However, with head coach Yevgeni Bobariko stepping up from the U18s, there is also a crop of young talent – including five of the players who secured the country’s first ever victory over Canada at any level of women’s hockey in the opening game of the 2018 World U18s in Dmitrov.
New facesContinuity plays a big role in Team ROC’s progress. Head coach Yevgeni Bobariko took the Russian U18s to the World Championships in 2018 and 2019. Now, six of the players from those two tournaments are looking forward to their first Olympics. Two of the three Beijing-bound goalies – Diana Farkhutdinova of Dynamo-Neva and Daria Gredzen of Biryusa Krasnoyarsk – played under Bobariko in the U18s, with 17-year-old Gredzen continuing to earn rave reviews in Russia’s Women’s Hockey League as Biryusa establishes itself as a play-off contender. Defensive duo Yelena Provorova (SKIF Nizhni Novgorod) and Anna Savonina (Tornado Moscow Region) are also preparing for their Olympics bows, as are forwards Oxana Bratisheva (SKIF) and Ilona Markova (Agidel Ufa). Another Agidel forward, Polina Luchnikova, may join them after being named on the reserve list.
Veronika Korzhakova is another teenager stepping up for the national team. The 18-year-old already has two national championships with Agidel and made her World Championship debut last summer. Building on that, she has 24 points in 17 games so far this season to secure her place on the team. Perhaps surprisingly, though, there’s no place for Kristi Shashkina, top scorer at the 2020 U18s and currently playing club hockey for Bobariko in St. Petersburg.
Faith in experienceIndeed, it’s striking that Bobariko has not gone deep into his Dynamo-Neva roster here. Apart from Farkhutdinova, the Petersburg-based team provides defender Yekaterina Nikolayeva and forwards Polina Bolgarova, Fanuza Kadirova and Alexandra Vafina. Bolgarova and Farkhutdinova have no prior Olympic experience, Nikolayeva and Kadirova played in Korea while Vafina is back for her third Games after going to Vancouver and Sochi before missing PyeongChang.
The experienced Vafina also got a first-hand look at Chinese hockey culture last season when she played with KRS Vanke Rays, the Chinese franchise competing in Russia’s WHL. But she’s not the only player making a third trip to the Olympics. Defender Angelina Goncharenko, currently part of SKIF’s table-topping roster, played in Sochi and PyeongChang, as did Tornado forwards Yelena Dergachyova and Anna Shokhina, plus Agidel Ufa’s talismanic Olga Sosina. Shokhina, currently the Russian league’s leading scorer, was not originally among the 34 names on Bobariko’s long list, but joined the team at the weekend and proved her fitness in time to make the cut. Sosina, meanwhile, was the architect of Agidel’s championship win last season, claiming the shootout winner in the decisive game against KRS Vanke Rays after leading the league in post-season scoring.
There’s further significant international experience from Lyudmila Belyakova, who had a spell with the NWHL’s Riveters in 2015/16. The 27-year-old was the first Russian player in that league, before returning to Tornado. She also played a couple of games with KRS in the summer.
Worlds prompt rethinkThe likes of Belyakova, Dergachyova and Shokhina missed out on last year’s World Championship, where Russia lost in the quarter-finals. That prompted fears that the program was failing to build on its fourth-place finishes in Korea and at the 2019 Worlds and led to the recall of several experienced players. On defence it was a similar story, with Nikolayeva and Agidel’s Maria Pechnikova returning to the team after sitting out the trip to Canada.
However, ROC’s goaltending has followed a different path. Long-established players like Anna Prugova – a three-time Russian champion and international mainstay since her debut at the Vancouver Games – and Nadia Morozova, who backstopped Russia’s 2016 World Championship bronze, are not involved this time. Even Valeria Merkusheva, a 22-year-old regarded as the next generation of Russian netminding, is only on the reserve list.
Instead, Bobariko has picked out two youngsters in Gredzen and Farkhutdinova and added Agidel’s Maria Sorokina. The 26-year-old is a two-time Russian champion but has not represented her country since 2017. Like Belyakova, she has NWHL experience and this season she is dominating in the Russian league. Her 14 appearances have brought 11 wins, five shut-outs and a miserly GAA of 1.03. Those numbers explain her recall here, but after so long out of the international frame it will be fascinating to see how she matches up against the offensive power of the North Americans as Team ROC looks to close the gap on the best in the world.
Diana Farkhutdinova, Dynamo-Neva St. Petersburg
Daria Gredzen, Biryusa Krasnoyarsk
Maria Sorokina, Agidel Ufa
Angelina Goncharenko, SKIF Nizhni Novgorod
Yekaterina Nikolayeva, Dynamo-Neva St. Petersburg
Maria Pechnikova, Agidel Ufa
Nina Pirogova, Tornado Moscow Region
Yelena Provorova, SKIF Nizhni Novgorod
Anna Savonina, Tornado Moscow Region
Anna Shibanova, Agidel Ufa
Lyudmila Belyakova, Tornado Moscow Region
Polina Bolgareva, Dynamo-Neva St. Petersburg
Oxana Bratisheva, SKIF Nizhni Novgorod
Yelena Dergachyova, Tornado Moscow Region
Yekaterina Dobrodeyeva, Biryusa Krasnoyarsk
Fanuza Kadirova, Dynamo-Neva St. Petersburg
Veronika Korzhakova, Agidel Ufa
Viktoria Kulishova, SKIF Nizhni Novgorod
Ilona Markova, Agidel Ufa
Valeria Pavlova, Biryusa Krasnoyarsk
Anna Shokhina, Tornado Moscow Region
Olga Sosina, Agidel Ufa
Alexandra Vafina, Dynamo-Neva St. Petersburg
Valeria Merkusheva, SKIF Nizhni Novgorod
Liana Ganeyeva, Dynamo-Neva St. Petersburg
Polina Luchnikova, Agidel Ufa