Innocent curiosity over a friend’s social media post led to an overnight offer in Russia’s WHL, a league the twenty-nine-year-old American forward had never heard of up until that point. With barely a moment’s trepidation, the former NWHL All-Star packed her bags and relocated her hockey career to the subarctic city of Ukhta, Russia—all the result of an invitation from former Gorny import Tatiana Rafter, an opportunity she neither sought nor ever expected.
Now a two-time WHL All Star who finished the season just shy of a playoff spot, Williams has embraced her Russian adventure with open arms. Her two-year stint has included Gorny’s relocation from Ukhta to Saint Petersburg, and a developing passion for and mastery of the Russian language—a feat rarely conquered by the country’s import hockey talent.
I caught up with Williams during quarantine, where she is currently bunkered down with Dynamo Saint Petersburg’s Masha Pugina. She shared her experience living with a Russian family, her transition to the WHL, and how she is coaching hockey players around the world from “home.”
Gillian Kemmerer (GK): You have been stationed in Nizhny Novgorod since the start of quarantine—how did you wind up there?
Hayley Williams (HW): I have a friend who plays for Dynamo Saint Petersburg [Masha Pugina] and she was kind enough to invite me into her home knowing that I would be stranded in Russia! I could fend for myself for sure, but it’s better to have a friend or family during this time. I got lucky.
GK: Is this your first experience living with a Russian family?
HW: I have been to a couple of friends’ homes, but only for maybe a night or two. This is an extended stay for sure, and they have been really hospitable. They call me a part of the family, and I can come and go as I please. They cook for me and I cook for them sometimes. They asked me to cook a true American dish, so I decided on fajitas!
GK: Your Russian must be improving a great deal. You are one of the few expat hockey players I’ve encountered who has taken such a serious approach to learning the language.
HW: As I sit at the dinner table and we are just talking, sometimes I think, “Wow—how can I understand everything they’re saying?” It’s just from the immersion that I am learning, and I really like it a lot!
I downloaded DuoLingo, which is just a free phone app, when I first arrived because I didn’t know any Russian. I made [learning the language] one of my big goals for being here, and I’ve been in Russia for two years now. After my first year, one of my motivators for coming back was the language. I had already made so much progress, and I knew that if I didn’t come back, I would lose it. We had myself and one other Canadian last year, but this year I am the only North American. There is only one other English speaker on the team, Sasha Vafina.
I knew that it was sink or swim—either I was going to learn this language, or I was going to be an outsider. People often say, “What was your hardest adjustment…besides the language barrier?” It is always slipped in nonchalantly or brushed aside. And I’m like, “That was exactly the biggest adjustment!”
GK: With the exception of the KRS Vanke Rays who formerly played in a North American league, there are not many expats in the WHL. How did you first decide to come to Russia?
HW: I was all set to play for Toronto again in the CWHL the year I came to Russia. My friend [Tatiana Rafter] who I played with on the Buffalo Beauts in 2015-2016, she had posted on her Instagram story, “Who wants to go play overseas with me?” I didn’t have any intention of going, I just was curious and interested in what she was doing. When I reached out, she said, “Oh my gosh, you’d be perfect!” [Laughs] And I was like, “That’s not what I was asking you!”
She asked for my email address and wanted to send me information to think over. I went to sleep that night, and woke up to more than just information. The agent that she was working with had left a contract offer in my email. I looked it over and it was a KHL contract, ready to be signed.
When I read it, I thought, “There’s no way this is true. I’ve never even heard of the Russian Women’s Hockey League. It’s too good to be true—how could they have offered me a contract like this when nobody even knows about this league?” I called my parents and told them I had this offer in Russia, and forwarded the email so that they could take a look. After a day or two, my Mom texted me and said, “I really think you need to go to Russia!” I decided in three or four days maximum that I was going to do it, and this was in the beginning of August with the season starting soon. I don’t know what inside of me decided to do it, because a lot of people would have been hesitant or scared. I just didn’t feel that way at all, especially when my Mom was like, “Just go do it!”
GK: SK Gorny posted its best performance in team history this season, just shy of a playoff spot. Looking back—what went right, and what went wrong?
HW: The first season that I was here, there was a very big transition for everybody. Gorny used to be located in Ukhta, in the Komi Republic, for the last six or seven years. There was a core group of girls who were living in Ukhta and playing for what was then-called Arctic University.
My first season here, we switched locations to Saint Petersburg mid-season. On November 30, we got on the train from Ukhta for twenty-six hours with all of our things. Some people had their dogs, their cats! When you do that in the middle of the season, you are going to have to adjust.
Arctic University was always one of the bottom of the pack—fifth, sixth, seventh place. Not really a chance to make the playoffs, and they found that out early in the season. But this past year, we came down to the last game of the regular season. If we had won that game, we would have made playoffs, which was the best that the team has ever done. We ended up in fifth place. All in all, from my experience, everything has progressed. There is a shift within the team because in the past, there was a no-hope mentality. And this year, we came together as a team and did what we could to make the playoffs. Next season will just be better.
GK: Did you have expectations on the league and its competitiveness before arrival?
HW: I didn’t know what to expect—I had never even heard of the WHL. I knew that there was a national team here for the girls, but that was pretty much it. I thought I was going to come over here and completely dominate the league, to be honest. This was an ignorant thought to have, but I didn’t know what I was walking into and I thought the hockey wasn’t going to be that great.
When I first got to Ukhta, I watched a few practices and was like, “Oh shoot! I wasn’t prepared for this!” I was a little bit nervous to get on the ice with the girls because they’re fast, they’re skilled, they’re dedicated, they’re hard-working. It was not what I expected. Overall, the skill level is great in Russian hockey and I think it’s awesome.
The expectation for a foreigner is a lot more than for a Russian player. My first year, I had 19 points out of 35 games, a little over half of a point per game. That was not acceptable because I am a foreigner, and I should have had two points per game. As the season went on and I wasn’t getting two points, I was hearing it from the coaches! They were saying that I needed to be twice as good as the rest of the team.
GK: I recently interviewed Avangard head coach Bob Hartley, and he echoed those sentiments from the KHL side. Imports are expected to produce.
HW: This was something that I wasn’t expecting. I flew from America to live in a foreign country, and everything was new. I’m not using that as an excuse, but it was going to impact my performance on the ice. I’ve always been more of a team-mentality: “How are we going to score more goals together?” But once I started realizing that I needed to be an impact point-producer kind of player, things started to change. This season, I increased my points per game by 30% or so. I still did not score two points per game [laughs] but progress is progress, and I ended the season with a plus-rating!
GK: You started your own coaching platform. How are you coaching students around the world from Nizhny Novgorod?
HW: My hockey development business has a few different aspects to it, and one is on-ice camps. Right now, I have two planned for Buffalo and Toronto in June and July. I don’t know if they will be happening. The other part is off-ice training programs, strength and conditioning. Most of it is online at this point because I am in Russia. I’ve been making programs for hockey athletes to do at the gym on their own, and giving them feedback.
My virtual hockey training was a spur-of-the-moment thought. I’m in a few groups online and people were asking for suggestions on how to train right now since they can’t go to the rink. I started thinking that there were options available and that I could help with that. When I saw that people were having family trivia nights on Zoom and happy hours, I decided to use it to help keep my business going and support the players I work with. I texted a bunch of parents and kids I knew, and there was a lot of interest. The first few days it felt very strange, but we just finished our third week and it has been awesome. We trained five days per week—going through mobility, stability, strength and core workouts, and then 30-40 minutes of stick skills. We will probably get a couple more months in like this, and they are really dedicated athletes.
GK: I’ve heard from a few hockey players that without the on-ice component, they have been forced to tackle things that they usually ignored or dreaded. I can imagine positive gains stemming from this.
HW: I totally agree. There’s a gym in the house I am staying at right now, so I am able to do my fitness component. With this virtual training, I am basically doing follow-along. I’m doing this now as a coach, but it’s totally helping my stick skills too.
GK: Did you have a hockey idol growing up, and given your passion for coaching, is there a particular coach you admire now?
HW: Growing up, my hockey idol would have been Cammi Granato—captain of the Olympic Team. Everyone who loves hockey wants to be captain of the Olympic Team, so it’s easy to look up to someone who is that. I didn’t become the captain, but I did find that I achieved more goals than I would have ever expected.
I have a couple of coaching mentors that are really awesome. Their names are Dan Garner and Kevin McClelland. They are strength and conditioning coaches who run hockeytraining.com. When I really started dedicating myself to my off-ice work for my own personal growth, this is where I started. I found that I made a lot of improvements from their program. They created a certified hockey training specialist course and I am taking that right now. They’ve mentored me both as a player and now as a coach.
GK: Do you have a favorite Russian food, and favorite Russian word?
HW: Well, I love borscht! I have heard that’s a very lovable dish for foreigners when they come to Russia. For somebody reading this who doesn’t know, it’s a soup made of beets. We did a class in Saint Petersburg where we learned to make borscht, but I wasn’t really paying attention because I was just waiting to eat it! [Laughs] So I can’t tell you what exactly is in there.
My favorite Russian word is кайф. It basically means euphoria, or when you feel on a high. I heard that word once and it’s my favorite. During my workout, it’s like—“Oh, I’m feeling the energy…кайф!”