“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”.

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.

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.

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.

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”.

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”.

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.

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.

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”.

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”.

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”.

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.




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”.

KHL Season 2009/10
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

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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?!

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!


“The Mangler”: Igor Ulanov

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“The Mangler”, Igor Ulanov, taking on four different New York Islanders at the same time, including Zdeno Chara,

His nickname was “The Mangler”. And if you ever saw Igor Ulanov play, you would certainly understand why. Ulanov’s playing style ranged from rugged to downright mauling. Hailing from Krasnokamsk, Russia, Igor Ulanov manned the NHL bluelines for fourteen seasons with eight different franchises. At an intimidating 6’3″ and 220lbs., Ulanov had no problem clearing the front of his own net or putting opposing players on their backside.

Ulanov was always one of my favorite defensemen. I remember once a November 19th, 1993 game in Buffalo, when Ulanov began pushing around a much smaller (but no less willing combatant) Donald Audette in front of the benches at the old Memorial Auditorium. Ulanov easily had half a foot on Audette, and at least 40lbs. There was no other reason for Ulanov to mess with Audette, other than the fact that he could. Audette was a very speedy sniper for the Sabres, and could really be dangerous in tight areas around the net. What better way to get a sniper off of his game than to give him a “love tap” across the mouth and sling him around a bit by the collar. Though when it came to the scrap, Audette arguably got the better of the punches in against Ulanov, but Igor had done his job – he got Audette off of his game, and both sat 5-minutes each for fighting. The Sabres (although they would win the game 6-0 over Ulanov’s Winnipeg Jets) certainly came up on the short end of the coincidental penalties by losing Audette for five. Ulanov finished the 1993-94 season with no goals in 74-games, while Audette found the back of the net 29-times in 77-games – you be the judge. That is just one example of Igor Ulanov doing his job; the dirty work. Ulanov even received accolades from teammate and legendary scrapper Tie Domi who gave him a few pats on the back and some “‘Atta boy”s at the end of the tussle.

This was by no means an isolated incident. In fact, this was typical Ulanov. Do a YouTube search on Igor. You will find him going after the likes of Eric Lindros, Mike Peca, Chris Simon and Keith Primeau – all talented stars of the 1990s and early-2000s whom Ulanov was able to get the better of, and get them thinking about revenge instead of scoring or making a good play.

Take Lindros for example. During the 1995-96 NHL season, Ulanov was traded in March of ’96 from the Chicago Blackhawks to the Tampa Bay Lightning (along with Patrick Poulin and a 2nd-round pick in exchange for Enrico Ciccone and a 2nd-round pick). Ulanov would help lead the Lightning into their very first playoff appearance in a 1st-round showdown with the Philadelphia Flyers and Eric Lindros’ “Legion of Doom” line. Lindros was in the prime of his career, having finished the regular season with 47-goals and 68-assists in 73-games for 115-points; Lindros and the Flyers were poised to make a legitimate run for the Cup. During that opening series, Ulanov was all over Lindros game in and game out.

Throughout the six game war, it appeared that Ulanov was set solely on stopping Lindros. As everyone knows, “Big-E” was oftentimes known to skate with his head down. Ulanov, a devastating bodychecker, caught Lindros in Game Two with a smashing hipcheck that left Lindros with a bruised left kneecap. Some felt, including Lindros and numerous Flyers’ fans and teammates, that Ulanov was seeking out Lindros’ knees. I do not know if that was the case, but Ulanov was definitely in Lindros’ grill anytime they were on the ice. Tempers would spill over in Game Six with the Flyers leading 6-1 with just over two-minutes left in the game, and Ulanov belted Lindros right into the boards. “Big-E” about had enough of Ulanov, and went after him with the two players trading blows.

Though the Flyers would win the series 4-games to 2, Igor Ulanov’s punishing play on Eric Lindros certainly took its toll. Philadelphia would lose in the 2nd-round of the playoffs to the upstart Florida Panthers. I think the argument could be made that Ulanov drained Eric Lindros so much with his continuous hits and “in-your-face” play in the opening round, that Lindros did not have enough left in the tank for the next round. Ulanov may very well have stolen a Stanley Cup from the Flyers that year.

If you want to know how tough Igor Ulanov truly was, I can also recall an incident late in Igor’s career in Edmonton with the Oilers when he was hit in the groin by a puck with a slapshot. When asked after the game if he was alright, Ulanov replied to the effect of “I already have a few kids; I don’t need anymore”.

One would think that a player with Ulanov’s wreckless abandonment on the ice would have had a shortened career. Throwing big hits, blocking shots, and facing repeated whacks with sticks could certainly take its toll on the body. Ulanov’s career was not lessened by any means, as he would continue to play until he was 39-years old; wrapping up his career in the KHL with Minsk Dynamo. In 36-games when he was nearly 40, Ulanov racked up an astounding 126-penalty minutes. In a span of nearly 20-years, Ulanov was a tough from start to finish; hands down.

But what I will always remember Igor Ulanov for, at least in the forefront of my mind, is the time that he did NOT play. Sounds funny, but it is true. During his final NHL season, 2005-06, at 36-years of age, Igor Ulanov was in his second campaign with the Edmonton Oilers. Used sparingly as a seventh defenseman on the Oilers backline, Ulanov played in 37-regular season games, registering 3-goals and 6-assists with 29-penalty minutes, while being a minus-11. More often than not, Ulanov was a healthy scratch.

The significance of the 2005-06 season as most will remember was that the Edmonton Oilers went on a truly improbably run to the Stanley Cup Finals, losing in the seventh and decisive game to the Carolina Hurricanes. The Oilers were the 8th-place team in the Western Conference, and thus the last to qualify for the playoffs. And while they possessed legitimate talent in the likes of eventual Hall of Famer Chris Pronger, and players like Ryan Smyth, Dwayne Roloson, Sergei Samsonov, Ales Hemsky, and numerous other key contributors, no one expected the Oilers to go on such a run.

While many would not agree with me, I truly believe that if Igor Ulanov had played in the Stanley Cup Finals that season, the Oilers would have won the Cup. It astounds me that Ulanov was not inserted into the lineup for even a single playoff game. I have always believed in veteran leadership being capable of willing a team to win. Igor Ulanov was the oldest player on that Oilers roster, and had played in the league longer than any other player on the team. And sure, he could still be that same veteran voice in the locker room and during practices even if he did not dress for the Oilers lineup. But, what Edmonton missed the most in my estimation was Ulanov’s tenacity. Heavy hitting, downright nasty, junkyard dog style of play means so much more in the Stanley Cup playoffs; its effect is increased tenfold when the Cup is on the line.

Look at the likes of Darren McCarty in Detroit, Bob Nystrom on Long Island, Esa Tikkanen with Edmonton and New York, Bobby Holik, Randy McKay and Mike Peluso as a line in New Jersey, or especially whom the Anaheim Ducks iced during their championship run with Brad May, Travis Moen, George Parros and Shawn Thornton all on one roster. Toughness and determination wins championships. Edmonton did themselves a disservice by not playing Ulanov in the Finals, and it saddens me that it may have cost them a Stanley Cup. It came down to ONE GAME. Game-7, and Ulanov could have made the difference.

I kind of wear my heart on my sleeve when I think of that particular Oilers’ team. I will always look back on them with the regret that Igor Ulanov did not actively participate in the playoffs. I will look back with the wonder of whether he could have been the difference in them winning the Cup. But if I put those feelings aside for a moment, I look back with enjoyment and a bit of awe on the career of the man known as “The Mangler”.