Russian women’s league readying for new season

Changes abound in the Motherland, as Agidel Ufa looks to defend their title while six others seek to dethrone them

The winds of change have blown throughout the summer in the Женская Хоккейная Лига (Zhenskaya Hokkeynaya Liga, Women’s Hockey League), the top flight of women’s ice hockey in Russia, and the season is approaching quickly, with puck drop on Sept. 9.

The first change is actually a pretty significant one, but one that won’t take place until November, and that is the relocation of Arktik-Universitet Ukhta. They will be moving 2,000 km to the west to St. Petersburg, where they will be rechristened as SK Gorny (“Mining”). It’s obviously sad for fans in the Komi Republic, but the move to St. Petersburg will make travel less of an issue and will also make it easier to land quality sponsors. It also could create an instant rivalry with Dynamo St. Petersburg, and the appeal of a derby will almost certainly help the league’s hype machine.

And of course, it’s not an off-season without lots of roster changes. And where better to start than with Gorny. The team went 4-20 last season, with all four wins coming against SK Sverdlovsk Oblast. That clearly didn’t sit well with management, as the team made splashes in the free agent market, signing 2014 Olympic goalie Yuliya Leskina, veteran defender Anastasia Smirnova, and with North Americans Tatiana Rafter and Hayley Williams as they look to end some hard times.

St. Petersburg’s other team, Dynamo, spent most of the off-season trying to retain their already-existing talent. They succeeded, tying down defender Anastasia Chistyakova (whose season was cut short just before the Olympics due to appendicitis), top goal scorer Yekaterina Smolina, and goalie Valeriya Merkusheva, who was lockdown last season, posting a .952 save percentage. Dynamo also added forward Yelena Malinovskaya from Biryusa Krasnoyarsk, who (along with last-place SK Sverdlovsk Oblast) were fairly quiet this offseason, as well as goalie Melina Tretyak (no relation to the famous Vladislav) and forward Kristina Korotkikh, both from Tornado.

On the top of the table, Agidel Ufa have had a roller coaster of an off-season. On one end, veterans Yekaterina Ananyina, Anna Shchukina, Alexandra Vafina, and Alexandra Kapustina all departed. Ananyina slammed team GM Alexander Semak on the way out, claiming that he was “stuck in the USSR” and accusing him of making coaches install a way-too-rigorous training regimen. But they did land arguably the biggest signing of the off-season in Maria Batalova, poaching her from title rivals Tornado after she led the league in scoring by defenders last year. They also infused the team with young talent, signing six teenagers, including two of Russia’s hottest prospects in Polina Luchnikova and Ilona Markova, both of whom had been at SKIF Nizhny Novgorod.

Funnily enough, SKIF actually picked up much of the departed Agidel players, signing Shchukina, Vafina, and Kapustina. It’s a return to Nizhny Novgorod for Shchukina and Kapustina, who played for the SKIF program for about a decade each. SKIF will also see the return of veteran forward Yelena Silina from maternity leave. The team is noted for its ability to develop young talent, and having all of these veteran leaders will help the youngsters adapt to the top level.

Tornado, who have been a dynasty in recent years before being dethroned by Agidel last season, have begun a transitional period. In addition to the departure of Batalova, the team also let go of Lyudmila Mishina (nee Belyakova) and Svetlana Tkachyova, both Olympians. With that said, they still have the best line in the league in the trio of Alevtina Shtaryova, Anna Shokhina, and Yelena Dergachyova.

Going into this season, it feels like the league is tighter than it’s ever been. Agidel may have run away with the league last year, but they’ve lost a number of key veteran leaders. Tornado, a team that’s been a regular at the top, has lost one of Russia’s best defenders as well as the talented Mishina. Dynamo and the newly-rechristened Gorny have improved, which raises the stakes of the new St. Petersburg derby.

It’s gonna be a fun year for Russian women’s hockey.