There’s yet another exclamation point to the New York Riveters’ offseason. Lyudmila Belyakova, the team’s star Russian forward from the 2015-16 season, will not be returning to the team or the NWHL next season.
In an exclusive email interview with Excelle Sports, Belyakova discussed how she approached the general managers of the NWHL looking for a new contract. She was met with silence.
“New York Riveters has not done me any contract,” Belyakova shared. (It should be noted, of course, that English is not Belyakova’s first language.) “After I received the status of a free agent, I sent letters to the managers of all league clubs, but received no offers for the contract. Apparently my game is not suited to them.”
— Victor Belyakov (@belyakov21) April 5, 2016
Given Belyakova’s speed, puck skills and possession numbers, it’s hard to imagine that her game is not suited for any of the NWHL’s four teams.
For many criticizing Riveters head coach Chad Wiseman’s decisions during the inaugural season, Lyudmila Belyakova and her questionable deployment became a symbol of everything going wrong. After starting the season on the first line with Brooke Ammerman and Madison Packer, Belyakova shortly found herself seeing limited power play time and skating on the Riveters’ third line. Criticism and skepticism of Wiseman quickly followed that demotion and amplified as the club struggled its way through a 4-12-2 inaugural season.
According to Carolyn Wilke’s NWHL analytics project, Belyakova was New York’s best possession player at even strength by a wide margin. She was also the best Riveter at creating scoring chances at even strength. So why did she see such a limited role in New York, a team that was desperate for offense, and why wasn’t she offered a contract from any of the NWHL’s teams?
The best explanation for her limited role with the Riveters under Wiseman and the lack of offers for a second NWHL contract is the language barrier. The communication gap between Lyudmila Belyakova and the New York Riveters made life difficult both on and off the ice for everyone involved.
NWHL Language Barrier
One clear example of that language barrier was witnessed during the infamous line brawl between New York and Connecticut. Belaykova’s frequent linemate Beth Hanrahan had to resort to physically dragging her teammate away from the altercation because, one can safely assume, she was unable to communicate with her.
Despite also not being an English-speaker, Belyakova’s teammate Nana Fujimoto had a very different experience in the NWHL. The Japanese-speaking goaltender had the spotlight on her from the moment she stepped onto the ice last summer at the NWHL’s international camp. She also had the league and her team, which had league commissioner Dani Rylan as its general manager last season, take specific measures to ensure her comfort and success on the ice and in front of the media.
Fujimoto had a league-employed translator present for postgame interviews, something that neither Belyakova or fellow Russian Yekaterina Smolentseva (who played with the Whale last season) were provided.
When asked if the league ever made translators available to her, Belyakova made the situation she dealt with last season perfectly clear.
“No, the league did not provided,” Belyakova said. “I had to communicate itself, or ask for help from my friends.”
The NWHL was reached for comment about providing or employing translators for its Russian players. The league’s director of communications/PR, Savanna Arral, responded, “We didn’t employ them, but Luda and Katia had a friend that came to games and practices, and would translate for them during media interviews and emails.
I also made it a point to never put Luda [Belyakova] or Katia [Smolentseva] in front of media without a translator (unless they requested it), and had multiple conversations with them to make sure they were comfortable with any media they did do.”
The league’s tight budget almost certainly made providing hired interpreters for Belyakova and Katia Smolentseva of the Connecticut Whale unrealistic and unaffordable. The interest from Japanese television and their presence at New York’s games, the Riveters’ trip to Japan and the media appeal of Fujimoto made the decision of which player(s) should have a translator an easy one.
As Rylan pointed out when the team signed the star goaltender, “It’s impossible not to fall in love with Nana Fujimoto.” The face of “Smile Japan” was also the focus of most of the Riveters’ social media promotion. Throughout the 2015-16 season, including the several weeks she missed due to injury, Fujimoto was the face of the franchise. This is likely why the league and the Riveters made sure to provide resources to Fujimoto that they did not provide to Belyakova.
A goaltender’s role and position is unique, and a communication barrier may prove more of an obstacle for a goalie than a skater. Goaltenders only interact and confer with their coaches during stoppages and intermission, but must be able to organize their defense on the ice. Skaters can and sometimes do hear from their coaches after every shift, but also need to build chemistry with their linemates.
Still, the extra measures taken off the ice by the league showed a clear prioritization of Fujimoto over the NWHL’s other international players.
What is next for Belyakova?
Would Belyakova be returning to New York or the NWHL next season if she received similar treatment to Fujimoto? We will never know.
For now, her focus is on her national team’s camp that will take place from June 22nd to July 14th. After that, it appears that the most likely next step for Belyakova will be playing organized hockey back in her homeland. Back in March she spoke to Seth Berkman of the New York Times for his article on international players and said that media coverage of the league was almost nonexistent.
“Currently, I am still a free agent, and has not yet entered into any contracts for the upcoming season,” Belyakova explained. “In Russia I have several offers from clubs women’s hockey league, but I’m open to any suggestions and ready to deal with them.”
Last season Belyakova made $20,000, which made her one of New York’s three highest-paid players and one of just 15 players in the league who made at least $20,000. Playing primarily on the third line, and despite her ice time, lack of offensive zone starts, and limited power play appearances she had 10 points in 15 games for the Riveters. Clearly, she was still valuable to her team despite not being fluent in English.
But that language barrier is also a major contributing factor to her not receiving a contract offer from the NWHL’s four general managers. Her inability to communicate with her coaching staff, her teammates, and the media makes her a risky investment despite her undeniable talent and potential.
What Belyakova’s experience as a non-English speaking player means for the future of other international players in the NWHL is still uncertain. One thing is clear though; more needs to be done for players from outside of North America after they sign in the NWHL. Whether the league reaches a point to have the financial stability that would make those extra measures possible remains to be seen.