In the NWHL preseason, Team Russia took on three of the Founding Four teams, playing five games in six days. Two former NWHL players, Ekaterina Smolentseva (Connecticut Whale) and Lyudmila Belyakova (New York Riveters), returned to face their former teams.
For the 2016-17 season, forward Belyakova returned to HC Tornado of the Russian Women’s Hockey League. In the 2014-15 season, Belyakova notched 41 points in 26 games for the Tornado. In 9 games this season, she has already matched her productivity for the Riveters, tallying 10 points (5 goals and 5 assists).
At the conclusion of Team Russia’s final exhibition against the Whale, Lyudmila recorded her fifth goal in three games. The Ice Garden interviewed Belyakova, with the aid of a team translator:
The Ice Garden: Congratulations on your recent bronze medal at the IIHF Women’s World Championships. Describe that experience.
Lyudmila Belyakova: It’s not my first bronze, so the feelings were the same as the very first. For Russia, it’s a huge achievement, and I was very proud of it.
TIG: You are now back in Russia playing for the HC Tornado. What are the differences between the RWHL and the NWHL?
LB: Firstly, the style of the game is a little bit different, because you are allowed to be a little bit more rough here than in Russia. It’s a faster-paced game here. In Russia, we try more of a tactical approach to the game, and that’s the biggest difference.
TIG: How was it playing against your former team, the New York Riveters?
LB: Firstly, the team has changed a lot, there are many different players. The team felt stronger than when I was on it back in the day, but it was a fun game.
TIG: You did not play in the series against the Boston Pride; were you out due to injury?
LB: It’s obviously because of an injury, I didn’t even play against the Riveters the very first match. It was an injury I got during morning practice, unfortunately. In the third match, the coach was contemplating on whether to take me out. It was a [game-time] decision.
TIG: You have gained a lot of fans while playing for the Riveters. Would you return to the NWHL if you had the chance?
LB: Yes, I would love to play in this league again, given the chance. I would like the league to evolve more, because ... I need two practices a day to improve [laughs]. Obviously, if I got the chance, I would love to be here, but first, there are some things I’d like to [see] improve. There are some things that I didn’t agree with, but other than that, it was fun and I loved playing here.
I was very happy with all the fans that came to cheer on me and the team. All the fans were on Twitter and everything ... I want to say thank you to everybody and that I was very happy with all the emotions I had.
TIG: This question is a fun one. If you could compete for Russia in the summer Olympics, what sport would you play?
LB: [laughs] That’s a good question. I don’t even know [laughs and speaks in Russian to translator and her father off to the side, seemingly deciding between football and handball]. Handball, because in Russia, during practices, we like to play handball a lot for warm-ups and stuff like that ... but if you compare how we play in practices and how the Olympic team plays, it’s the difference between sky and land.
TIG: Russia played three of the four NWHL teams. Any predictions on who will win the Isobel Cup?
LB: I predict that Boston will win because there are lots of players from national teams on that team. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to play against them, but that’s who I’d pick. At the moment, I feel that the Riveters are pretty strong also, and I would put them ahead of Connecticut.
As far as her NWHL predictions, Boston finished opening weekend with wins over the Riveters and the Beauts, putting them at the top of standings early on. Time will tell if New York is indeed a step ahead this season, as Belyakova indicated. The Riveters host Connecticut for the first of seven games between the teams this Sunday at 5 pm.
Belyakova and HC Tornado return to action this weekend. They will take on Biryusa Krasnoyarsk in a doubleheader, with games on Friday and Sunday.