The Czech Republic men’s hockey team won Olympic Gold in Nagano when Mills was only seven. Their victory was a first at the Winter Games since the dissolution of Czechoslovakia in 1993. Mills recalls this moment with pride, categorizing the thrilling final versus Russia as “a moment that will always be talked about.” Her most vivid memory, however, is not of the squad itself—a pantheon of hockey gods from Dominik Hasek to Jaromir Jagr—but rather of her imitation of them, a community-wide affair that took place between every period. Running outside of their apartment blocks with hockey sticks and tennis balls, the children of her neighborhood would do their best impressions of the podium-topping heroics on display. Now, twenty-two years later, Mills is on a quest to secure an Olympic spot for the Czech women’s team. She has become the example, no longer the imitation.
Mills made her WHL debut in 2014 with Dynamo Saint Petersburg, and later moved to league champions Agidel in 2018. She won her first Russian Championship with Ufa last season, and again returned to the finals this spring in a tough loss to league debutantes the KRS Shenzhen Vanke Rays. A former NCAA athlete for the Brown Bears, Mills speaks three languages and holds an Ivy League degree—not to mention a World Championship title in roller hockey. We caught up this week regarding her WHL season, 2022 Olympic dreams and more.
Gillian Kemmerer (GK): The cancellation of Worlds was a huge blow to the hockey world, and I know you were aiming for Olympic qualification. How have you and your Czech teammates dealt with the decision?
Alena Mills (AM): My husband follows the news well and then tells me what he hears. I was afraid that things were moving toward this direction [of cancellation]. When it happened, a lot of my teammates were really upset, including me, about not having the opportunity to repeat our result from last year or doing even better—which was our goal. Qualifying [for the Olympics] directly from the rankings. That was unfortunate, I don’t even know how to explain it.
Now as more time has passed, yes, we could have done better than last year—but that wasn’t assured. There is no guarantee that we would have done better or the same. We have a good spot for [Olympic] qualification—we have good teams in our group, but we don’t have Switzerland like four years back, or eight years back when we had Germany. There were always two very strong teams in one group, but now that’s not the case. We do feel that we have a very good chance and obviously we will work toward that goal. That’s the biggest dream of every girl who plays hockey.
GK: Saint Petersburg, like much of the world, is under quarantine right now. Are you able to maintain your fitness level with limited access to ice and other resources?
AM: Definitely no ice right now. That’s unfortunate, and I hope the measures will ease up. I usually try to stay away from the ice anyway after the season for some time and do off-ice training. We own a set of kettlebells and I have been using them. I am so happy we have them because it allows me to stay in a routine—I wake up, hang out around the apartment and then workout. I usually start my day with a workout, although my days take a while to get started because I’m not a morning person! That’s helping me to stay in shape a lot.
I’ve actually expanded more with training because of the limited space and resources. Yes, I would love to go to the gym or get on the ice in a week or two, but I am also trying to take advantage of the things I now have time for. Mobility, things like that, I usually ignore during the season—or I use the excuse of not having time. I’ve been using this time to focus on mobility which is one of my biggest weaknesses, or one of the things I need to dedicate more time to.
GK: The 2020 WHL Finals did not go the way Agidel would have hoped, and certainly not the way regular season play might have predicted. When you look back at the Vanke Rays during the regular season versus post-season, what made the difference?
AM: Yes, in the season, we were more dominant, but they got together as a team later in the year so it was expected that they would get better every month, every game. I don’t want to use this as an excuse, but it’s a fact that we were missing some of our strongest players due to injuries. That didn’t help us. Yes, it was a sweep, we lost three games…but I don’t feel like we got swept. I don’t feel like we didn’t have a chance at all. We needed to score a few more goals, which is obviously very difficult against Noora Räty. She is a great goalie, and we knew that. In the second game, we needed a bit more time to score a few more goals. We always started scoring later in the game which I think made it harder for us. But I don’t have the feeling that we didn’t stand a chance. Being on the ice, the second two games felt even. It was up and down, it was interesting, it was good hockey. I think it was fun for the fans to watch.
GK: With the injury to Maria Batalova, you were moved to defense.
AM: I grew up as a defenseman, and it has been a common theme on my past teams. Whether it was in Dynamo [Saint Petersburg] or the Czech national team, I often moved to defense if there was the need. Even last year, there were some games when I moved to defense. I wish I had played forward because I could have helped our team a little more on offense, but it was hard with Batalova being hurt. She is a great player and we were definitely missing her. She could have made a big difference for us.
GK: The smoothness of your transition to the blue line brought Sergei Fedorov to mind.
AM: [Laughs] Thank you, that’s a huge compliment!
GK: Did Agidel have a chance to reflect on the Finals, or is that a conversation you are saving for next season?
AM: We had some time-off as a team to talk. I don’t know if there will be changes coming from the staff, but as far as our conversations, we felt like the Vanke Rays were well-coached and they had prepared for us. They were able to use their system against ours better, so we were saying we may have to make changes in regards to our systems, change our forecheck here and there, or neutral zone positioning. There are little places where we can adjust our tactics to be better-prepared and to do well in the future against them or any team.
GK: The youngest players on your squad are just fifteen years old. Is the integration of age and skill-level difficult?
AM: I have always enjoyed working with some of our younger kids. Whether it’s on Agidel or my national team, if I’m going to do stick-handling or shooting, I always ask if they want to join. I love growing the game and sharing some of the things I learned during my hockey life. For me, it’s something I enjoy and in Agidel, we have a good balance of younger and older kids. Those younger kids need a little more help or push to continue growing. On our team, they have a good chance of getting ice time and developing—so in a few years, they could be really good.
GK: How active is NHL and KHL veteran Alexander Semak in your on-ice activity?
AM: It depends on where we are during the season, but he sometimes does come on to the ice. He will run drills, or sometimes he works with the younger kids after team practice. During games, because he sits in the stands, he is able to see the game from up top, which allows him to have a better understanding of what’s happening. When you’re standing on the bench or when you’re playing, you may not see some of the things that you see from the stands. He will come into the locker room between periods and give us the insights from what he saw. It’s really constructive to have those eyes out, so I would say he is pretty involved in the hockey side.
GK: You impersonated Jaromir Jagr at the WHL All Star Weekend skills competition, and the hair in particular was unforgettable! Any feedback from the man himself?
AM: It was really hard to find the wig actually! [Laughs] Someone told me [Jagr] commented on Instagram, “Too bad he didn’t score!” Or something like that. I commented back, “Maybe you need to teach me how to do that!” I had fun doing it—obviously he’s a great hockey player who deserves a lot of respect. He played well in whichever league he was in. I just wanted to give tribute to him for all he’s done in hockey—whether for our country, the NHL, or the KHL. I had fun the whole weekend.
GK: Speaking of Jagr, what influence did the Czech Republic’s hockey victory at the 1998 Nagano Olympics have on your hockey career?
AM: My family lived in an apartment building, and all of the kids from the apartment played street hockey. When we were watching the final game, in between periods, we would run outside, grab our hockey sticks, a tennis ball and act out the goals or some of the plays. I will never forget this! The whole neighborhood, you could hear any time we scored, it was like “GOAAAAL!” That’s how I remember it—everyone watching hockey, that game.
I was only eight years old, and looking back I think we were such silly kids. But it definitely motivated us and we wanted to do what those players did. I remember being a kid and wanting to play in the NHL, not realizing as a girl that I couldn’t really do that! That was my childhood, and the Olympics were huge all around our country. Something that will always be talked about.
GK: You played field hockey, ice hockey and lacrosse in high school. Do you think multi-sport training improved your performance on the ice?
AM: That’s a great question. I would definitely say in my early childhood, and also in high school, it helped. It also meant that every time I got onto the ice, I was really excited. I did miss not having hockey all year round, especially my first year coming into high school [in the States]. I didn’t know much English, and I was told that hockey was only a winter trimester sport, but I didn’t understand.
There was a list of other sports—field hockey, cross country. I didn’t know what field hockey was, but it had the word “hockey” and I was going to play it! I showed up to the first practice and all of the sticks were righty, but I am a lefty. I looked at the goalies and that seemed similar to [ice] hockey so I thought, “I’ll be a goalie!”
As far as lacrosse, I actually think it did help. It was fun to have the hockey off-season to play different sports. Back home, I play floorball and I did track and field when I was younger. Playing all of those different sports helps you with reading body language, awareness on the ice later on. The short answer is yes.
GK: Your husband is from Alaska! How did a Czech hockey player meet an Alaskan English teacher in Saint Petersburg, Russia? It is quite the international love story.
AM: It was my first year in Russia. I knew some basic Russian, but after having lived in North America for eight years, I had gotten used to being comfortable, knowing the language, knowing where to go. Then I came to Russia, and suddenly my teammates were laughing at my terrible Russian. But because I had already managed two languages to near native-level—Czech and English—I didn’t enjoy someone laughing at me! I was 23, not 15 like when I arrived in the States.
I started looking for anyone who I could speak English with and came across an [expat] forum about ice hockey/roller hockey. I got in touch with an English teacher who was a huge hockey fan, and he connected me with the other native English speakers teaching in Saint Petersburg—my now husband was one of them. I met Tom at his birthday party. He had a balloon tied to his pants and I didn’t know it was his birthday, so I was like, “Who is this weird guy?” He was the first one who came to our games and now it’s all history. He started learning more about women’s hockey, loving it, watching it, and he brought more people to our games.
GK: Lastly, if you could have one hope fulfilled for the future generation of women’s hockey players, what would it be?
AM: I went to the States for high school and stayed for NCAA, and as I was finishing college and making decisions, I was actually talking to a friend who coached women’s hockey in Australia. I thought about going there and just having fun, or coming to Russia where I finally could focus on hockey—dedicate all of my time to it. So I would say, if I could have one thing for young female players, it is a good women’s league to play in wherever they are from. It helps if it is professional, if it has resources so that the girls can focus on hockey and dedicate more time to training because they are financially covered. A lot of players after NCAA are debating where they want to go, and when I came to Russia, I loved the WHL. I wish a league like this existed in more countries.