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Team Russia's captain Yekaterina Smolentseva gets high-fives from teammates on the bench after scoring the game winning goal against Team Switzerland (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Team Russia's captain Yekaterina Smolentseva gets high-fives from teammates on the bench after scoring the game winning goal against Team Switzerland

(Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

HOCKEY

Russia revelling as team on the rise Add to ...

The Russians didn’t win a single game at last year’s women’s world hockey championships, causing many to worry that the team could be a total embarrassment at home during the 2014 Sochi Olympics.

At this year’s world championships, Russia is a podium contender and has earned a semi-final matchup with top-ranked Canada on Monday night. Russia was undefeated in round-robin play and upset Switzerland in the quarter-final, last year’s bronze medalist. Russia wants to win a medal in Ottawa to fuel itself for Sochi. It has shown big improvement here, but some other nations haven’t.

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“It’s awesome to see the country hosting the next Olympics doing so well here at the tournament,” said Canadian goalie Shannon Szabados. “We were all talking, we’re excited to play them and see what they’re like.”

Russia has added more resources since last year, hired a new coaching staff and a new general manager in former Ottawa Senator Alexei Yashin. They began a mentorship with former Canadian Olympic coach Shannon Miller, who has gone on to coach at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, where she has won five National Collegiate Athletic Association titles.

“We’ve been waiting for this for a long time,” said Russian forward Aleksandra Vafina, who played for Miller at UMD this season. “Many of us are scoring our first international goal. This is a big, big event for us, and we are so excited to be on a roll.”

No everyone has shown such improvement. After winning bronze last year, the Swiss brought eight new players to this tournament. Many wondered how Finland and its world-class goalie Noora Raty might have closed the gap with the North Americans. The Finns kept it respectable with a 5-2 loss to the U.S., yet got throttled 8-0 by Canada, despite some Finnish players’ confident pre-game Tweets.

Standing on the podium with silver medals around their necks at the 2006 Turin Olympics, Swedish female hockey players once represented a sign of hope for a sport that is thoroughly dominated by Canada and the U.S. Today, Sweden is battling in a best-of-three relegation series with Czech Republic, fighting just to keep a spot among the top eight women’s hockey nations who compete in the world championships each year.

Over the past few years, Sweden has lost many of the players who upset the mighty U.S in the semi-final in Turin to advance to the Olympic gold-medal game against Canada. Young players have replaced them. Then, the backbone of the Swedish team, star goalie Kim Martin, an NCAA player who also led Sweden to Olympic bronze in 2002, got injured preparing for this tournament and has not played in Ottawa.

“This feels awful,” said Swedish forward Pernilla Winberg. “We were supposed to be one of the top teams here.”

There is a bitter irony in Sweden’s story. The International Ice Hockey Federation began a mentorship program in July of 2011, taking former coaches and players from the top-ranked four women’s hockey nations at the time and assigning them as mentors to the teams rated five through 14. It’s just one part of a $2.1-million women’s hockey improvement project started after lopsided scores stole headlines at the Vancouver Olympics and International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge warned the women to improve parity or be removed from the Olympic program.

Sweden was one of those top-rated countries back then, so it was slated as nation to provide mentors rather than receive them.

“I talked with the IIHF last year and asked why we send out 10 Swedish players and leaders to help others when we need all the support we can get,” said Swedish coach Niclas Hogberg. “It’s a strange feeling for me as a Swedish head coach when there are Swedish people I would like to work with who are going to work with other countries.”

Sweden earned bronze medals at the 2005 and 2007 world championships but hasn’t made the podium since. For a while, Finland was beating Sweden yearly in the bronze-medal game, except last year when it settled for the fifth/sixth-place game. This year, Sweden tumbled all the way to the relegation game. Now, up 1-0 on the Czechs in the series, Sweden must hold on or be demoted down to the second division.

The second relegation game is Monday afternoon as well as Finland’s semi-final against the U.S, before Canada and Russia face off. The final relegation game, if needed, will be Tuesday, as well as the bronze- and gold-medal games.

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