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Alexei Yashin spearheads Russian revolution

Alexei Yashin talks with team mentor Shannon Miller as Carol Alt listens in during a Team Russia game.

Mike Carroccetto/for Globe and Mail

For several memorable NHL seasons, Alexei Yashin starred in the Canadian capital, dazzling with his scoring prowess and creating playoff excitement in Ottawa before the Russian forward's high-profile contract disputes saw him stripped of his captaincy and eventually traded to the New York Islanders.

But on Tuesday, Yashin, who once provoked relentless booing in the city as a player, wasn't keeping a low profile in a press box or a far corner of the Nepean Sportsplex. He sat in the heart of the stands among a smattering of fans waving Russian flags, dressed in a black toque and petty coat like a dad at a rink on a Saturday morning.

Now 39, he's back in town on an entirely different hockey mission, serving as general manager of the Russian women's hockey team in the world championship. He's lending his experience and influence to a team that lost all of its games at last year's worlds and was under-supported back home. But now, Russia is aiming high for a medal. Not just at the world championship, but at the 2014 Olympics too, when it plays host to the world in Sochi.

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"We have way more coverage now in Russia, and people say it's because of my name – I hope it helps," said Yashin after Russia's 4-0 win over Germany on Tuesday. "The people I talk to want to help with attention, money, experience, so I can be the link to connect women's hockey with the people who are very powerful and want to support Russian sport. Not only financial support, but support for the image. We want the same attention as the men's team. Hockey is very popular in Russia, but girls' hockey not as much. But we represent our country at the Olympics, too."

The small Nepean rink was half full on Tuesday for the Group B contest, spotted mostly with pockets of gleeful school kids. Yashin was the first on his feet to cheer his team's first goal. He sat shoulder-to-shoulder with his long-time partner, American model Carol Alt. Fans approached the couple politely between intermissions, looking for autographs and photos. Their fascination with him continues.

Yashin was the first draft pick for the expansion Senators back in 1992, and the 6-foot-3, 230-pound high-scoring centre quickly became a bright young star in the NHL, a household name in Ottawa and key to the team's playoff experiences.

But his later years in Ottawa were full of contract disputes and holdouts. Then a big donation he promised to the city's National Arts Centre went awry, and Ottawa's fans soured on him. He requested a trade and was shipped to the Islanders in 2001, where he played until 2007. After that, he touched down in Russia's KHL. He hasn't played a pro season since 2011-12.

"It was tough to watch today in my first game not on the ice," Yashin said. "I enjoyed it. It's been very good, but very different from when I played and I had all the pressure on me to perform. Now, the best I can do is cheer and hope for the best. I really enjoy seeing these girls give everything they have."

Yashin also sat with 1998 Canadian Olympic coach Shannon Miller, who earned an Olympic silver medal at the Nagano Olympics and has since won five National Collegiate Athletic Association titles as the women's hockey coach at the University of Minnesota-Duluth. The former NHLer admits he didn't know much about the women's game before being hired back in December, and he and Miller exchanged notes during the game. Miller is mentoring the Russian staff – mostly males with strong experience in men's hockey – about creating female hockey champions.

The Russian women last earned a medal in 2001 – bronze at the world championship. They are in Group B with Germany, Sweden and Czech Republic, so they won't face the top teams unless they advance out of the group. The women's game is still dominated by Canada and the U.S., and Yashin wants his team to play more North American competition before Sochi. Miller has invited them for a two-week training camp at UMD and to play exhibition games against top U.S. college teams.

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Yashin says he has a passion for Russian hockey, having played in the 1996 and 2004 World Cups of Hockey, the 1998, 2002 and 2006 Winter Olympics, and six world championships, picking up two Olympic medals and two world medals along the way. While it's not typical for a general manager, Yashin practises with the Russian women, helping especially with their shooting. He joked that if Mario Lemieux could skate with his players as GM of the Pittsburgh Penguins, so can he.

"He goes on the ice in practice with the women, and he's so good and so big, that when he says to try something, they do it without hesitation," Miller said. "They are almost scared of him they respect him so much. Coaching and playing are so different, and he contributes something so different from what I can provide or what Russia's coaches provide. The players adore him and find it incredible to be on the ice with him. They have improved leaps and bounds since last year's tournament."

Miller observed that Russia struggled with fitness and nutrition. Some of its players actually smoked. They got a new coaching staff since last year and hired Yashin, who has helped secure more resources.

"When people see his name around women's hockey, they turn their heads and want to see what's going on with us," said Russian forward Iya Gavrilova, who referred to Yashin as "the big man."

"The financial support improved, we got a fitness coach coming in next year, a goalie coach with us at worlds, more medical support, better conditioning. I think it's paying off."

Asked what it's like to be back in Ottawa this week, in a different role, Yashin took the question with ease but kept his answer brief and polite.

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"I spent eight years here playing hockey, and a lot happened here," he said. "My mom and dad still live here, so I have taken some time to spend with them. It's been a great trip so far."

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