There are few players who are as dynamic and exciting to watch as Lyudmila Belyakova of the New York Riveters is. The first Russian-born player to sign on with the NWHL is also the league's youngest player. Her youth can show at times when her passion for the game boils over in scrums in front of the net, but it also brings with it the promise of a nearly unlimited potential. Belyakova's combination of speed, skill, and inner fire could make her one of the best skaters in women's hockey one day soon.
Belyakova gallops on the ice and has the kind of hands that keep defenders up at night. All of that hard-earned and natural skill would not be much without the dedication and perseverance that is needed to forge the entire package together and make an elite hockey player, but Belyakova has a single-minded focus and dedication to hockey and it shows on and off the ice. Despite an injury early in the NWHL season and a having a somewhat limited role on the Riveters, she still shows flashes of brilliance that are the stuff of highlight reels.
Belyakova headed to the locker room. Photo credit: M. Murphy
What Belyakova has accomplished in international play with team Russia is nothing short of remarkable for a player of her age. One doesn't have to dig very deep on YouTube to find clips of her scoring big goals and celebrating with her Russian teammates on the big ice across the pond. In a league filled with pioneers Belyakova is only one of two Russian-born players along with Yekaterina Smolentseva of the Connecticut Whale. Her love for the game and desire to prove that she is one of the best by playing against only the very best is what brought her to Brooklyn to play hockey.
At long last let's get to know number nine on the New York Riveters a little bit better. Let's get to know the woman behind the amazing .gifs and YouTube videos. Let's get to know Lyudmila Belyakova.
(Note: Lyudmila Belyakova does not speak fluent English, this interview was done via email and she was kind and patient enough to take the time to respond to the best of her abilities)
: At what age did you start playing hockey?
I started to play sports at the age of 5 years old. At first I did swimming... Then I did eastern single combats (Judo) at 6 years old. In November 2001, my Dad brought me to the ice rink, where I skated for the first time in my life. I really liked it and I wanted to learn to play hockey. A month later, on December 28, 2001, I started to play hockey on a team with boys. This began my hockey career. Before the 2014/2015 season I played with the men's junior and youth teams in Russia.
Belyakova on the ice with her father. Photo courtesy of Lyudmila Belyakova
MM: How long did it take you to get comfortable with the smaller North American ice surface?
I was able to go from the European ice to the North American ice easily. I did not experience any inconvenience in the transition. But on the narrow ice surface, you have to think faster, the game is more dynamic, and more goals are scored. There is also more contact, but I am not afraid of this style of play. As a forward, you need to have the secrets on how to play and resist defenders.
MM: How important are your personal drills and training exercises to your game?
I consider that two practices a week aren't enough for professional player. In Russia I had two training sessions every day when there were no games and still had mandatory practice on the mornings of each game day. So now I am trying to do what I did in Russia, in addition to what they require me to do in New York. What I do now is, 2-3 daily workouts... where I practice skating techniques, stick work with a hockey puck, and a variety of shooting drills. I am aware that I am playing in the best women's hockey league in the world, and playing among the strongest players... I need to perform at my best.
MM: Is there a reason you wear the number nine?
Yes. I have played wearing that number since 8 years old. At that time, my Dad and I used to go to the games for the team Spartak (Moscow), captained by Maxim Rybin, who wore the number 9. I really liked his aggressive style that would wind up the fans in the stands. Every game, he always played at 100%. He probably got these qualities from playing in North America.
MM: Are there any male or female hockey players that you considered idols growing up or that you have modeled your game after?
The answer to this question is partly a continuation of the previous one. As a child I wanted to be like Maxim Rybin. Maxim Rybin (born June 15, 1981) is a Russian professional ice hockey winger who currently plays in the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL). He was selected by the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim in the 5th round (141st overall) of the 1999 NHL Entry Draft. But later I found a lot of other great players, both men and women, who I have learned a lot from... I use their styles in my game.
MM: If you had to pick one, which of your goals would you call your favorite or most important?
I find it easier to answer the question as to what victories in my career are the most important to me. The 3rd place at the World Championships in Ottawa in 2013 and the victory over Canada in the final of the Winter Universiade in Granada in 2015. If we talk about the most important goals in my life, it is perhaps the decisive penalty shot in the final of the "Golden Puck" tournament in 2008, this goal brought victory to my team. I would also say the goal I scored in the "Four Nations Tournament" in Sweden in 2012, I tied the score in the game against the hosts of the tournament with only three seconds left in regulation. That goal helped to bring the first victory for the Russian team in the history of the tournament.
Even in her adolescence there were signs that Belyakova was someone special on the ice.
MM: Has communication been a big challenge between you and your teammates?
Of course, it is difficult to move to another country with little knowledge of the language. I learned English while at school in Russia, but I did not practice communicating it. I understand a lot of the language, but find it difficult to speak it. I am very fortunate that my teammates are very sympathetic to the fact that I do not speak English well. The coaching staff and all my teammates patiently and clearly try to explain so that I can clearly understand what they want from me. Now, the language situation is changing for the better.
MM: What do you enjoy most about Brooklyn and New York City?
New York City, as well as Moscow, where I was born and lived, are very big and beautiful cities. There are a huge number of attractions- ranging from the skyscrapers and bridges to the museums and the Statue of Liberty. In Brooklyn, what made an impression on me is the home arena of the team New York Islanders - where I have went and watched a few NHL games. I have a very busy schedule of training/practice and because of this I have almost no free time for exploring the city very much.
MM: What is your favorite thing to do when you're in Russia?
The life of a professional athlete is subject to a strict routine. With trying to achieve good results, I can't give up sports camps and training. This, again, means giving up some things that can distance you from your friends, and not doing things that some of my friends have the pleasure of doing. You need to have self-discipline and respect for the rules, without these qualities... sports are not possible for me. Therefore, the free time that I do have in Moscow I use to see and talk with my older brother and friends.
MM: Do you have a favorite movie? A favorite TV show?
I like many movies, but I especially love movies with a motivating storyline. Stories which show how a strong will and determination lead to the desired result and that failure and defeat is not a reason to abandon the chosen path to the result. Watching them, I realize that nothing is impossible in life and you just need to set a goal every day, then try to achieve it.
MM: If you weren't a professional hockey player, what do you think you'd be doing?
This question is very difficult for me to answer. I never thought about what I would be doing if I had not chosen to play hockey! Hockey to me is everything! Hockey is my life!
Belyakova battling Buffalo's Steadman in the defensive zone. Photo Credit: M. Murphy
MM: I understand that you recently launched your own website. Can you tell us about the site?
When I played in Russia, I also had a website that my father designed and maintained. But on February 14, 2016 I launched a website which is online at www.lyudmilabelyakova.com. It was created by a professional designer, Bryan Johnson. Bryan also created my new personal hockey logo. I am very grateful for his work and for the fact that he has devoted so much of his time to me. We will try to constantly update the site and add the most interesting and useful information about everything that happens in my hockey career. We hope that you enjoy my new website and hopefully you all will be more likely to visit it now, and in turn we will try to keep the site as up-to-date as possible to please my fans around the world!
MM: What does it mean to you to see little girls and young women come out to the games you play in and know that you are a pioneer in professional women's hockey?
All players dream of playing in the NHL... but many people do not recognize that the level of women's hockey is growing. Our league is not at the level of the NHL, but the NWHL is evolving, and it's great to be a part of this. I am the first Russian woman ice hockey player to be playing in the NWHL in North America [Belyakova was the first ever Russian player to sign with the league], and I am very pleased that I can be a role model for young hockey players. We have a large number of fans around the world. It is very nice to see that the little girls and young women go to our games in Brooklyn and in the other arenas, all actively supporting us. It's an amazing feeling, it is the reason we all play hockey.
MM: Is there anything you'd like to say to New York Riveters fans reading this interview?
I promise you that I will fight with all my heart in every game. At the moment I have scored five goals and have five assists and I will try to improve these stats before the end of the season. I promise to please the audience with my skills. And I will do everything that is required of me, so my team can go as far as possible and win the Isobel Cup. I have helped the New York Riveters to achieve something in the inaugural year of the NWHL. I was pleasantly surprised by the number of fans who attend our games. Surprisingly this is all regardless of the final score and where the team finishes in the standings. They support us warmly and wish us good luck... it is very nice. We play for them, and they cheer for us! Many thanks to all of the fans!
I'd like to thank Luda Belyakova for taking the time to do this interview while the NWHL regular season begins to come to a close. You can support the league, the Riveters, and Luda by grabbing her jersey at the NWHL's online shop which can be found by clicking here. You can also support and keep up to date with the Riveters' resident Russian star by checking out her website and following along with her twitter.
The Riveters will finish their regular season on the road this Sunday against the Connecticut Whale at Chelsea Piers in Stamford before their odyssey for the Isobel Cup begins in Boston. The regular season may not have gone as planned for the Riveters, but the first women to be paid professional hockey players in Brooklyn have a chance to write another chapter in the ever-growing book of women's hockey history against the Pride in a matter of weeks. Bring on the playoffs.
Let's go Riveters.