WGIHW across Russia
by Andy Potts|17 OCT 2021
SKIF Nizhni Novgorod celebrated its 25-year anniversary with a girls’ hockey tournament during the World Girls’ Ice Hockey Weekend.
photo: Alexander Lobastov
The clubs in Russia’s Women’s Hockey League always try to reach out to the next generation during World Girls’ Ice Hockey Weekend and this year was no exception. From anniversary celebrations at one of the country’s best-known women’s teams, to a first-time event in Chelyabinsk, which joins the league this season, 2021 was another busy year.

SKIF’s 25th anniversary

SKIF Nizhni Novgorod is one of the most established names in Russian women’s hockey. The much-titled club celebrates its 25th anniversary this year and is once again riding high in the national championship after back-to-back 5-1 road wins this weekend.

With the team in action in Chelyabinsk for the official WGIHW festivities, SKIF went a week ahead of schedule, hosting its now traditional annual tournament for girls’ teams from the local region. The club has schools in Bogorodsk, Gorodets, Vyezdnoye and Nizhni Novgorod itself and they all sent teams to the competition.

The action played out in two age groups, with Novgorod-based Nagorny coming out on top in both categories at the Pobeda rink in Bogorodsk. But more important than the results of the two competitions was the on-going development of girls’ hockey in the Nizhni Novgorod region. And there was special attention to the youngest two players at the event – Taisia Barysheva, born 2018, from Gorodets and Vyezdnoye’s Eva Chernyshova, born 2017.

Chelyabinsk joins in

SKIF’s opponent during the World Girls’ Ice Hockey Weekend was the newly-formed Belye Medveditsy club in Chelyabinsk. The team is part of the Traktor organisation, a renowned incubator of Russian male hockey talent for decades. The Polar Bears are playing their first season in Russia’s Women’s Hockey League, under the guidance of head coach Igor Znarok – brother of 2018 Olympic champion coach Oleg – and took time out this weekend to work with girls learning the game at the Sergei Makarov hockey school.

The event took the form of a coaching session involving players from the WHL first team. Forward Tatyana Shatalova was one of the guests of honour and she was delighted to get involved. “We’re really seeing the emergence of women’s hockey, it’s developing and that’s great to see,” she said. “In my childhood there were a lot of challenges and very few opportunities [for girls to play]. Now everything is available. If girls want to play, it’s all there for them.”

For youngsters like Yelizaveta Kireyeva, one of the girls taking part in Sunday’s session, watching Traktor was the gateway to taking up the sport herself. “I started out going to Traktor’s games,” she said. “It was so interesting I decided I wanted to have a go myself. I tried, I enjoyed it and decided to stick with this sport.” Now, inspired by the prospect of top-flight women’s hockey in her home town, she’s setting her sights high and dreams of following in the footsteps of former Chelyabinsk player Alexandra Vafina and playing for Russia. The growth of Belye Medveditsy can only help to bring that dream into focus for more girls in Chelyabinsk and the Southern Urals.

Trading places?

In St. Petersburg, table-topping Dynamo-Neva has several players who started out on the ice as figure skaters. So, what better place to recruit new hockey talent than the local figure skating school? Suggestions that the club is poaching the new generation of skaters are, of course, tongue in cheek – but it speaks to growing profiles of women’s hockey in Russia that girls are no longer expected to limit themselves to taffeta and twirls when they are on the ice.

Local COVID restrictions in Russia’s Northern capital make it difficult to stage a full-scale event this year, but the club released a video clip with defender Ulyana Sheven – who spent five years as a figure skater before picking up a hockey stick – gave a quick hockey masterclass to seven-year-old Marta Mikhailova of the Nevski Ice Club. Marta was delighted to join in, and even found time to put Ulyana through a few figure skating moves in return.

In the heart of Siberia

The city of Krasnoyarsk, on the Yenisei river, is best known in hockey circles as the birthplace of Alexander Syomin, who led Russia in scoring in its triumphant 2008 World Championship campaign. But Biryusa, a rising star in the Women’s Hockey League is looking to change all that. The club has joined the title contenders in Russia in recent seasons, jostling for position alongside the more established likes of SKIF, Agidel Ufa and Tornado Moscow Region. And, as a participant in WGIHW events since 2017, it’s taking care of the next generation as well.

This year, girls from the Rassvet (Dawn) hockey school were invited to the city’s Platinum Arena for a masterclass with four players from Biryusa – goalie Ulyana Nemilostevaya, blue liner Sofia Bakeyeva and forwards Xenia Rakcheyeva and Valeria Samoilova.

For Rassvet’s coach, Oxana Lyskova, events like this are a measure of the progress women’s hockey is making. “When I was a girl we never had anything like this,” she said. “We could only go and see how the men’s teams practiced and played. Now, our girls have this wonderful opportunity to get valuable advice and experience from professional woman players and that’s really great.”

The Biryusa players also enjoyed the experience. “After that, I understand our coaches better,” joked Nemilostevaya. “I think we had a good practice with them. I always really appreciated it when I got to take part in this kind of master-class when I was younger, when professional players would help us. I used to get a lot from that and it’s good to put something back now.”

Teammate Rakcheyeva was excited by the enthusiasm of the youngsters. “What really stood out was how the kids were crazy to learn something new,” she said. “It’s so cool, how they are working to get better. I had some similar master-classes, but when I was a bit older. I understand how the kids feel, they always want to try something new and learn from skilled, pro players.”