I am invited to play for boys’ teams too”. But Odintsovo is where her heart is and where she has found the camaraderie among her teammates. “We have a very friendly team, and we always do everything together. We help each other in difficult situations, and provide support for one another”. It is nice seeing this sportsmanship and teamwork instilled in young people of today’s world. “My team consists of 15-skaters and 3-goaltenders. Before each game we discuss the team and the upcoming game. It’s great when your team is ready to do anything for you”.

I am greatly impressed when I learn from Martynyukova that she has received firsthand tutelage from one of the greatest goaltenders of all time; Hockey Hall of Famer, Olympic gold medalist, and World Champion, Vladlislav Tretiak. To me, Tretiak has always been the quintessential hockey great that showed the world what his capabilities were without playing a game in the NHL. It bothers me when former NHL players from Tretiak’s era downplay his skills; that although he performed incredibly well on the international scene he could never have made it as a professional in North America. To me, this has always seemed “sour grapes” of sorts or a sense of pride that runs a little too strongly. Tretiak won three Olympic gold medals and an astounding ten gold medals at the World Championships. And now he is imparting his winning ways to a seventeen year old young lady.

Speaking on Tretiak, Martynyukova shares her own assessment of this legendary netminder. “He is a great coach and a great man; not only as a coach, but as a person. He explains everything so clearly. He shows you how to do all of the exercises, and then tells you your mistakes afterward. After training, he is able to disassemble your performance with you. He breaks it down into smaller parts for you so that you get all of the details. With any mistakes, he explains what is wrong and what is the correct way to do it”.

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Dasha Martynyukova receiving firsthand instruction from one of hockey’s greatest goaltenders, Vladislav Tretiak (Photo provided courtesy of Dasha Martynyukova).

While I marvel at Dasha’s time spent with Tretiak, she has a hero of her own. “My favorite player is Sergei Bobrovsky”. Her fellow countryman Bobrovsky is a Vezina Trophy winner and NHL All-Star, and has found his greatest success in the NHL as the netminder for the Columbus Blue Jackets. Martynyukova’s and Bobrovsky’s styles and builds are similar. While Bobrovsky is 6-feet, 2-inches and 190 lbs., making him slightly lanky but incredibly quick and strong positionally, Martynyukova is taller for a girl and is similarly structured. Dasha is just over 5-feet, 8-inches and close to 155-lbs., and her size definitely helps her protect her crease. “For girls, it is a bit big”, she says. “But this size really helps me when protecting the net”.

With the combination of her admiration for Bobrovsky, learning from a Soviet/Russian hockey patriarch in Tretiak, being blessed with good size, and her overall skill that has made her one of the top goaltenders in Russia, Martynyukova has developed an affinity for her position as a goaltender. “When I first started to play hockey, I spent a lot of time learning to skate. But when we went into training camp with our team I began looking at the goalies. It seemed to me that to hold this position would be very interesting, and I have been in love with it ever since”.

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At 17-years old, Dasha Martynyukova is part of the next generation for Russian women’s hockey. (Photo provided courtesy of Dasha Martynyukova).

As for me, I am encouraged to see that there is a rival women’s professional league now in Russia, and something for young women like Martynyukova to aspire towards. For like the NWHL, the ultimate goal should be to continue to build and grow the women’s game for the future. While I am disappointed to have lost a player of Belyakova’s caliber to Russia’s WHL, I see that the greater good is to develop the game worldwide. With shades of Tretiak, perhaps someday there will be a “Women’s Summit Series” of sorts between the best of the NWHL versus the best of the WHL. Were it to happen that way, it would be no surprise if Dasha Martynyukova is found between the pipes, backstopping Russia’s best.

 

 

Remembering: The “OV-Line”

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From left to right, Sergei Makarov, Igor Larionov, and Johan Garpenlov combined for one magical season in San Jose to lead the Sharks on an improbable run.

In the game today, when hockey fans think of “OV” everyone immediately envisions the great number-8 of the Washington Capitals, Alexander Ovechkin. But long before Ovechkin lit up the rinks of the NHL, the “OV” nickname was applied to a trio of three star players for the San Jose Sharks who were combined together for one magical season. Two were wizard-like Soviet legends who had been linemates for over a decade together in Communist Russia; arguably they were the two best hockey players in the world who were not in the NHL for many, many years. The third was a Swede, nearly 10-years younger than the Russians, who found opportunity to be a top-line winger after coming to the Sharks via trade from the Detroit Red Wings. The last names of this trio all happened to end in the letters “ov”. Their style of play possessed an entirely high-speed, puck-on-a-string, weaving-in-and-out, European flavor to it. And for the 1993-94 NHL season, Sergei Makarov, Igor Larionov and Johan Garpenlov would combine to lead the San Jose Sharks on a playoff run for the ages, and still one of the most exciting sagas in San Jose Sharks’ history.

The San Jose Sharks were an NHL expansion team that first saw action during the 1991-92 season. Their first two years in the NHL were abysmal, going 17-58-5 in their inaugural season, followed by a second season in which they registered a mere 11-wins while going 11-71-2 in a bitterly long 84-game season. Yes, expansion had not been kind to the Sharks. And after two years with one of the worst records in NHL history, finding success in a third season would have been inconceivable to practically all hockey minds. The “OV-line” was about to show otherwise.

The first to arrive in San Jose was Johan Garpenlov, who came over via trade with the Detroit Red Wings in March of 1992 in exchange for original Shark, Bob McGill. Garpenlov had been a 5th-round 1986 draft pick of Detroit’s who had had a decent solo season with the Red Wings the year prior when he rattled off 18-goals and 22-assists; his only full season with Detroit. After the trade, Garpenlov found immediate success in San Jose, quickly becoming the team’s top winger. Garpenlov would finish up 1991-92 with 11-points (5-goals, 6-assists) in 12-games with the Sharks, and then followed up with a 66-point campaign (22-goals, 44-assists) in 1992-93, finishing second overall in Sharks team scoring. Garpenlov would merely need the right linemates to further accentuate his production. The Russians were coming.

Johan Garpenlov Sharks
Johan Garpenlov was the first member of The “OV-Line” to arrive in San Jose coming over via trade with Detroit in 1992.

Igor Larionov would be claimed off of waivers by the San Jose Sharks in October 1992 from the Vancouver Canucks, but would not arrive in San Jose until late in 1993 after choosing to play a season in Switzerland to avoid losing a portion of his salary to the governing sports body, Sovintersport, in his homeland, who had allowed their Soviet players like Larionov to finally play in the NHL. Sergei Makarov, the 1989-90 Calder Trophy winning Rookie of the Year, came to the Sharks in August 1993 in a trade with the Hartford Whalers as part of compensation that saw the Sharks trade their 1st-round 1993 draft choice to the Whalers which had landed them Chris Pronger. Once Makarov arrived in San Jose, it was easy for Larionov to join his former linemate with the Sharks and return to the NHL from Switzerland.

Igor Larionov and Sergei Makarov are two of the greatest hockey players in the history of the game. They represent two-thirds of the famous Soviet “KLM-Line” that led the Soviet Union to what seemed like endless international championships. Before either player arrived in the NHL, Larionov and Makarov won Olympic gold medals in 1984 and 1988, as well as numerous medals in the World Championships, including bronze in 1985, silver in 1987, and gold medals in 1982, 1983, 1986 and 1989.

Larionov was known as the “Russian-Gretzky”, and if you ever saw him play, it was easy to see why. Larionov would win three Stanley Cups during his NHL career, while having registered 204-goals and 230-assists for 434-points in only 457-games with the Soviet Union, to go along with his 169-goals and 475-assists for 644-points in 921-NHL games. Larionov would be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2008, and is currently a member of the Hall’s selection committee.

Igor Larionov Sharks
Igor Larionov, a 2008 inductee into the Hockey Hall of Fame, was known as the “Russian Gretzky” before he had even played a game in the NHL.

Sergei Makarov was the sniper of the two Soviet-born players, and did he ever put up numbers! In 519-games for the Soviet Union’s CSKA Moscow team and Traktor Chelyabinsk, Makarov scored 322-goals and 388-assists for an uncanny 710-points. During the 1980-81 season with CSKA Moscow, Makarov scored 42-goals in 49-games and added 37-assists for 79-points. Coming to the NHL as a 31-year old rookie, Makarov was named Rookie of the Year, which led to an age limit being added to the trophy. In addition to the international medals that Makarov won as a teammate with Larionov, Makarov also won Olympic silver in 1980, and World Championship gold in 1978, 1979, 1981, and 1990, as well as another bronze in 1991. It is unfathomable to me that Sergei Makarov has not yet been inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame himself.

Even though they were 35 and 32 years old respectively for the 1993-94 Sharks’ season, when you look at what Makarov and Larionov had accomplished all those years prior, it should be no wonder that they still had some magic left in their tanks. Combining both Russians with Garpenlov, the San Jose Sharks suddenly had one of the best first lines in the NHL. With the “OV-Line” lighting up the goal lamps, the Sharks jumped to a 59-point improvement from their horrendous 11-win 1992-93 season. And garnering a record of 33-35-16, the Sharks finished third in the Pacific Division behind the Calgary Flames and Vancouver Canucks, and earned their first playoff birth in only their third year of existence.

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The 1989-90 NHL Rookie of the Year, Sergei Makarov led the 1993-94 San Jose Sharks in scoring with 30-goals and 68-points.

The “OV-Line’s” regular season numbers were certainly impressive. At 35-years of age, Sergei Makarov led the San Jose Sharks in team scoring with 30-goals and 38-assists for 68-points in 80-games. In only 60-games played, Larionov who would turn 33 in March of that season, finished fourth overall in team scoring with 56-points (18-goals, 38-assist), averaging nearly a point per game. Garpenlov would finish in sixth place by registering 18-goals and 35-assists for 53-points. While those are all pretty good scoring numbers, it would not be until the playoffs that the “OV-Line” would be at their finest.

The opening round of the 1993-94 playoffs would feature a match up between the 82-point Sharks and the 100-point Detroit Red Wings. The Red Wings had the all-time greatest hockey coach, Scotty Bowman at their helm, and were fueled by the likes Sergei Fedorov (56-goals, 120-points), Ray Sheppard (52-goals, 93-points), Steve Yzerman (28-goals, 82-points in only 58-games) and Paul Coffey (63-assists, 77-points). Not to mention that the Red Wings had seven other players on their roster who hit double digits for goal scoring. The vast majority thought that the rocket-powered Red Wings would make short work of the upstart Sharks. The total opposite would happen.

The Sharks would take the Red Wings through the complete 7-game series. The “OV-Line” would combine for 21-points as a unit in 7-games. Larionov led the way with 10-points (2-goals, 8-assists), while Makarov blasted away 6-goals in the series to total all of his points for the opening round, and Garpenlov would tally 2-goals and 3-assists. The “OV-Line” put the Red Wings “to bed”, completely stunning Detroit who were poised to make a legitimate run at the Stanley Cup that season. No one would have surmised an outcome such as that. The Red Wings actually outscored the Sharks in the series, registering 27 markers while San Jose put up 21. The difference seeming to be the Sharks tenacity and relentless play, especially led by the worldly experienced Makarov and Larionov.

As they moved into the second round of the playoffs, the San Jose Sharks seemed unstoppable. Next they would scare the living daylights out of the Toronto Maple Leafs. And while the Leafs would win the series, it would take another 7-games to stifle the Sharks, and Toronto would escape amongst the narrowest of margins, needing a 3-2 overtime victory in Game Six to come from behind in the series, and then a hard fought 4-2 victory in Game Seven to finally be rid of San Jose; the Sharks having at one point been ahead in the series 3-games to 2. The “OV-Line” would continue to score in abundance in the second round against Toronto. Larionov would lead the way again with 8-points in 7-games (3-goals, 5-assists), while Garpenlov would tally another 5-points (2-goals, 3-assists) and Makarov would be kept to 4-points (2-goals, 2-assists). While Larionov and Garpenlov would score with some regularity, the difference in the series may have been the Maple Leafs shutting down the goal scoring of Sergei Makarov. Although Makarov registered 2-goals and 2-assists, all four of those points came in Game Five of the series, while the Leafs kept Sergei off the board for the other six games. Regardless of the second round loss, the San Jose Sharks did their damage against the Leafs. Meeting the Vancouver Canucks in the Stanley Cup Semi-Finals, Toronto was gassed from their seven game battle with the Sharks and would fall to Vancouver in 5-games.

All in all, the “OV-Line” tallied an astounding 38-points as a line in 14-playoff games. Though they did not make it past the second round of the playoffs, Sergei Makarov still finished 10th place overall in playoff goal scoring for the 1994 playoffs, while Igor Larionov would finish tied for 7th place in playoff assists and 9th for points. In fact, through his first two rounds of the playoffs, Larionov would tally the same amount of points (18) as eventual playoff scoring leader and playoff MVP, Brian Leetch, would have through his own first two rounds.

Sadly, the “OV-Line” would be very short lived. Though San Jose’s playoff success would be repeated the following season in 1994-95, the line would be broken up permanently after a March 1995 trade saw Johan Garpenlov sent to the Florida Panthers. 1994-95 would be Sergei Makarov’s last season in San Jose, becoming an assistant coach for the Russian national team for 1995-96. Igor Larionov would have many more superb seasons in the NHL, playing until the age of 43 and winning Stanley Cups in 1997, 1998 and 2002.

Though they played together for only one full season, the “OV-Line” should not be forgotten. They brought excitement, history and winning ways to a brand new franchise in a non-traditional hockey market. They were pure fun to watch; plain and simple. And they demonstrated one of those enjoyable rarities in sports; the aged underdogs rising up and defeating the heavily favored powerhouses. Makar-OV, Larion-OV, and Garpenl-OV – they were truly a line for the ages.

A few words with: Kirill Safronov

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Kirill Safronov, an aspiring young defenseman during the early years of the Atlanta Thrashers.

About five years ago I got in touch with former NHL defenseman Kirill Safronov. At the time, Safronov was in the first of parts of three seasons with Sibir Novosibirsk of the Kontinental Hockey League in Russia. Since that time Kirill and I have remained in contact. Having retired from professional hockey after the 2014-15 KHL season, Kirill is still quite busy and very actively involved in hockey. I thought it would be nice to reach out to my old friend again, and share a bit of his story from the time that he had spent in the NHL, and what led him to the rinks of the North America.

Safronov was born in Saint-Petersburg, Russia; one of the most beautiful cities in the world (I spent two weeks there in the mid-2000s, and the beauty and culture that are found there are like no other). At the age of five, Kirill began playing hockey. Living in a 2-bedroom apartment with his parents, grandparents, and a dog, there were outdoor hockey rinks to be found in nearly every park of the neighborhood where Kirill grew up. Parents used to do all of the ice work for their children, cleaning the surfaces and freshening it with water. The first team that Kirill played on was called “Titan”, and it was where he took his first steps on the ice; the Soviet Union in 1986.

Fast forward ahead about 10-years or so, and Safronov is playing for the Russian National U-16 team; this was when Kirill first found aspirations of playing in the NHL. Playing for the Russian national team, Kirill traveled a lot and was able to speak with multiple NHL scouts. Safronov had a leg up on many of his peers, as he was readily able to converse with scouts; Kirill’s English was always very good, as his grandmother, an English teacher herself, taught him to the point where he became very proficient in the language. Something that certainly helps when conversing with NHL scouts.

Safronov would find great success while playing for the Russian national team, most notably at the 1999 World Junior Championships held in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Team Russia would win the Gold Medal in a 3-2 overtime victory against host nation Canada. Safronov was one of numerous players on the Russian team who would eventually play in the NHL, including Roman Lyashenko, Vitali Vishnevski, Denis Shvidki, Denis Arkhipov, Maxim Afinogenov, Petr Schastlivy, and the game winning goal scorer, Artem Chubarov. In seven tournament games, Kirill recorded 2-assists and was a plus-5.

The gold medal in January 1999 was just the beginning of a great year for Safronov. That June, Kirill would be a first-round draft choice of the Phoenix Coyotes; nineteenth overall, and the Coyotes second pick of that draft. The 1999 draft was a considerably deep draft, as it was also the same draft which saw the Sedin twins be chosen by Vancouver, as well as longtime NHL mainstays like Nick Boynton, Ryan Miller, Henrik Zetterberg, Radim Vrbata, Martin Havlat, Barret Jackman, Jordan Leopold, Mike Comrie, Craig Anderson, and numerous other players get drafted by NHL teams; many of whom are still playing in the NHL today. Safronov, being taken as early as he was in the opening round, would be drafted ahead of many of these players. Kirill shared with me that “it was great to be drafted, especially in the 1st-round. I felt, and was told by the management that I would play in the NHL for many years. It was amazing for a young man from Russia to come to the USA in the early-2000s and see a different life”.

After he was drafted by Phoenix, Kirill went to his first NHL camp at 18-years of age. In order to adjust both to life and to hockey in North America, Coyotes management felt it would be best that at the completion of training camp that Safronov be sent to a junior team. Safronov’s first season in North America would be with the Quebec Remparts of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League for the 1999-00 season. Safronov would have a great first year, leading the Remparts in scoring amongst defensemen with 11-goals and 32-assists for 43-points in 55-games. The Remparts would make it to the second round of the playoffs, where they would lose a hard fought, 7-game series to the Moncton Wildcats. Safronov would finish the Remparts 11-game playoff run with a pair of goals and 4-assists.

After one year in junior, Kirill Safronov began his professional hockey debut in the American Hockey League with the Coyotes’ affiliate at the time, the Springfield Falcons. With the Falcons, Kirill would play his first two full seasons in North America. Both seasons in Springfield, Safronov and the Falcons would miss the playoffs but Kirill would garner valuable playing experience under coaches Marc Potvin, Norm Maciver and Brad Shaw; the latter two having been highly accomplished NHL defensemen themselves prior to beginning their coaching careers.

It was during his second season of professional hockey that Safronov would receive his first taste of the NHL during a December 23rd, 2001 call up by the Coyotes. Kirill recalls, “My first NHL game was a nightmare. I was very nervous…”. The game would be a 4-0 loss against the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim in Phoenix. Kirill would play just over a mere 6-minutes in the game, and ended up as a minus-2. Definitely a tough first start in the league. This would end up being the one and only game that Safronov ever played for the Coyotes, the team that had initially drafted him. A few months later, at the March 19th, 2002 NHL trade deadline for that season, Safronov was shipped to the Atlanta Thrashers along with Ruslan Zaynullin and a 4th-round pick in the 2002 draft in exchange for Darcy Hordichuk and 4th and 5th-round draft picks. It would be in Atlanta that Safronov found his groove and have his longest stay in the NHL.

During the 2001-02 season, Kirill Safronov ended up playing professional hockey in four different cities; Springfield, Phoenix, and after a trade, two games in Atlanta with the NHL’s Thrashers and their AHL minor league affiliate Chicago-based team, the Wolves. While Safronov would only play two more NHL games that season, both of which were losses for the Thrashers that came at the hands of the Colorado Avalanche and the New Jersey Devils, his ice-time improved to over the 20-minute mark. But perhaps more importantly for his experience level in North American professional hockey, Safronov was able to be part of a Calder Cup championship run with the Wolves, appearing in all 25-playoff games as the Thrashers affiliate would capture the second oldest trophy in professional hockey, after the Stanley Cup.

The Wolves were a collection of some of professional hockey’s golden oldies; former NHL sniper Rob Brown leading the way, along with other over-30 players like Steve Maltais, Dallas Eakins, Guy Larose and longtime minor leaguer Bob Nardella. You probably could not assemble a better grouping of veteran players for Kirill’s tutelage.

Coming off of that Calder Cup championship, the 2002-03 season would see Kirill Safronov make his big break in the NHL. Though they suffered a number of losses along the way, the ’02-’03 Thrashers were a helluva fun team to watch, as they possessed two of the best young snipers in the game; Dany Heatley, who would rattle off 41-goals that season, and Safronov’s fellow countryman, Ilya Kovalchuk, who would net 38 himself that season. The Thrashers were very young and very Russian. With Kovalchuk leading the way on offense, veteran presence came from 30-year old, two-time Stanley Cup champion Slava Kozlov, as well as forward Yuri Butsayev, and Kirill himself. The three other Russians were Safronov’s closest friends on the team, and Kirill would end up suiting up for 32-games that season for Atlanta.

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During Atlanta’s 2002-03, Safronov was one of four Russian-born players who helped bring excitement to the NHL’ newly founded Thrashers franchise.

Kirill’s first NHL goal would be scored October 19th, 2002 in a 5-4 loss to the New York Islanders in Atlanta. He would add a second goal in March coming in a victory against the Predators in Nashville. On the whole, Safronov would finish the 2002-03 season with 2-goals and 2-assists, and would average over 15-minutes of ice time per game.

Despite this fair amount of success with the Thrashers, Kirill Safronov would play just one more season of professional hockey in North America – but this final season would definitely be another successful one and an exciting one. Though he would begin 2003-04 with the Thrashers’ affiliate the Wolves, a December 2nd 2003 trade would see Kirill become property of the Nashville Predators along with Simon Gamache in exchange for Ben Simon and Tomas Kloucek; the irony being that Safronov’s last NHL goal had come against the Predators. Safronov would never actually suit up for the Predators, as he was assigned to their AHL affiliate team, the Milwaukee Admirals.

Though not in the NHL, Kirill and his new teammates would enjoy a most prosperous season in which the Admirals would make a run for the Calder Cup, and Safronov would thus win his second American Hockey League championship. Despite coming over late in the season, Safronov would still finish third amongst defensemen in scoring for the Admirals, and he would play in all but one playoff game during their championship run. The champion Admirals were a very diverse group of players, comprised with the likes of 37-year old Stanley Cup champion Tony Hrkac, 6’4″ and 240lbs. Latvian monster Raitis Ivanans, 35-year old journeyman netminder Wade Flaherty, and up-and-coming youngsters like Scottie Upshall, Vernon Fiddler, and fellow Russian Timofei Shishkanov; Shishkanov being one of the few players from his North American days that Safronov still remains in touch with. The Admirals were a fun, unique team that won the championship despite any variance in the players’ backgrounds.

The NHL lockout would come for the 2004-05 season, and Kirill Safronov would find himself back in Russia playing for Yaroslavl Lokomotiv and Voskresensk Khimik during the stoppage in NHL play. Unfortunately, it was also during this time that Kirill’s father would become ill with cancer. With no offers to return to the NHL, and the more important need of taking care of his family, Kirill would accept a 3-year offer to play for his hometown Saint Petersburg SKA so that he could continue his professional career and be close with his family. Quite sadly, Kirill’s father would pass away from his illness a year after he started playing hockey with SKA.

Starting with the 2005-06 season, Kirill would play a total of 10 seasons in his native Russia, 5 seasons of which were with St. Petersburg SKA. Upon completion of the 2014-15 KHL season, Safronov would hang up his skates for good, at least as a professional hockey player. Injuries and age had hampered his knee, despite training very hard from month to month to keep in game shape. Though there were offers from various European leagues, Safronov decided to let go of playing professional hockey. Kirill is still very much involved in hockey these days, and keeps himself plenty busy. Safronov finished his degree in sports management at Lesgaft University in Saint Petersburg, and also received his agent’s license. Kirill also does some television work as a hockey analyst and expert, and serves as Vice-President for a kids hockey team called “Red Star” in Saint Petersburg as well. He will skate three nights a week in a recreational league, and finds that nowadays he often works from 7:30AM until late in the evening. Kirill told me that “thanks to hockey in my life to give me a strong character and a will to win”.

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Safronov skating with Saint Petersburg SKA.

Though Kirill Safronov’s NHL career may have been brief, he still had remarkable success in North America by winning two Calder Cup championships. Not to mention the fact that Safronov found international success by winning a gold medal in the World Junior championships. In addition to being an accomplished hockey player, Kirill is one of the nicest guys I know, and I thank him greatly for sharing his story with me. All the best to you, Kirill!

 

From Russia with Might: Liudmila Belyakova

Belyakova leading the rush
Liudmila Belyakova #9 leading the rush out of the Riveters zone against the Buffalo Beauts.

At just 21-years of age, Liudmila Belyakova is the youngest player in the National Women’s Hockey League, and is just one of two Russian born players in the newly established American women’s professional hockey league. Liudmila is also my favorite player!

Despite being the youngest, Belyakova brings a long list of achievements that even many veteran players do not have on their respective résumés. As a member of the Russian women’s national hockey team, Belyakova has played in 92-games, while registering 34-goals and 22-assists. She was a candidate for 2010 Russian Olympic team at the Vancouver Games, and was tagged as a first replacement for Team Russia at the 2014 Games in Sochi. In 2013, Belyakova helped lead Russia to the bronze medal in the Women’s World Championships which were held in Ottawa that year; in six tournament games she notched 1-goal. But perhaps most impressive on the international stage was Belyakova’s paving the way for Team Russia to the gold medal in the 2011 Women’s U18 Division-I Championships – there she scored an unfathomable 11-goals in 5-games of the tournament, and added another 5-assists to lead the entire tournament in scoring. Liudmila would be voted as the “Best Player” and “Best Scorer” of the tournament. It would be remiss not to mention that Belyakova’s U18 international career saw her record 30-goals and 11-assists in 28-games; better than a goal-per-game(!).

Those accolades at such a young age are truly remarkable! But what I notice about Belyakova on the ice is not so much her scoring prowess, but how sound she is in her own zone. I do not know if I have ever seen another female player backcheck with the same amount of responsibility that Belyakova exudes. Belyakova never takes a shift off, and when the puck is in her own zone she is readily found defending in front of her team’s net in the thick of the action. Yes, in the game of hockey this is the job of the center – to backcheck and assist the defense. But when Belyakova is on the ice for the New York Riveters, it is virtually like having three defenders and three forwards on the ice at the same time. A number of forwards will fall to the habit of “cherry-picking” and shirking their defensive responsibilities; Belyakova is the total opposite. There is not a time when she is on the ice and the puck is in the Riveters’ zone that Belyakova can be found out of place.

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Liudmila Belyakova preparing to take the face-off for the New York Riveters in a January 31st, 2016 game against the Buffalo Beauts.

I enjoy making comparisons between up and coming players like Liudmila Belyakova and players of the past or present. Liudmila is so strong; it is noticeable in her build and her physical attributes, and you can see it specifically when she fights for a loose puck or picks up her assignment on an opposing player. As I watch Belyakova skate on the ice today, I begin to draw comparisons in my mind to another great Russian player, Sergei Nemchinov. Like Belyakova, Nemchinov was a remarkably strong player physically, who could turn on the offense when needed, but at the same time be responsible in his own end. It was what led Nemchinov to win two Stanley Cups; one in 1994 with the New York Rangers, as one of the first Russian-born players to have his name engraved on the Cup, and then a second Cup championship in 2000 with the New Jersey Devils. Perhaps the irony being that Nemchinov, and now Belyakova, found/are finding success in “The Big Apple”.

The fact that Liudmila Belyakova is able to transition so easily between forward and defense reminds me off another great Sergei – Sergei Fedorov. Though it is early in her professional career, and it will be interesting to see if Belyakova’s scoring capabilities grow into the likes of Fedorov’s, there is no doubt in my mind that she is able to switch from “O” to “D” just as cleanly as Fedorov did. This is perhaps one of the most enjoyable parts of Belyakova’s game to watch. As I said, it is almost like you have three defenders and three forwards on one shift together anytime that Belyakova is on the ice; she just moves that flawlessly; appearing that she is in two places at the same time.

As I see her skate onto the ice after each intermission, I notice that she does a choppy, deliberate skate-step-skate-step-skate onto the ice; a bit of a shuffle. This tells me that Belyakova is an individual and unique. Not only are those the types of players who are a sincere pleasure to watch, but they also seem to be what the really great players grow and develop from. Wouldn’t it be remarkable for the New York Riveters if Liudmila Belyakova grows into another Nemchinov or Fedorov?!

Belyakova breakout
A Belyakova breakout from the Riveters’ zone.

Belyakova’s international numbers certainly demonstrate that she has the offensive capabilities that the greatest players possessed, including Fedorov. Then combine the fact that she is so sound defensively and so physically strong – the outcome is that the New York Riveters have a young lady whom they are only now just seeing a glimpse of her potential.

It is my sincere hope that after this inaugural season of the NWHL comes to a close, that fans, players, coaches, and owners, will be able to reflect on the year and notice that their league has potential to blossom into greatness. Much the same way that their budding young stars like Liudmila Belyakova possess too – the best is still to come. I am overfilled with eagerness to see what Liudmila is going to accomplish in her professional career, and my hope is that she will help the league to continue to be the place where professional women hockey players aspire to be. Belyakova is a hockey player that fans of the game will marvel at for years to come.

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Liudmila and I before the start of the Riveters game; amazing person, amazing hockey player!