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Russian women's hockey receives icy treatment back home

VANCOUVER, B.C. - Holding off a couple defenders, Russia's No. 8 takes the puck and wheels quickly through the neutral zone. But in a manner unlike her male counterpart, a celebrated NHL superstar by the name of Alexander Ovechkin, Russian winger Iya Gavrilova then gets stripped before getting off a shot, and play bolts the other way faster than you can say spasiba.

The 22-year-old Gavrilova is, like Ovechkin, clearly her team's best player -- an athletic and skillful forward who, when asked if she wears No. 8 because of Ovechkin, replies with a confident smile, "No! He's 8 because of me." But she is virtually alone on a woeful team that was dismantled by the U.S. 13-0 two days after falling to Finland 5-1.

While Russia's men assert themselves on the world stage, winning the last two world championships and dashing past Latvia 8-2 in their opening game on Tuesday, the women have gained zero traction in a sport that boasts a rich and illustrious history in the country -- "in men's hockey," a Russian team spokesperson points out, "not women's."

Even as women's programs from hockey powerhouses such as Finland and Sweden grow, Russia has stagnated since winning bronze at the World Championships in 2001. "Nothing really changed since then," says Gavrilova, who joined the national team a year later. "Everybody else just improved a little bit. You can see how physically they got stronger, got more energy, more speed, more strong shots."

The difference between men's and women's programs in Russia is stark. The former are flush with funding, and schools for boys of all ages abound. The women's team receives minimal financial support from the Russian federation and little training for the World Championships and the Olympics. In anticipation of Vancouver, Russia's women gathered for sporadic international tournaments such as the Canada Cup, and didn't begin their final Olympic training camp until January 24, three weeks before the Games. To compare, by the end of January, Team Canada was on the tail end of its six-month Midget Series during which it played teams of teenage boys. Says Gavrilova, "I don't think [three weeks is] good enough to get trained for the Olympics."

The U.S., Canada, Sweden and even China have centralized development programs, unlike Russia. The Chinese women, who entered Vancouver ranked ninth in the world, have been working with former Finnish national team coach Hannu Saintula for the last year in their hub in Harbin, and their improvement has been marked. "They've been training the last 11 months, working out two, three times a day," USA coach Mark Johnson says of the Chinese women. "When you watch a practice, their skill level has gotten better."

Russia's program, in contrast, mainly depends on a six-team pro league that is about as competitive as Olympic women's hockey -- that is, there are two good teams and the other four play to survive, dropping double-digit losses on a regular basis. The talent pool is so shallow that the third goaltender on the women's team is 16-year-old Anna Prugova, who started playing just four years ago.

What's more, the women are more or less trapped in the system, as Gavrilova discovered when she came to the U.S. in 2007 to play at the University of Minnesota-Duluth and hone her game at a higher level. In her freshman season the skilled forward quickly became a star, leading the Bulldogs with 41 points in 26 games. But a Duluth News Tribune investigation ultimately brought her college hockey career to an end. The paper reported that Gavrilova was allegedly paid as much as $500 a month to play for Moscow SKIF, and an after an ensuing NCAA investigation she was ruled permanently ineligible. Gavrilova claims the report was based on a vindictive coach's lies. But she has become a player with no team. "I was trying to play for the Minnesota Whitecaps" -- a semi-pro women's team that counts Angela Ruggiero and Julie Chu of the U.S. as members -- "but you have to pay $1,000 to play there," she says. "There is no chance to play hockey in U.S. when you're done with college."

Russian skaters who want to play in the States are mired in a hockey Catch-22: to get good enough for American college recruiters to notice them, they need to play at the highest level in Russia -- playing at the highest level is Russia makes them ineligible to play in American colleges. "It's very frustrating," says Gavrilova, who has remained at Minnesota-Duluth to study accounting. "They just close this road for us. There are a lot of hockey girls right now in Russia who want to play in the U.S. Like No. 9, for example" -- gesturing to her teammate, 19-year old Alexandra Vafina, who scored Russia's lone goal through the first two games -- "she wants it so bad, but she can't because everybody's saying it's pro hockey."

With the Games heading to Sochi in four years, it's difficult to believe the Russians wouldn't want to field a competitive women's hockey team. Federation president Vladislav Tretiak has promised more attention and funding, ostensibly for that exact reason, and went with a young team in Vancouver to prepare these players for the next Olympics. "He's saying that they're going to try to open some hockey schools for girls," Gavrilov says. "So if they're going to do it, it's going to help a lot. But to be honest, right now, I can't see the difference between 10 years ago and right now. It's like no improvement."

The plodding growth of the women's game in Russia isn't merely a question of allocated resources. Russian sport remains highly patriarchal. The country has never tapped a woman to carry the flag at the Opening Ceremonies -- Summer or Winter -- and still prefers to see its female athletes participate in tennis, gymnastics and figure skating, rather than sports like hockey and soccer. "It's a bit of a new concept, women playing hockey," says Slava Malamud, a reporter for the Russian paper Sport-Express. "There's a popular Russian song, kind of the unofficial theme song for Russian hockey, that says, 'Only real men play hockey.' So it's still hard for people to wrap their brains around it."

Whether or not progress will ultimately come, Gavrilova worries about how her team's performance in Vancouver will affect perceptions in her homeland. "When you lose 13-0, what are people going to say about you?" she says. "They don't know about women's hockey. They don't know that USA and Canada are much stronger. They're just going to blame us for playing bad."

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