An interview with WHL All-Star Ludmila Belyakova

Belyakova discusses her comeback from injury, growing the women’s game, and more.

On January 19th, the Russian Women’s Hockey League (WHL) participated in the first-ever WHL All-Star Game.  The women game was slated as part of a Week of Hockey Stars, incorporating the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL), the Women's Hockey League (WHL) and the Youth Hockey League.

For the WHL All-Star game, the visiting West All-Stars were victorious, beating the East All-Stars 4-0.  “This is a very significant event,” said head coach of the Western All-Stars, Alexei Chistyakov (HC Tornado), in a post game interview.  He continued, “it gives an impetus to the development of women's hockey!”

Ludmila Belyakova, Russian National Team member and founding member of the New York Riveters, competed for the Western All-Stars and scored the third goal of the contest. Before competing in the 2017 Winter Universiade in Kazakhstan, Belyakova reflected on her All-Star experience via email.

The Ice Garden: You were able to participate in the KHL Week of Hockey Stars. Describe the event from your perspective.

Ludmila Belyakova: For any athlete to participate in an All-Star Game, it is a great honor and responsibility, especially in the first-ever game for Russian female hockey. I think that any ice hockey player must try and strive to play in such an important game.

Unfortunately, in December, I got an injury and had a month to be treated and recover. I even feared that I wouldn’t be able to go to the All-Star Game in Ufa due to my injury. But everything turned out great. Before the game, I was able to carry out only two full-fledged workouts.

TIG: Were you focused on enjoying the moment or competing, or a bit of both?

LB: The All-Star Game left me with many vivid memories. It was nice to be among the finest players in the women's hockey league and be part of such a wonderful event for hockey amateurs. I really liked the atmosphere around that was conducted by the Week of Hockey Stars KHL at “Ufa-Arena.” Here, I was able to meet with my friends and with the fans. I was able to have fun and relax and, most importantly, [not] think about trophies and standings.

But first things first, the first thing that pleasantly surprised me was landing in Ufa International Airport. We were met like real stars. The first thing the staff did is to take our luggage and bring it to the arena. We were given a very comfortable bus, decorated with symbols for WHL All-Star Game.

Next we were taken and settled into one of the best hotels in Ufa-President Hotel, where we waited for lunch. After a short rest, we were transported to a training session at the "Ufa-Arena" where the games are held for Club "Salavat Yulaev Ufa” of the KHL. We were shown a very luxurious locker room, where they had already laid out our things… brand-new gloves and helmets. Particularly worth noting were the custom made t-shirts with the logo of the All-Star Game, which were done separately for the training process and for the game. In the evening, the hotel held the first formal event WHL All-Star Game — presentation of the teams, concert, and banquet.

Match day morning, we performed traditional warming-up on the ice. And after lunch, we got time to sleep before the game. The city was buried in snow, so we sat in traffic congestion along the way from the hotel to the arena. But our bus was accompanied by police cars and we were able to quickly and safely arrive to the arena. As we approached the rink, there was a great excitement. WHL All-Star Game tickets were completely sold out but fans still crowded at ticket windows in the "Ufa-Arena," hoping to get an extra ticket if available.

TIG: What did you and other players think of the crowd?

LB: I do not know about the others, but as a child [I played] with a large audience, even since the finals’ hockey tournament "Golden Puck." And during performances overseas, I was used to the whole stadium cheering for their home team. When I go out on the ice, I focus solely on the game and [don’t] feel shyness before lots of spectators. There is no difference for me to [play] for the All-Star game and a regular calendar match game, I go out on the ice and play to the maximum.

I am very glad that I participated in this historic match and I managed to score one of the goals for my team. This is a huge positive for me, which gave me additional strength and energy. To participate in the All-Star Game was pretty cool.

TIG: The Week of Hockey Stars promoted both the men's and women's game. How do you think that will help the WHL, and Team Russia Women's Hockey, leading into the 2018 Olympics?

LB: All-Star Games are held primarily to promote hockey. So the next season is [considering] the option of holding the KHL All-Star Game with the best representatives of WHL and holding separate skill competitions for players of the women's league, as well.

For the successful preparation of the Russian team for the Olympic Games 2018 year requires us to play the widest possible number of games against the United States and Canadian teams at any level.

TIG: The NWHL is still establishing itself. But, even now the league only offers so many spots. Do you think it is likely that North American talent will play elsewhere, like Molly Engstrom playing in Sweden, or even players coming to Russia?

LB: It would be good if the talented players from North America signed professional contracts with the Russian clubs and played in the WHL. Not long ago in the WHL, we had players such as Kelley Steadman, Correne Bredin, Sherry Hendrickson, Kim Martin, Jenni Hiirikoski, and a few others.

WHL Highlights (in Russian):