Even though the Russian national womenís team isnít expected to win gold at the 2013 IIHF World Womenís Championship in Ottawa, Canada (April 2-9), it still faces high expectations. Next year Russia will host the Olympics, and as new womenís general manager Alexei Yashin knows, a good showing on home ice is a must.
With Sochi looming, Yashin took the job in December, and itís been a real change of pace for the former NHL and KHL sniper. The imposing centreman played 850 career NHL games with the Ottawa Senators and New York Islanders before spending his final pro days with Lokomotiv Yaroslavl, SKA St. Petersburg, and CSKA Moscow. His international glories include gold medals from the 1992 World Juniors and 1993 World Championship, plus Olympic silver (1998) and bronze (2002).
Now his task is to get the best out of female scoring forwards like Iya Gavrilova, Tatyana Burina, and captain Yekaterina Smolentseva, while also hoping goalie Anna Prugova can deliver the goods in Ottawa. In February, Smolentseva and Prugova were both part of the Tornado Moscow Region team that won its third European Womenís Championship Cup in the last four years.
But will positive momentum like that suffice to get Russia into the medal round against powerhouses like Canada and the United States? Theyíre drawing from a pool of just 500 registered players. The Russians came sixth at last yearís World Womenís Championship, and have only medaled once at this tournament, taking bronze in 2001. Theyíll have to get past Sweden, Germany, and the Czech Republic in Group B in Ottawa.
Yashin can be encouraged by the fact heís getting advice and support from sources as diverse as Jennifer Botterill, Canadaís now-retired two-time World Championship MVP whoís on board through the IIHF Ambassador and Mentor Program, and legendary longtime Russian national men's team coach Vladimir Yurzinov.
IIHF.comís Lucas Aykroyd caught up with Yashin recently by phone from the 39-year-oldís New York residence.
How did you become the GM of the Russian womenís national team?
I approached the team because I was basically retiring, and I wanted to find something to do. Itís a good opportunity, and I think I can help the players with my experience and knowledge. I came to the Russian Hockey Federation, we talked about this and decided it was a good idea.
As a player, you represented your country almost every year in international competition from 1992 to 2006. What is behind your passion for the Russian national team?
First of all, itís my country. In any competition Ė it doesnít matter whether itís the womenís team or the menís team or any other sport Ė when Russian athletes represent our country, itís always great. My dream was to win gold, and I did that at the 1993 World Championship. Itís a gift. Russia gives opportunities to lots of athletes to achieve their dreams. So I was one of them, and now, because I have a lot of free time, I can kind of help my country to be more successful in womenís hockey.
Youíve helped the team with improving its travel arrangements, getting new equipment, and even providing outfits for them to wear on the road. But not every GM would also join his players on the ice to work on their skills, as youíve been doing.
You can see the girls have a little bit of trouble physically, and there are a lot of skills I can help them out with. Especially the shots. Our team has been struggling with its shots. We donít have a lot of great shooters. But I want to work with them so they can become much better.
Iíll tell you something funny. I was watching the girls playing and practicing, and we were talking about working on our shots. One of the girls came and showed me her statistics, and she had scored 81 goals in 33 games! She was averaging close to three goals a game. I said: ďHey, what can I teach you?Ē I donít think I could teach her anything! [laughs]
In the Russian league, itís not the strongest. Probably the best level of hockey is whatís played in universities in the United States. A lot of Canadian girls play there too. In our Russian league, we have a couple of very good, strong teams. We have some talent. But the league is not very strong. So a good player can score up to six or seven goals a game sometimes.
What do you like about the teamís new head coach, Mikhail Chekhanov and his assistants, Vladimir Malmygin and Yuri Novikov?
The best thing is they know how to deal with women. Itís most important to create the right environment for practicing. As a coach, you have to be better at every practice, move forward. You need to practice hard and practice right. So basically, we aim to provide the right environment and hopefully we can continue to do that.
What are you telling this group to prepare them mentally for the challenges of participating in a home-ice Olympics in Sochi in 2014?
Iíd say first of all, donít get too crazy and excited, because thereís going to be a lot of attention from everybody: fans, government, everybody in Russia. There will be a lot of pressure to succeed. My point is that I try to tell the girls: ďIt doesnít matter how many distractions you have. You have to be focused on the game and take it shift by shift.Ē
Itís the same approach I took in the NHL. You canít look way down the road. Just take your next shift. Thatís how you succeed. From this point, my job is to calm everybody down. Iíve been in these situations. Iíve played in three Olympics. I know the distractions you face. I want to make sure theyíre prepared to play. A lot of things can happen. But when youíre prepared to seize the opportunity, you succeed. You can worry about stuff afterwards.
What goals have you set for the Worlds and Olympics?
To win a medal would be a huge success for sure. You understand that Team Canada and Team United States are much stronger than many other teams for now. But I know when it comes to the World Championships and Olympics, itís unpredictable. If we can achieve a medal, it would be great. Itís good to see the results of your work in medals or cups. But Iím most satisfied if they lay everything on the line.