Continuing its commitment towards the growth of professional women’s ice hockey in the United States, a significant aspect in the NWHL’s unfolding narrative also consists of an admirable involvement with international hockey. From providing opportunities for international players to join their ranks, along with exhibition friendlies, such elements have been part of the NWHL’s efforts since its inaugural season, championing an exciting epoch in the game’s lore.
Heading into the 2017-18 season, the preseason sees with it another series of contests against Russia’s national women’s team. Dubbed the “Summit Series”, such an exciting event was executed with the support of the Russian Ice Hockey Federation, who remain pledged towards reaching the peak of excellence for its female team.
Engaging in a two-week visit that begins on October 11, 2017, three of the NWHL’s “Founding Four”, the Boston Pride, Connecticut Whale and New York Riveters, shall take to the ice against the Russian national team for a total of six games. Certainly, this series serves as the launch for another promising season of superlative professional women’s hockey, while also providing invaluable preparation for an ambitious Russian squad working tirelessly towards the dream of a podium finish at the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Games.
With the Russian national team having visited the Northeast in the autumn of 2016, challenging numerous NWHL clubs in five total games, they also took to the ice with several Boston-based programs in NCAA play. Of note, they prevailed in two contests against NWHL clubs, vanquishing the Riveters by a 4-1 tally, while a hard-fought final against the Whale resulted in a 3-2 triumph.
Coincidentally, Russia’s 2016-17 season would culminate with another opportunity to compete stateside. Participating in the 2017 IIHF Women’s World Championships in Plymouth, Michigan, the team emerged with a fifth place ranking, while Nadezhda Alexandrova ranked fifth in goals against average among all competing goaltenders.
Such a unique concept not only adds to the NWHL’s upward progression, bringing with it a valued aspect for its teams’ incoming rookie classes. Last season, the preseason tilts against Russia signified the NWHL debuts for many promising prospects. Among said debuts, the most notable resulted in a two-game series in the autumn of 2016 which saw the New York Riveters face off against Russia, signifying the debut of Amanda Kessel in the professional ranks. Such a milestone for Kessel, who entered the season as the highest paid player in league history, simultaneously added to her revered status as one of the world’s finest competitors.
Scoring the first goal of her NWHL career in the opening game against Russia, with Kaleigh Fratkin and Bray Ketchum gaining the assists, Kessel would also find the back of the net in the rematch. Kessel’s first goal was part of an historic day for the NWHL, defined by a tone of first-rate talent on both ends of the ice. Of note, South Korea’s Sojung Shin would gain the start for the Riveters, while Yekaterina Smolentseva, Russia’s captain at the 2014 Sochi Winter Games scored the lone goal of the game for her team.Considering that international players have also constituted part of the NWHL’s star power in its nascent years, featuring talent from Austria (Janine Weber), Japan (Nana Fujimoto), South Korea (Sojung Shin) and Russia (Lyudmila Belyakova and Yekaterina Smolentseva), among others, these series are also an opportunity to give back to the players.
Among the most captivating moments of the inaugural NWHL season featured the New York Riveters compete in a two-game exhibition friendly in Japan. Signifying the first time that NWHL players graced the ice in another country, Fujimoto was treated to a heroes’ welcome, returning to the land of her sporting roots.
With the Riveters warmly appreciated, it helped set the encouraging tone for future exhibition friendlies, such as those against Russia. As a side note, Belyakova (the first Russian player in league history) and Weber called Fujimoto a teammate during that Riveters season, added luster to their international hockey experiences, while truly establishing them as the league’s most cosmopolitan team.
Taking into account that the NWHL’s Buffalo Beauts also competed against the US Under-18 National women’s team in January 2016, the possibilities are seemingly endless for such unique yet highly entertaining exhibitions, successively celebrating the game and its remarkable talent.
Statistically, Belyakova and Smolentseva each gained points in the fifth-place game against Sweden at the 2017 IIHF Women’s Worlds. During their only NWHL season, they were also key contributors to their respective teams, testament to their talents. Belyakova would record an assist in the first game in NWHL history, while she would record a superlative three-point effort (on the strength of two goals) against the Buffalo Beauts on December 27, the first multi-point outing of her NWHL career.
Smolentseva, whose hockey legacy also includes serving as Russia’s team captain, signed with the Connecticut Whale in summer 2015, becoming the first Russian-born player in franchise history. Making her debut on November 29, 2015 against Boston, she would gain an assist in the game. Her first goal had a hint of serendipity to it.
Taking to the ice on December 13 against the New York Riveters, Smolentseva would score the Whale’s first goal of the game, as the club bounced back from a 3-0 deficit to prevail in a shootout. With Belyakova part of the Riveters’ line-up on this day, it signified the first time that two Russian players competed against each other in NWHL play.
With the 2017 edition of the Summit Series, there shall definitely be more opportunities for the stars of Russia’s talented roster to experience their own heroics, emulating the likes of the aforementioned competitors. Considering that Russian teams in men’s hockey have visited North America since the 1970s, challenging teams at both the junior and professional ranks, shaping the game for more than a generation, while fascinating fans regardless of their nationality, it is only fitting that their female counterparts begin to establish their own heritage.
The return of the “Red Machine”, along with the hospitality of the NWHL, signifies what may be the growth of a shared tradition, while building on the values of friendship, mutual respect and sportsmanship that make the game so sterling. For the NWHL’s growing fan base, it also signifies a memorable treat to be able to see international world-class talent competing in the rink of their favorite teams, a true win-win for all involved.