“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:

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“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.