Russia revs up
Russia revs up
Olympic qualification target for women’s team
Alevtina Shtaryova, aged just 19, blasted 29 goals in 24 games in Russia’s Women’s Hockey League last season. She finished the campaign as top goal scorer, and added a gold medal after helping Tornado Moscow Region win the title.
A familiar face from U18 Women’s World Championship action, she also continued her development on the international stage and is poised to make her senior Worlds debut in Kamloops.
Stepping up to the women’s national team was easier thanks to the support of her team mates and coaches after three years with the Tornado organization and the international youth team, but the young student of the MosKomSport training college admits it’s still been a steep learning curve.
“Of course there’s a big difference between the women’s game and junior hockey,” she said. “The game is faster here, the goalies and defencemen have more experience so like any forward I have to work harder for my goals. Teamwork and quick thinking counts for much more at this level; a swift, well-placed pass often wins out over the sort of individual flair that might be enough to succeed in the juniors. And physical fitness plays a huge part.”
Assuming she makes Mikhail Chekanov’s final roster for Kamloops, Shtaryova is hoping to fire Russia to a top-five finish and automatic qualification for the 2018 Olympics in PyeongChang, Korea. Playing at the Olympics is a big long-term goal, but the Moscow native admits she’s reluctant to make big plans about her future.
“It’s hard for me to assess my own career prospects but I’ll do everything I can to fulfil my ambitions,” she added. “I’m really grateful to Alexei Chistyakov, my coach at Tornado, for the experience and advice he’s given me over the past three years and for his work in creating a professional club.”
Alongside her playing career, Shtaryova is planning to continue her studies at a sports institute in the coming academic year, developing coaching skills in tandem with her burgeoning experience as a player.
And she also has hopes for the growth of women’s hockey in Russia, starting with continued efforts to raise awareness of the game.
“If girls are going to dream of a career playing hockey, we need people throughout this country to understand that women’s hockey is a thing,” she said. “We need to promote it more, especially in the media. We can see men’s hockey on every TV channel, we hear about every tournament, but when the women’s team goes to compete not many people can follow them.
“I’d like to think that more girls are coming to hockey and finding good things in it. Our team will get better, and then we can start to compete with the Canadians and Americans on the same level.”
The move to bring the Women’s Hockey League into the KHL system was intended to help raise the profile of the game, and the new-look system has already brought some benefits to the Russian national team already. However, head coach Chekanov admits there are still some teething problems to iron out.
“This year we’ve enhanced the competitiveness of our league,” Chekanov told IIHF.com. “The fitness and preparation of most of the candidates for the national team has been better this season. But on the down side we’ve had fewer teams taking part in the Russian championship, and that means fewer players have been involved.
“We’ve got promising conditions for the women’s national and youth teams but we did see some potential international players missing out on game time. Hopefully next season will have a busier calendar in our domestic championship.”
Olga Sosina, still only 23 but a veteran of four Women’s World Championships and two Olympics, was also impressed by the competitiveness of the new-look league. She moved from SKIF Nizhni Novgorod to Agidel Ufa in the summer and finished the season as leading point scorer with 27+31=58 as her team came second behind Tornado.
“The competition is more intense,” she said. “Even underdogs from previous seasons started getting results against the top teams and we didn’t really see any blow-outs or easy games. Next season I hope we’ll have more teams in the championship and it would be great to have a foreign team there.”
The departure of many of the imports who previously played in Russia was the one disappointment for Sosina this time round.
“There are more opportunities for young Russian players to show what they can do, but of course it’s disappointing that we don’t have so many foreign players,” she added. “I always enjoy playing with them and especially competing against them. You can’t beat international experience.”
Beyond the WHL, there are further encouraging signs of a stronger women’s hockey infrastructure across Russia. 2015 saw the birth of an inter-regional amateur women’s league with 22 teams giving more than 400 players the chance to sample serious competitive hockey.
Even the impact of the on-going economic difficulties in Russia hasn’t proved too damaging, with head coach Chekanov talking up the value of close links between established men’s teams and their women’s sections.
“We’re also counting on the support of clubs in the KHL and VHL. Of course, the crisis has placed all pro sports in a difficult situation, but we’d still like to see more new teams appearing,” he added. “Bashkiria and the Krasnoyarsk Region are good examples of this. In Ufa they’ve had a women’s team, Agidel, playing for more than five years as part of the Salavat Yulayev organization, and in Krasnoyarsk, Biryusa is funded as part of Sokol.”
With Russia’s games due to be screened live across the country on the recently-created Match TV channel, a strong showing in Canada would go a long way towards maintaining the progress that began two years ago after the Olympics. Russia’s position in Group A in Kamloops already represents a step up; now the task is to build on that as the team pits itself against the North American giants from the opening stage. For Chekanov, that means some clear goals – even if it will still take time for Russia and its European neighbours to compete on an equal footing with their Trans-Atlantic rivals.
“We can only compete with opponents from North America when we are closer to the scope and popularity of women’s hockey in Canada and the U.S.,” he said. “Now we’re out to achieve two aims – earn a place at the Olympics and put up some good performances.”
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