A New Dawn for the Women’s Hockey League
The Zhenskaya Khokkeinaya Liga — the (Russian) Women’s Hockey League — opened the 2015-16 season on Friday with two games on the schedule. In the first of these (highlights above), Dynamo St. Petersburg seemed to be rolling along, leading Arktik Universitet Ukhta 3-0 in the third period, until it was suddenly 3-2 and nerves were being jangled. The St. Petersburg club held on, though, and 3-2 it ended. In the other game, defending champions Tornado Moscow Oblast saw off the challenge of league newcomers SKSO Yekaterinburg by a comfortable 6-2 scoreline. Read on, for more notes on what to expect from the RWHL this season!
Before we begin in earnest, we need to throw some praise in the direction of the KHL, which took over administration of the Women’s League from the Russian Hockey Federation this summer. One of the goals of this move was to get the league, at last, some proper marketing and publicity. So far on that score, mission accomplished without a doubt. The Women’s League has rolled out its own (Russian) webpage — including live boxscores — under the KHL umbrella (it had previously occupied a small corner of the FHR website), and is now present and accounted for on Twitter, Facebook, and Vkontakte. So full credit to the KHL here, and I look forward to further developments along these lines! Still on the subject of following the RWHL, I would heartily recommend whockey.ru, an excellent blog that contains information, in Russian, about all aspects of the women’s game in Russia going back several seasons.
Back to business, and here is a look at the RWHL teams this season, including a player or two from each to whom special attention should be paid! The league did, despite the takeover by the KHL, have some sponsorship difficulties this off-season, and lost its member teams in Mozhaisk and Chelyabinsk as a result. And so there are seven clubs that will take to the ice for 2015-16, with each playing 24 games to determine the champion (the season contains a number of long breaks for various international tournaments). There is no playoff at the end of the season, but there will be — another KHL-driven innovation — a first-ever All-Star Game, to be played in December.
Agidel Ufa: HK Agidel, part of the Salavat Yulaev Ufa club, have been the chasers in the RWHL for the past few seasons, generally ending up third behind SKIF and Tornado, and fully capable of taking points off the leaders on occasion. Is this the season the team from Bashkortostan makes the jump to true title contention? There is one piece of evidence that strongly suggests so, and that is the off-season acquisition of Olga Sosina from SKIF. The 23-year-old forward from neighbouring Tatarstan is, for my money, one of the top three players in the Russian national program, and some days I think she is the best of them all — a deadly goalscorer and playmaker. And the scariest thing is that she may not yet be at her peak. Agidel have also added long-time national squad ‘keeper Yulia Leskina from now-defunct Spartak-Merkury Yekaterinburg, and have veteran Team Russia presence on the blue line with the likes of 31-year-old Alexandra Kapustina. No guarantees, of course, and Tornado and SKIF have weapons of their own, but nobody should be too surprised if Agidel issue a real title challenge this season.
Arktik-Universitet Ukhta: From way up North (63°34′ — roughly the same latitude as Iqaluit in Canada) in the Komi Republic comes the Arctic University team, which joined the league in 2012-13. They have never been a power — last year’s 12-20 record represents Arktik-Universitet’s best performance to date — but they boast one of the country’s most intriguing young talents. Fanuza Kadirova sprang into the public eye at the most recent IIHF U18 World Championship, when she went 5-3-8 in six games and came away with a bronze medal. With Russia behind by three in the third period of the tournament quarterfinal against Finland, Kadirova scored one and assisted on another to tie things up, then potted the winner with three seconds to play. She was duly invited to the full Russian team for the “main” World Championship, despite being only 16 years old at the time. And Kadirova was at work today, too — it was her goal that triggered Arktik-Universitet’s attempted comeback against Dynamo in the third, and she assisted on her team’s second as well.
This is a young, young, bunch in Ukhta this season. Forward Tatyana Leushina, at 23, is the oldest player on the roster, and fellow-forward Diana Zhalimova will not turn 15 until November. Mid-table respectability is probably the best Arktik-Universitet can hope for this season, but with Kadirova in the lineup they are capable of surprises on any given day.
Biryusa Krasnoyarsk: Biryusa went a solid 18-14 last season, finishing fifth in the then nine-team league, and mid-table is their likely landing-spot again in 2015-16. The team, affiliated with VHL side Sokol Krasnoyarsk, does have some very interesting players. The veteran leadership will be provided by 36-year-old forward Oksana Tretyakova, whose resume includes 13 World Championship appearances and two trips to the Olympics. Biryusa also will rely heavily on the scoring ability of Valeriya Pavlova. The 20-year-old saw some time at the most recent World Championship on the top line with Olga Sosina (see above) and the University of Calgary’s Iya Gavrilova, so she is obviously on the national team radar.
In the “interesting coincidences” file, we have one of the team’s netminders, Milena Tretyak. As far as I can tell, she is not related to Vladislav, although she was one of six goalies invited to a master-class given by the man himself this past summer.
Dynamo St. Petersburg: Affiliated with KHL giants Dynamo Moscow (and with the Dynamo St. Petersburg MHL team), this squad is unlikely to seriously challenge for the women’s league title, but will prove a tricky opponent for just about anybody. One of the reasons: goaltending depth. Dynamo started the season today with Mariya Sorokina between the pipes, after she made her first World Championship appearances for Russia this past spring. She did decently well there too — a .907 save percentage over four games. Along with Sorokina, Dynamo have a well-known goaltending figure in Anna Prugova. Prugova was a regular on the Russian national team through the first part of this decade, although she fell off the map a bit last season and has not represented her country since the Sochi Olympics. However, she is still only 21, just a year older than Sorokina, so there is a lot of time for things to turn around for her. Among other national team veterans on the Dynamo roster is forward Yekaterina Smolina, who has been to the Olympics twice and the World Championships six times.
SKIF Nizhny Novgorod: Reigning champions of Europe*, , SKIF have some questions needing answers as the season begins. For one, and it is a big one, how on Earth are they going to replace the above-discussed Olga Sosina? Well, they are probably going to go through a bit a of a re-building season. There are some good players on the roster, such as forward Yelena Silina and blueliner Mariya Pechnikova, and SKIF should be good for a top-three finish, but at this point I would be a bit surprised if they win the league.
That said, keep an eye on the goalies in Nizhny Novgorod, because SKIF have, perhaps, both the future and the past of Russian women’s netminding. At the young end of the scale, we have 17-year-old Valeriya Tarakanova, who was a huge, huge, part of the Russia’s bronze medal win at this year’s U18 World Championship (like Fanuza Kadirova, she was subsequently selected for the main IIHF World Championship). In a couple of seasons here, or maybe sooner, Tarakanova is going to have a very loud voice in the argument over who should be Russia’s number one choice in net, and it would be a brave bettor who lay down a large amount against her winning that debate. To mentor Tarakanova and SKIF’s two other young netminders, the team has retained the services of the legendary Irina Gashennikova, who played her first game for team Russia back in 2000. Gashennikova, now 40, is on SKIF’s books as an active player, and it would be great fun to see her get some ice-time this season.
SKSO Yekaterinburg: The “SKSO,” incidentally, stands for “Sbornaya Komanda Sverdlovskoi Oblasti” — “Representative Team of Sverdlovsk Oblast.” I confess to some ignorance about SKSO, which is a new club formed from the ashes of departed Spartak-Merkury Yekaterinburg and includes a number of players from that team. Spartak-Merkury were once among the best Russian teams, and in fact won the championship in 1999-2000. However, the last two seasons saw them compile a ghastly overall record of 1-71, with that lone victory coming via a shootout in 2013-14. Last year, Spartak-Merkury went 0-32 (all losses in regulation) and were outscored 250-35 — and they did despite having a very decent goaltender in Yulia Leskina! Not good at all, to say the least, and any improvement on that by the new club will be welcome indeed.
SKSO lost their first game today, 6-2 to Tornado, although losing to the defending champions is no sin at all. Both Yekaterinburg goals came off the stick of Yekaterina Skorodumova, heavily suggesting that we should keep an eye on her as the season goes along. Another SKSO player who will prove very important is goalie Anna Vinogradova, who was on the Russian team at Sochi although, as the third-choice netminder, she ended up not seeing any game action.
Tornado Moscow Oblast: We finish up with the defending champions of Russia, appropriately enough. Tornado, who play in Dmitrov just north of Moscow, actually suffered a bit of a financial scare over the summer, and nearly folded. However, the team was not only rescued, but managed to preserve most of the roster that went 28-4 last season and outscored the opposition by more than five goals per game. They have to begin the season as favourites to repeat as champions.
With that kind of production, it is really not fair to pick just one or two players to pay attention to — the roster is full of Russian national team regulars. However, I am going to be unfair, and suggest that you take particular note of 18-year-old forward Anna Shokhina. Shokhina scored 37-44-81 in 32 games last year, and captained the bronze-medal Russian U18-squad. I would not — quite yet — put her ahead of Sosina as far as “best Russian player in the world” is concerned (Iya Gavrilova is in that conversation as well), but it is close, and it will be enormous fun to watch the two of them go head-to-head in the league this year. Shokhina is off to a fine start, with a goal and two assists in the season-opener against SKSO Yekaterinburg.
So roll on, the new season! As noted, I think we have to say that the defending champions have every shot at a repeat title, at least until someone proves otherwise. Normally, it would be SKIF providing the biggest challenge, and the Nizhny Novgorod side won a championship of their own in 2013-14, but my guess is that it will be Agidel posing the biggest threat to Tornado this season. We will check back in frequently, and in the meantime, a reminder that there are useful links for following the league in the second paragraph of this article!
* Sadly, the European Women’s Champions Cup tournament — a truly fine IIHF competition involving women’s clubs from all over the continent — will not take place this season due to sponsorship issues. It will be missed!