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.
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’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.