The hockey legend-in-the-making Alexander Ovechkin holds the record as the youngest player to make the Russian men’s national team, at the age of 17. Compared to Anna Shokhina, Ovechkin is a late bloomer.
Shokhina, Russia’s 16-year-old winger, is a tough kid to figure out. On the bench, she never seems to stop smiling and looks like absolutely everything, from teammates’ gentle teasing to coaches’ instructions, is the most exhilarating type of fun she has ever had. On the ice, she is all fire and passion, delivered in quick and devastating bursts. Talking to the media, she is a giggling teenager. Outside of the arena, she is calm and even-headed far beyond her years.
“She is a man, basically. Up there, in her head,” says Russia’s head coach Mikhail Chekanov, known for his deft turn of phrase. “That’s the kind of human being she is. Our talent, our diamond, which we are growing here in Russia. The most important thing for her is to keep growing. If she does, she will be a worldwide star.”
Shokhina is in fact pure raw talent. She is equally adept in shooting and setting up her teammates, showing the signs of maturity in her offensive game that may well help her to make the next step to big-time stardom. Her ability to maintain a high level of intensity throughout the game is easily noticeable, as is her high “hockey IQ”, prized by every single Russian coach beyond all else.
“This is not a PR move or anything like that,” says Russia’s general manager Alexei Yashin. “She has deserved the spot on the national team with her play, both at the U18 Women’s World Championship and for her club team, Tornado. Her inclusion into the Sochi roster is not a surprise for anyone involved.”
Go and ask Anna whether she feels anxious or nervous before her first Olympics, and on home ice at that, and she will take exactly zero seconds to answer, “No! Not a bit!” Her smile will be sincere to the extreme.
“Of course, I was happy to find out I made the team, but I really have no idea yet what it is,” says Shokhina with that same wide smile. “Even though I am here already, I still don’t quite understand the feeling yet.”
Shokhina began skating at the age of five in her native village of Novosinkovo in the Moscow Region. After a year of running around on a nearby outdoor rink with the local boys, without any formal training, she was noticed by a hockey coach due to her unusually good skating skills.
“The coach was just training the local boys at the outdoor “box” and he approached me and gave me a stick,” Shokhina reminisces. “Here, he says, try this. So, I shot the puck a few times and he told me to come to the next practice. He told me to keep the stick and gave me a pair of hockey skates. I was so happy!”
Surprisingly for Russian families, Anna’s parents raised no objection to their girl’s new pursuit. Her father actually thought about a boxing career for his daughter, so hockey may have actually been a step in the conservative direction as far as he was concerned.
At the age of seven, she was sought out by HC Dmitrov, one of the major Moscow Region youth clubs. Anna, a real tomboy growing up, was quite a feisty child, ever-ready to get into a fight. This hasn’t spilled over onto the ice, however, as the fighting side of hockey doesn’t appeal to her.
“My favourite player is Ilya Kovalchuk,” she says. “I remember, as a child, I broke my arm once and Kovalchuk was visiting Dmitrov at the time. He signed my cast.”
Veteran forward Iya Gavrilova says Shokhina had no problems fitting into the team.
“She is a very calm and collected person,” says Gavrilova. “I am sure it must be difficult for her emotionally, since it’s her first Olympics, but you can’t really tell looking at her.”
It’s hard for Shokhina, who has been dominating the junior hockey scene, to take anyone by surprise anymore, but if some opponents are inclined to overlook the little schoolgirl with her childlike smile, they may be in for a rude awakening.
“That’s just the way she plays,” says Chekanov. “Her outside demeanor tends to give people a false sense of security. You skate towards her and think she is seems pretty laid back. But when it’s needed, she can explode and do absolutely anything.”
Russia will play its first game on Sunday against Germany.