105-game losing streak weighs down Russian hockey team
KURGANOVO, Russia (AP) It's been 105 games and more than three years since one Russian women's pro hockey team last won, and its whole season is a struggle to stay positive.
''We're totally screwed,'' goalie coach Irina Votintseva said after a 5-1 loss on Monday, the latest failed attempt to shake off the unwanted record.
When the Sverdlovsk Region Select Team from Russia's Ural mountains last won, 4-3 in a shootout in October 2013 against Kometa Mozhaisk, Barack Obama was less than a year into his second term as U.S. president, Ukraine still administered Crimea and Russia was looking forward to hosting the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
Since the streak began, the club has changed its coaches, almost all of its players and even its name. Its roster is now packed with young players - some as young as 16 - who embrace any sign of progress.
''We were losing games by big scores, but now not so much. We've started scoring,'' forward Regina Yumaguzhina, who at 18 is already an assistant captain, said at training last week. ''We're angry and we want (to win), and no one's giving up.''
On Saturday, the team had its best chance of victory in more than a year. With two minutes remaining of the third period on home ice against Biryusa Krasnoyarsk, Yumaguzhina scored to reduce Biryusa's lead to 3-2. Sverdlovsk's players pushed to send the game to overtime, but couldn't score another goal.
''We'd like things to be better, of course,'' head coach Yulia Perova said.
Sverdlovsk's players don't live luxuriously. Most are paid about 15,000 rubles ($250) a month, plus free accommodation, and many are training to be teachers outside the rink.
On the ice, it's far from glamorous, too. Many games are played in near-empty arenas with little media interest, except when video of a prolonged brawl between Sverdlovsk and Biryusa players in October went viral in Russia (Sverdlovsk lost the game 9-2).
A losing streak like Sverdlovsk's is rare in hockey - for comparison, the NHL record stands at 17 games, set by the San Jose Sharks. In international soccer, the European mini-state of San Marino has yet to win a game in qualification for the European Championship or World Cup despite more than two decades of trying. However, it was victorious in an officially-recognized friendly game against similarly tiny Liechtenstein back in 2004.
Unlike San Marino, however, Sverdlovsk has a genuine history of success.
Back in 2000, under its previous name Spartak Mercury, the club won the Russian championship and its players were mainstays on the Russian national team. Eight years ago, however, a dispute over coaching styles caused many players and staff to leave. Deprived of its stars and many promising juniors, the club never really recovered.
Perova was brought in last year to help turn the club around and is the only female head coach in the Russian women's pro league.
Since she took over, matters have marginally improved, with fewer blowout losses, and one young goaltender has even made the Russian junior national team.
Still, time may be running out. The club is financed by the regional government - a common arrangement for pro hockey in Russia - and some at the club worry the authorities may lose patience and pull their funding, forcing the club to close.
With perhaps the toughest job in world hockey, Perova said her recipe for motivating players is simple.
''First, love what you do and the rest will come,'' she tells them. ''If you want to learn, you first have to play hockey, love the game, play your best. Then all the fame, fortune and wins will come by themselves.''
AP Sports Writer James Ellingworth in Moscow contributed to this report.