NWHL, 6’4″ Brianna Williams is on her way!

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Brianna Williams, a 6-foot 4-inch 16-year old goalie from Fenton, Missouri dreams of playing in the National Women’s Hockey League someday soon.

 

NWHL, I would ask that you remember the name Brianna Williams – just give her a few years, and she is going to be right there with you. While the Buffalo Beauts and the Boston Pride are currently engaged in the inaugural Isobel Cup Finals, of what is the first season in National Women’s Hockey League history, I have the pleasure of chatting with an aspiring 16-year old netminder who has every intent of playing there someday too. It will not surprise me in the least when she makes it happen, either. Did I mention the fact that Brianna is also 6-feet, 4-inches tall?

Brianna Williams is a charming young lady from Fenton, Missouri. She has been playing organized ice hockey for just over 4-years now, since she was 12-years old, and she is already garnering the attention that is oftentimes reserved for the finest of young athletes. Brianna presently tends goal for three different teams, and while this certainly keeps she and her family on their toes, she gets to do something that she truly loves and has become enthralled with. Even as I write this article, Brianna is on her way to practice, while her younger brother Jacob has two games today of his own, and her twin brother Blake, and Jacob, have both been asked to play in a pickup game. So yes, you could say that hockey runs deep in the Williams’ household. “It gets really chaotic”, Brianna says. “I play for three teams, my younger brother plays for two teams, and my twin brother plays on a roller hockey team”. Brianna actually got to play against younger brother Jacob a couple of times, as both their respective teams would play against each other in friendly matches.

Even Brianna’s father, Craig, is a former goalie himself and has helped his daughter each step of the way. “I never had the idea of playing goalie”, Brianna tells me. “But when I tried skating for the first few times, it didn’t go so well. My dad gave me a pair of his old goalie skates to try out, and it went a lot better, so I ended up playing goal. My dad tells me a lot about what he did as a goalie, and things that worked for him. Positioning, covering the puck”. One of the reasons why I can tell Brianna Williams is going to accomplish her goals is because she has this strong, loving support network amongst her family, and that hockey is an integral part of their daily lives.

For this past year, Brianna has showcased her goaltending capabilities with two high school teams and a U-16 all girls hockey team. “My high school is Fox Senior High School but they don’t have a hockey team, so I actually play for another high school, Lutheran South High School”. For Lutheran South, Brianna plays for both their Varsity Team and their Junior Varsity B squad. Brianna is the only girl on both teams, and I ask her if this is tough for her or not. “It doesn’t really matter. I’m just a part of the team, and I get to play goal and show what I can do regardless”.

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Brianna making a save for Lutheran South High School.

 

The U-16 girls team that Brianna plays for is the St. Louis Lady Cyclones hockey club, and within the past year she has helped backstop them to great success. Just last month (February 2016), Brianna and the Lady Cyclones competed in the Irish South Bend Cup Tournament, which was hosted at none other than the University of Notre Dame. Brianna did her part between the pipes, as St. Louis pitched three consecutive shutouts in the tournament series, and then went on to win the tournament championship by a score of 3-1.

The fact that Brianna is 6-feet 4-inches tall is very unique for a female goaltender, especially one who is so young. In some ways, it almost seems fated for her to be a goaltender and to possess a true passion for the game. Brianna’s build accentuates her skill and control in the crease – it is a perfect recipe for her success, and one feels gladdened to know that she has been blessed with such gifts. “When I go down, I cover the entire crease. I feel that I am pretty strong too. When I first started, I was more of a standup style, but now I am more of a combination of standup and butterfly”. Though I initially liken Brianna’s size, strength and skill in the net to that of current Buffalo Sabres’ goaltender, Robin Lehner, perhaps I am remiss in my comparison, as Brianna’s favorite goaltenders are actually Montreal’s Carey Price and hometown St. Louis Blues’ Brian Elliott.

And on second thought, I agree with her – Brianna is a lot more like “Les Habitants’” Price, the 2015 Hart Memorial Trophy Winner as the NHL’s Most Valuable Player. It is no coincidence that both Brianna and Price wear the number-31. And like Brianna’s own estimations of herself, Price is widely recognized for covering the bottom of his crease so superbly when he goes into his butterfly. Price’s extremely quick reflexes are cat-like, and considered one of his best attributes. It is no wonder that he is Brianna’s favorite, and it is remarkable to see how she emulates these same qualities.

Brianna’s statistics speak for themselves. Within the past year, she has stopped 422 out of 452-shots for a whopping 93.4 save-percentage. In 25-games played, Brianna has a record of 19-wins and a mere 5-losses to go with 1-tie. Her goals against is also outstanding at a 1.42, which is not surprising when Brianna’s has blanked her opponents as often as she has; 7-shutouts already.

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Brianna tending goal for the St. Louis Lady Cyclones.

Also within this past year, Brianna was able to work one-on-one with former NHL goaltender and St. Louis Blue, Bruce Racine, at his goalie clinic in St. Louis. A star goaltender at Northeastern University in the late-1980s, Bruce Racine tended net for 11-games with the Blues in the mid-1990s, most oftentimes as backup to legendary Hall of Famer, Grant Fuhr. “Bruce Racine really taught me a lot”, says Brianna. “He worked with me on going down in my crease, how to best cover the puck, and how to properly play angles”. Though most would not think of St. Louis as a hockey hotbed, it is great to know that there are opportunities for a young goaltender like Brianna to work so closely with former NHL players. “I’ve also got to meet Cam Janssen and Pat Maroon”, two NHL-level players who were also born and raised in the St. Louis area too.

Brianna Williams has sincere aspirations to play professionally in the NWHL someday. “I think it would be awesome!”. It is exciting to see such a talented young lady with goals like this in mind and working so hard to attain them. But perhaps it is even more exciting to see how much more she is going to accomplish along the way.

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Soft-spoken and courteous, Brianna is a good kid with a very bright future as a goaltender.

When she thinks of “Brianna from a few years ago”, I ask her to tell me what advice she would give to a young girl wanting to play hockey for the first time, especially a goaltender. “Never give up. Keep trying. It does get easier”. This is a good youngster we are talking about here, folks. Brianna is courteous, and she imbues a sense of commitment to her craft that seems to be more of a rarity these days.

So look out Nana Fujimoto! Look out Jenny Scrivens! Look out Brianne McLaughlin! Brianna Williams is only a few years away from making her own NWHL debut, and vying for one of the starting jobs as a professional women’s goaltender. I cannot wait to see what this young lady has in store for hockey fans for the years to come.

If you would like to know more about Brianna Williams, please check out her website at http://www.williamsicehockey.com

 

 

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From Russia with Might: Liudmila Belyakova

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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?!

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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!