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Russian women’s team goaltender Anna Prugova faces the team’s general manager – and former NHL star – Alexei Yashin in a one-on-one battle. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)
Russian women’s team goaltender Anna Prugova faces the team’s general manager – and former NHL star – Alexei Yashin in a one-on-one battle. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

Roy MacGregor

Russian women closing gap on Canada and U.S. thanks to Yashin’s tutelage Add to ...

To suggest he sticks out is ridiculous understatement.

He stands more than 6-foot-6 on skates. He is the only player on the ice dressed completely in yellow. He has won silver and bronze medals in previous Olympics, been captain of an NHL team and was once runner-up for the Hart Memorial Trophy as the league’s most valuable player.

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He is also the only male playing at a rink filled with women.

And Anna Prugova, goaltender for the Russian women’s hockey team, has just stoned Alexei Yashin 5-0. Five shootout attempts by a player who scored 337 times in a 12-year NHL career – and five consecutive stops by Prugova, who shrieks and skates away, pumping both arms in triumph.

She has just won her choice of a small treat: sometimes a Snickers chocolate bar, sometimes a drink. There are days when he wins, but less and less lately – and that, he says, is a good sign.

Russian women are getting better. And Canadian female hockey players, as well as American ones, need that to happen … soon.

Four years ago, in Vancouver, then-president of the International Olympic Committee Jacques Rogge raised a caution flag on women’s hockey. In the 16 years since the sport was added to the Winter Games, Canada and the U.S. had dominated to a point where the gold medal might as well be decided by a flip of a coin.

“We cannot continue without improvement,” Rogge warned.

At the most recent world championship, held in Ottawa last year, there was precious little sign of such improvement – though it was clear one also-ran country, Russia, was finally taking its program seriously.

The 40-year-old Yashin had been appointed general manager and, with the 2014 Sochi Games on the horizon, the host country was not only promising improvement, but showed it when the Russian women were awarded bronze medals.

Yashin proudly stood off to the side in tears.

“It’s about time,” he said after the team’s practice in Sochi.

“I think our team is getting stronger, and Team Finland is very strong, too. It’s tough to compete against Canadians and United States – but if you have the time and the right direction, some day we can catch up.”

Yashin says he has become a devotee of the women’s game, adding the IOC is wrong to think there is not enough competition in the sport to warrant continuing interest.

“They say they don’t want to continue with women’s hockey because it’s not very exciting,” he said. “But I think it was exciting hockey in Ottawa. You can see 16,000 people at the [gold-medal] game, and some NHL teams cannot get attendance like that. To me, it was very exciting.

“It just takes some time.”

Yashin says he was looking for a challenge after he retired from professional hockey (he played several years in the KHL after the New York Islanders bought out his NHL contract in 2007).

He helped the team find sponsors. He brought in senior government officials and successful athletes – professionals and medal-winning Olympians – to meet with the players and let them know how important it is for the Russian people to see their teams do well in Sochi.

“Success brings attention,” he said.

Limited success has already had some effect in Russia. There is now a women’s league, and, this year, it expanded from nine teams to 11.

“They are where we were when we started playing hockey,” Canada captain Caroline Ouellette said. “But if great hockey countries have great hockey teams, there is no reason they should not have women’s hockey teams that are just as good.

“Give it time.”

But that, of course, is the issue – how much “time” is the IOC willing to grant women’s hockey?

As female players often point out, men’s Olympic hockey had a long history of lopsided contests before other countries could seriously challenge, and even sometimes defeat, the country that invented the winter game.

“It’s a big gap,” Yashin said, “but I personally do see progress.”

“For me, it’s tough to see because I’m involved with them. I skate with them every day.”

He works on the power play, on stick-handling skills and, at the end of each session, has his 1-on-1 battles with Prugova.

“Sometimes, I win. Sometimes, she wins. … I wasn’t the worst hockey player in the world,” he said with a sheepish grin. “To stop me, it’s a big deal.”

And to one day perhaps stop Canada or the United States, a much bigger deal than that.

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