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. 

ADDENDUM 2/3/20 

In his largely forgotten poem (except for this verse) “The Ballad of the East and West” Rudysrd Kipling wrote “East is East and West Is West and never the twain shall meet.” Seems like that is the case far too often, even today. However, sixty three years after Kipling’s work, Pierre Boulle opened his co-seminal work (Planet of the Apes being his other) “The Bridge Over the River Kwai”, with more hopeful words: “Maybe the unbridgeable gulf that some see separating the western and the oriental souls are nothing more than a mirage?” At least perhaps, and we’d like to think so. So would our former #17, Yekaterina Smolentseva, who recently was involved in the World Hockey Forum in Moscow. Katya was born in the area of Russia that historically had divided the the Oriental, and the Occidental as East and West were so referred to in the past. So Cetacean Nation was pleased when Katya graciously shared with us, some of her experiences as an official organizer of the event, which promotes the sport of hockey worldwide.

The IV World Hockey Forum took place in Moscow, Russia between December 13-19 last year. Since it’s inception, the Forum has brought together members of the ice hockey community worldwide, including the sport’s national governing bodies, educational and scientific, and league representatives among others. The Forum is a platform for addressing a wide range of issues and topics, from safety to competition, to business and financial aspects of the sport. This year’s program featured an emphasis on various aspects of women's ice hockey, focusing on growth and development. Participants discussed the possibilities and prospects for growing support and enabling development. Growing the game for soecifically youngsters (International Little Future Draft Picks) was also on the agenda, a topic of special interest to Katya. She had told us previously of her own experience “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.” She has told us that today, female players are “more embraced”, and she hopes to keep that trend going. So Cetacean Nation asked Katya about the Forum goals that were of most interest to her and she told us “The issues of refereeing, and in general the development of all hockey in the world which were touched upon. The goals were different for everyone, (but for me) it is for women's hockey, the goal is the most important to date. To attract more girls to engage in hockey. Many are just afraid or shy. Parents do not all want to give hockey to their girls, saying it is not a women's sport. We do not need these stereotypes!”

Katya continued “Organizers of children's tier hockey were present, and also offered their methods for the development of the sport. My role was to tell how I achieved such results as I did in my career. My favorite part of the forum is the coaching seminar. There were coaches from different countries, but I can not say who I liked more, everyone talked about their theories and shared their methods of training young athletes. Of course, if every year we will attract more people to engage in hockey, then that in itself will cause further development.In our country (Russia) now, a lot of time and effort is devoted to the development of women's hockey, and that makes me happy!”

We asked Katya about the likelihood of more Russian women coming over to play in the NWHL and she was skeptical of a large influx in the near future. “The conditions that exist in the league would not be conducive for Russian players. Many could play there, but the financial problem prevents the girls from playing with you.” She knows this is something that has really started to grow this season, and Katya offered “I wish the NWHL prosperity, and success in attracting sponsors.”

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