Photos of our #17 Yekaterina “Katya” Smolentseva wearing her number for Team Russia. 📸: Russian Hockey Federation

YEKATERINA SMOLENTSEVA: Hockey’s Catherine the Great

It was two and a hałf centuries ago that Catherine the Great,  Empress of Russia, refused the entreaties from Great Britain to aid them in quelling a rebellion in one of their far off colonies. The one that contained the state of  Connecticut. She refused, and in fact sought to mediate an end to the hostilities. It was almost three years ago that our Connecticut Whale faced off in an exhibition series against Team Russia, and a different Catherine the Great, on the ice at the Northford Ice Pavilion. The Whale won the first match 3-2 (besting future Whale #69 Maria Sorokina) and Team Russia took the second. In that 2nd pre-season game, played September 29th, the Russian squad prevailed 3-2. Of particular note, that victory was in large part due to the play of Catherine the Great, our former #17, OW Yekaterina “Katya” Smolentseva. Katya, who chipped in a goal and an assist in that game, was one of the most high profile and successful women’s hockey players in the world, And she became part of the Pod in our inaugural season, scoring three goals and registering five assists. We recently had the pleasant opportunity to reminisce with Katya about her remarkable career and her historic journey to Connecticut.

Katya was born in Pervouralsk, a town just to the west of Yekaterinburg, that straddles the accepted boundary between Europe and Asia. We asked Katya how her hockey career got started, and she replied “I started to play sports at the age of three, rhythmic gymnastics for two years, and volleyball between the ages of seven to nine. I started playing hockey at the age of 9, in 1991 we did not have women's ice hockey in Russia, so I started playing ringball. In 1993, when the Olympic Committee decided to include in the Winter Olympics women's hockey with the puck, almost the whole country began to change the ball for the puck, and that's how I found myself in ice hockey. And in 1995 I got to the training camp for the first time with the National Team of Russia.” Katya continued, describing her early hockey experience, saying “We trained two to three times a week, then trained all the rest of the time ourselves, We have a men's team in Russian hockey in the city, and so there is a big open winter stadium, where I honed my skills seven times a week. Uralochka Hockey School was what the team was called, and on the team we had 12 players. We played in the tournament called Golden Puck. Now there is still a team there, but the girls are much more embraced than before. In Yekaterinburg at the moment there is a team that participates in the EUHL, but unfortunately the level of players is weak.”

Cetacean Nation wondered at what point Katya realized she had the talent to play on the National Team. Her answer reveals a lot of what makes her special.”What I understood when I was 25-26 years old was until that time I just liked to train and improve. I watched a lot of hockey matches in the men's league and tried to repeat what they did. I didn't think about being talented, If it wasn't for my hard work, I wouldn't be playing just on my one talent.” That attitude, work ethic and toughness translated into some gaudy stats in Russian league play in the Zhenskaya Hockey League. As a center over her 128 game career in the ZHL, she scored 331 points, on a near perfect blend of 167 goals and 164 assists. On the world stage, she added another forty points in World Championship play, and fourteen over four different Olympic years.

When we asked about Katya’s favorite hockey memory from her years representing her country, she unhesitatingly pointed back to Salt Lake City in 2002 for the Olympic half of her reply.  She told us ”The  most vivid impressions of my first Olympics in 2002, was when I came to the first game realized that I was very a happy person. We received a. very warm welcome in the Olympic Village, and for the first time in my life, I saw famous athletes. We went and we looked like icons too.” And referring to the World Championships she replied “And the most memorable for me was the IIHF World Championship in 2013 in Ottawa. After twelve years, we again climbed the pedestal! We had a super coaching staff, and all who worked for our team worked forthe same goal. We were youthful but grew strong, and as a captain, I had to be a liaison, and I handled that role.” And she led her Russian squad to the Bronze Medal, tying for the team lead in points and goals.

The next year, Katya played in her final Olympiad with Team Russia. And shortly thereafter the NWHL appeared on the scene. Katya explained how she got involved, and came to be a member of the Pod. She revealed “When I completed the Olympics in 2014, after 9 months I gave birth to a daughter. I decided to take a break from my career, and in the summer of 2015 I decided to start training again, and I heard about the NWHL called Iya Gavrilova (a former teammate and CWHL player who,played college hockey in North America) I asked everyone to find out what kind of league it is. A week later I got a call from the manager of the Whales team, Harry Rosenholtz, and three months later I flew to Stamford, a wonderful place! Harry is a professional!!! He helped me and my family in everything” Katya added “When I arrived I was very surprised that the team does not have its own locker room! We in Russia, in the EUHL have completely different conditions. The team has its own locker room, we are given all the uniforms, we are fed, dressed, and paid more in Russia. But I did not go to your league for the fact that I would earn, I just wanted to see why you play hockey so well, and learn, but it really did not happen. Two training sessions a week for one hour is very little. In Russia we are used to fact that we are trained passionately” Katya further offered “I wish the NWHL prosperity, and success in attracting sponsors.”  Katya also stressed the importance of the Olympic Games in helping women's hockey flourish, and added “I see progress in our country. A larger number of children and adults are coming to women's hockey games, and it pleases me.”

We wrapped things up with Katya by asking about what is happening currently with her and her family. She replied she is no longer competing,  and laughingly said  “Now I am a housewife, but in my spare time I give private lessons in skating” And she added ”My son Danila plays at the SpartakIa School.We talk a lot, and we work on the ice, but my dad is a hockey coach with a ball (ball hockey coach) and he deals with that aspect of it with him. Danila loves hockey, and this is the most important thing!  The rest will work itself out. Also, my daughter is four and a half, and she's already skating”

Katya played in two more World Championships for Russia (2016,2017) after the conclusion of the historic first NWHL season. She hung up her skates in 2017 after scoring forty-nine points in thirty games in her final Russian league season. Katya scored her first Whale goal against the Riveters, notched her first assist against the Pride and made her first visit to Whale Jail against the Beauts. She is an important part of Whale history, of Russian hockey history, and of all women’s sports history. Fins Up to our amazing Yekaterina Smolentseva, our Catherine the Great. 

Team Russia photo credits JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/AFP/Getty Images)