BURLINGTON – When you look at the roster for the University of Calgary Dinos women’s hockey team that won the Canadian national championship last month, two names stand out—Hayley Wickenheiser and Iya Gavrilova. In the case of the former, the status of legendary conferred long ago on “Wick” does not seem to jive with a university whose program was, to be honest, in the dumps five years ago.
In the case of the latter, it’s a matter of trying to understand how a woman from Krasnoyarsk, Russia made it to Canada and not only played on the Dinos but was an important and contributing element to the national crown.
“For her to play with Hayley on a daily basis, was so important,” Dinos coach Danielle Goyette pointed out. “I would say Iya was my most improved player this year.”
How Gavrilova got to Calgary is a serendipitous story. “I played a year at Minnesota-Duluth [2007-08] and got a degree, but I still wanted to play college hockey,” she explained. “But my eligibility had expired in the States. Danielle was at the World Championship last year and watched our games. She started talking to me and then e-mailing me over the summer and convinced me to come. I was going to go to a school in Ontario but they didn’t offer me any scholarship money. Danielle offered to pay my tuition, and that was an important point. And she was a good coach, of course.”
Indeed, Goyette played for Team Canada from 1992 to 2007, won eight gold medals at the Women’s Worlds and two Olympics golds.
“I was at the World Championship last year in Switzerland scouting other teams for Canada,” she explained, picking up on Gavrilova’s thread, “and Shannon Miller was there from Duluth. She praised Iya and then introduced me to her. Iya was supposed to go to University of Guelph to play hockey. I told her she should play in Calgary. I could work with her, make her a better player. We kept talking during the summer, and she chose me over Guelph, so I was very happy.”
In part, Gavrilova’s arrival was simply a story of a coach recruiting a player, but in women’s hockey, the symbolism is much richer. This is also about a Russian trying to develop and bring her values home to help the national team program.
“The player she was and the player she is after a year in Calgary are very different,” Goyette explained. “She’s much better. She’s a two-way player now. She didn’t know how to play in her own end. The Russians are good on offence, but they aren’t so good on defence and back-checking. But she worked hard on that. She was so willing to learn. And when you see the results on the ice of getting better, you want more. The more you get, the more you want.”
Gavrilova agreed, noting she could see her improvement as Goyette explained it. “She taught me a lot about how to play in the defensive end, to play on both sides of the puck, playing on the power play and what to do when you don’t have the puck, being in the right position. I improved a lot over the year in those respects.”
But if the European counties are to become more competitive with the North Americans, it’s not enough for Gavrilova to become a better player. One player, one team, will make little difference.
“I told her, when you go back to your team, you have to teach them what you learned here,” Goyette said. “You have to take care of yourself, what you eat before or after a game. You have to eat good food; you can’t eat cookies and doughnuts after a game. That’s what she’s learning, and that’s what she has to take back to Russia.”
Gavrilova agreed—but added a caveat: It’s easier said than done.
“It’s hard to get players to change in a short period of time, and that usually has to come from the coach. I can talk to the players, but not as much as the coach. The mentality in Russia is that because it’s so easy to make the team—there’s not enough competition to make the team—some girls find it hard to work on their own. We need girls to realize they need to work harder. That’s why it’s important our young players come to North America, to see how hard the players here work on ice and off ice.”
Gavrilova has played every major event for Russia since her first foray into women’s hockey at the 2004 Women’s World Championship, but she has played on a team that came close to a medal only once, last year when Russia lost a tough overtime game for bronze to Finland.
This past season Gavrilova had 15 goals in 21 games during the regular season for the Dinos, second on the team behind only Wickenheiser, who had 17. But it was during the playoffs that the 24-year-old Russian had an even greater impact. She had at least one point in every game, culminating with the championship finale.
In the final game, the Dinos beat the University of Montreal Carabins, 5-1, at the Clare Drake Arena in Edmonton. It capped a remarkable end to a season in which Calgary won its last 18 games. Wickenheiser dominated with two goals and two assists, but Gavrilova had a goal and assist.
She is studying economics at Calgary and will return there right after the Women’s Worlds end in Burlington to write her exams, and she’ll be back in September as well to continue her career.
In the bigger picture, she’s also trying to focus on Sochi, both for herself and her teammates.
“We’re getting a lot of attention from the Russian Federation right now,” she noted. “We’re trying to put more money in the program, come to North America to play university teams. I feel like the support from the federation is getting better. The big thing is we’re trying to get the federation to pay for half the tuition because most players don’t get full scholarships. It’s really expensive to go to school in North America.”
These next two years are critical to women’s hockey in Russia. The hosts for 2014 have identified women’s hockey as a medal ambition, but to win a bronze will require being better than Sweden and Finland. The Russians have good goaltending and plenty of skill, but what they need are coaching, off-ice development and, most of all, commitment. Fortunately for the Russians—with thanks to Minnesota-Duluth and Calgary—Gavrilova brings a level of play to the team that is critical to podium success in Sochi.