Every hockey player has others they look up to, that they model their game on growing up and watch closely, hoping to emulate when the time comes. Many young men coming into the NHL these days point to old-as-dirt players Patrick Kane, Sidney Crosby, Steven Stamkos or Duncan Keith as role models. The women who are trying out for the NWHL are no exception.
They are constantly watching other players, learning from them as they go, and tucking away little tricks to try later, when they get on the ice.
After the NWHL’s international skills session Thursday July 23 Belyakova and Fujimoto spoke a little about the athletes who had influenced their respective games as hockey players.
Belyakova had no trouble naming players right off the bat. She wore a Superman / Superwoman shirt underneath her gear at the skills camp, and it was particularly apropos, considering the first player she lead with.
“[My biggest influences were] Ovechkin and Datsyuk, of course,” she said through an interpreter. “But there’s also a North American player who [the public is] a little less familiar with: Maxim Rybin. He’s the reason I’m wearing number 9 today.”
Rybin currently plays in the KHL for Neftekhimik Nizhnekamsk, as the team captain. He was drafted by the Anaheim Mighty Ducks in 1999. However, he never made it to the NHL, playing in the OHL for two years before he made the move back to Russia.
Her preference for Russian hockey players not withstanding, Belyakova has picked apt players to mimic. And, like Ovechkin or Datsyuk, she is regularly recognized for her talent. She first played for the U18 national Russian youth team at only 12 years old, and was invited to play for the national team at age 15.
Belyakova’s game certainly resembles that of Ovechkin’s or Datsyuk’s, at least in scoring power. She can score from nearly anywhere in the offensive zone and handles the puck naturally, able to slip it around almost any defender she comes across. She’s a phenomenal skater, but her light touch on the puck means she is able to sell almost anything. And even better, Belyakova is a strong two-way center.
“I have a wider range of skills because I actually played boys’ hockey all my life,” Belyakova said. “I have an excellent shot and very good stick handling.”
Fujimoto, on the other hand, pointed to influences later in her goaltending career, as opposed to ones she had watched growing up.
“It’s not necessarily [that anyone impacted my play] growing up, but more recently, I watched the Canadian goaltender (Charline Labonté) at the Sochi Olympics and that was a big influence,” Fujimoto said through her translator. “The American goaltender was good, too, but the Canadian goaltender was more special.”
The difference can also be chalked up to a difference in Japanese and Russian cultures: one is seriously into hockey, and one is just starting to love the sport. But Fujimoto sees herself as someone who can be that inspiration or role model to Japanese children who play or want to play hockey.
“This is going to be a very competitive league and I want to compete at a high level,” Fujimoto said. “Hockey is still a minor sport in Japan but when I play here I’m going to bring a lot of positive influence to Japanese kids as well.
“I hope that more Japanese people will come [play in North America] in the future,” Fujimoto said.
Fujimoto was most recently named the top goaltender at the 2015 IIHF Women’s Worlds competition, posting a 1.52 goals-against average, a .938 save percentage, eight goals against and one shutout in five games.
If there are more Japanese athletes of Fujimoto’s caliber who take an interest in hockey, we’ll be sure to see more join the NWHL and NHL. But both Fujimoto and Belyakova, young as they are, are already influencing the game, and its future stars.