This Sunday the New York Riveters will play the first of their two preseason games against Russia’s women’s national team. The game will provide fans with a first look at new stars Amanda Kessel and Kaleigh Fratkin in Riveters jerseys. But the real story is the return of Russian forward Lyudmila Belyakova to American soil to play against her former team.
It was a surprise when Riveters’ head coach and general manager Chad Wiseman didn’t re-sign Belyakova after she scored 10 points in 15 games. She was the team’s third-most productive skater but injuries and some head-scratching deployment kept fans from seeing the best of the young forward. Belyakova took her talents overseas and signed on with HK Tornado, the powerhouse franchise of Russia’s Women’s Hockey League.
“I liked playing in New York. The fans there supported me very warmly,” Belyakova reflected . “But the Riveters ended my contract. New proposals did not follow from any of the NWHL clubs.”
The fact that Belyakova couldn’t find a new home in the NWHL was surprising to many because of her level of speed and skill. But Belyakova isn’t holding any grudges about not getting contract offers in the offseason. She recognizes that there are certain realities that come with being a professional athlete.
“There were a few options among Russian clubs,” Belyakova continued. “Playing for Tornado was the most attractive option for me in terms of their game and location. Today I’m a Tornado player and I will try to benefit my club. One stage of my career ended and another began. Changing clubs is a common phenomenon in the life of a professional hockey player.”
Belyakova isn’t putting anymore emphasis on playing the Riveters than she is on playing the Pride or the Whale. But she is looking forward to seeing some familiar faces on and off the ice in Newark.
“It is always interesting to play against a former team. The Riveters’ roster changed up to 50 percent, but I still know many players on the club,” Belyakova shared. “It will be nice to see them.”
Russian head coach Alexei Chistyakov, who is also the coach of HK Tornado, has his work cut out for him. His team has to adapt their game to a smaller ice surface and this group of players played just one friendly together before they crossed the Atlantic Ocean to play their games against the NWHL.
Team Russia also faces the grueling challenge of playing five games in six days against some of the best female hockey players in the world.
Belyakova and former Whale forward Ekaterina Smolentseva are obviously no strangers to the smaller North American ice.
“Hockey is hockey, whether in Russia or in the NWHL,” Belyakova asserted. “Of course, there are differences in the style of the game, tactics, and ice size. The ice is bigger in the RWHL. But the skill levels of the players in both leagues is high.”
Belyakova made it clear that she isn’t troubled by the past when asked whether or not she felt she had something to prove to her former coach and team. Her focus is on playing the best hockey she can play while representing her country and her club team.
“In these games there are always the specifics — you want to show your best side,” Belyakova mused. “But I’m a professional hockey player. Therefore, I think about how to bring the greatest benefit to my current team. Not about proving something to someone.
“The opportunity to play in the strongest women’s league in the world was a breathtaking opportunity,” Belyakova revealed. “As a child I wanted to play hockey in North America. To go out on the ice with the Riveters was a dream coming true. I had inexpressible emotions. But now I do not think about it.”
Belyakova’s new team is well represented on Russia’s Women’s National Team. Seven players from HK Tornado will skate with Russia against three of the NWHL’s teams. HK Tornado has begun their season tied for first place with a 5-1 start.
Belyakova has four goals and three assists in that span and is averaging seven shots per game. It’s safe to say that things are going well for the former Riveters sniper in the RWHL.
“I stand for Tornado. My main goal this season is to win the championship of Russia and raise the RWHL Cup over my head.”
(Note: English is Lyudmila Belyakova’s second language. Some quotes were edited for readability.)