By Rich Myhre Herald Writer
EDMONDS — For as long as she can remember, Katy Walker has loved hockey. She started playing as a young girl growing up in Edmonds, and continued for another four years at Elmira College in Elmira, N.Y., an NCAA Division III national power.
So when the chance came to continue her career for another season, Walker jumped at the offer — even when it meant spending the better part of a year halfway around the world.
Before returning home in March, the 22-year-old Walker had spent the previous seven months in Belarus, an eastern European country tucked between Poland to the west and Russia to the east. She lived in the capital of Minsk, a city with a population of around 2 million people, and played for a team called Pantera Minsk (Pantera is Russian for Panthers).
It was, she said, “a great experience. I love playing hockey, but it was also a chance to go somewhere I’d never been and see a lot of countries I’d never been to.”
As a recent college graduate, “I didn’t really have anything else lined up,” she said. “So it was like, ‘Why not?’ The timing was great and the experience was available.”
The 22-year-old Walker attended Edmonds-Woodway High School through her junior year. By then she was playing for a top club team in Colorado, and for her senior year she transferred to a school in Littleton, Colo., where she graduated in 2008.
She then went on and played for an Elmira College team that reached the national championship game in her freshman season, and then won the national title the year after she graduated.
It was one of Walker’s college assistant coaches who helped her get noticed by the team in Belarus. She was offered a contract and was soon on her way to Minsk, arriving in late August.
Right away she faced a big cultural adjustment, beginning with a major language barrier.
Most people in Belarus, including her coach and many of her teammates, speak only Russian. Some teammates knew a smattering of English words, though two teammates were fortunately fluent in English and became her unofficial translators.
“If (the coach) drew something on the board, the pictures were easy,” Walker said. “Each of our (hockey) lines had a color, so I learned the colors of the four lines we had. And I learned numbers, too. But for the most part he’d talk and then I’d go ask one of the girls who spoke English, ‘What’d he say?’
“But even with the girls who only spoke Russian, we still had a common thing and that was hockey. We could smile over a good pass or a nice goal. You don’t need to talk for that kind of stuff. So hockey definitely helped (create a) bond with teammates you couldn’t necessarily communicate with.”
Her team played in the Elite Women’s Hockey League (EWHL), one of the top women’s pro hockey leagues in the world. There are eight teams, with three in Austria, two in Germany, one in Switzerland, one in Italy and one in Belarus.
Because the EWHL restricts the number of non-native players on team rosters, Walker was the only American on Pantera Minsk. A Canadian player, Jess Jones from Picton, Ontario (she played at Mercyhurst University in Erie, Pa.) showed up a month later, becoming Walker’s roommate and close friend.
Pantera Minsk ended up qualifying for the league playoffs and went on to win the championship, beating a team from Vienna, Austria, in the title match, 6-1.
Like most other countries in the world, traces of America can be found in Belarus. McDonald’s restaurants seem to be everywhere, Walker said, “and they’re packed all the time. Crazy packed. Lines out the door. That was interesting.”
Likewise, some American products could be found in grocery stores. Heinz Ketchup, for example. Otherwise, Walker said, “we’d go to the grocery store and have to shop by pictures. I never learned how to read the language because it’s a different alphabet.”
Some American TV programs were telecast in Belarus, albeit with Russian voiceovers, but many U.S. internet web sites were restricted. What gave Walker her greatest connection to home was Skype, the internet communication site that allows visual and verbal communication from almost anywhere in the world.
Walker even remembers watching the Seattle Seahawks in last winter’s NFL playoffs via Skype. Her parents would position their computer next to the TV, allowing Walker and Jones to follow along.
Her salary was enough “that I didn’t go in debt playing over there, but I certainly didn’t make anything that would be like the pro lifestyle here,” she said. “But it was enough that I could enjoy the experience and not be frantic about money.”
As interesting as her stay in Belarus was, Walker has decided not to return next season. She was a mathematics major in college and figures it might be time to put those studies to work.
Looking back, she said, “I’m glad I went. It was a really good experience. There were times when things were frustrating, and then Jess and I would look at each other and it would be like, ‘Oh, my goodness, what are we doing?’ But then something else would happen and we’d be having fun.”
And in the end, she said, “we made friendships with the girls on the team, and that was the hard part to leave. But I just kind of figured it was time for me to move on. I had a great experience, we won the championship and now it’s time for me to start the next chapter of my life.”