Team Russia Overview

December 1996

This page contains extensive notes recorded by Barbara Pickering from her two week visit with Team Russia. The visit took place in December 1996 and included visits to a couple of Moscow hockey sports schools.


In our Western culture, where people are free to pursue their interests through their own initiative, women's hockey has grown at a grass roots level. In Russia, however, where resources were until recently controlled by the State, and to a large extent are still controlled centrally, hockey for women is almost unknown.

How then, did Russia go from being unable to field a women's ice hockey team in the Women's World Ice Hockey Championships of 1990, 1992 and 1994, to being a fierce contender for the 1998 Winter Olympic Games? This question spurred me to delve into the issues of sports in Russia, and women's issues in particular. Why did such a strong hockey country as Russia totally neglect women in the sport, and why and how did they suddenly advance an internationally competitive team? I scoured the Internet and the few books and publications on women's hockey for an answer. What I learned was that once women's ice hockey became an internationally competitive sport in the late eighties, the Russian interest was piqued. And once it was accepted as an Olympic sport, their participation became almost mandatory. Sport in the Soviet Union was traditionally both a vehicle to keep the populace healthy, and to show the world the superiority of the communist system. The arena of choice was the Olympics. This attitude toward the Olympics persists in Russia today. Participation in women's hockey is now a matter of national pride.


For women in Russia, however, ice hockey only exists in a very limited scope. Western style hockey was introduced to Russia by Germany in the 1930's. Because of the international competition in the sport, it supplanted the sport of ball hockey, or Rink Bandy, and in 1946 the Soviet Union had its first (men's) national hockey championship. Although women in Russia have been supported in Rink Bandy, their participation in hockey has not been encouraged (even though supposedly the men used to give women their hockey sticks in the early years when Bandy was the male sport of choice and hockey was not popular...). It was not until women's ice hockey gained international attention at the World Championships held in Ottawa in 1990 that Russia "officially" started to pay attention to the sport.

In 1992 Russia hosted an International Women's Hockey Tournament in St. Petersburg, fielding one team from the host city. In 1993, the tournament was attended by women's teams from three additional Russian cities (Ekaterinburg, Tumsk, and Novosibirsk). A Russian Women's Ice Hockey Association was created in July 1993, with Boris Mikhailov elected its honorary president. In 1994 the Russian Hockey Federation drew up a long-range plan to develop the sport, spurred on by the inclusion of the sport in the 1998 Olympics. The Russian women's teams that attended the St. Petersburg tournament of 1994 served as the basis for the creation of a Russian Combined Team, and the women were set on a program of "well planned training."

In Denmark, in March, 1995, Russia beat Denmark, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, France, the Netherlands, Great Britain and the Ukraine to win the group European B Pool Championship, a victory that put them into the A Pool. In the European A Pool Championship that took place in Yaroslavl, Russia in March of 1996, Russia beat the long-standing champions of the Combined Team of Finland, as well as Norway, Switzerland and Germany, losing only to Sweden. A standing-room only crowd of over 5,000 attended the tournament, with the natives of Yaroslavl loudly supporting their women's team. The results of this European Championship qualified Sweden, Russia, Finland, Norway and Switzerland for the 1997 World Championship-the qualifier for the 1998 Olympics, to be held in April in Kitchener, Ontario.

Translated quotes from tournament program, European A Pool Championship, Yaroslavl, Russia, March 1996:

A quote from the Yaroslavl tournament's program serves to illustrate the changing attitudes towards women's hockey in Russia: "It is of real pleasure to realize that in the past are former bans for active participation of ladies in public and sports life. Nowadays many ladies are the heads of the state establishments, they fly into cosmos and, what seemed impossible quite recently, they even play hockey." Another quote reads, "In spite of the fact that our girls have had friendship with the stick since 1925, contrary to logic their admittance to the puck was stubbornly blocked."

In an interview published in the program, the head coach of the Russian Women's national team, Valentin Igorov, responds to the question, "We would like to know your opinion about the differences between women's and men's hockey." He responds, "The real hockey is always a hockey whoever might play it, but it's quite natural that women's playing assumes some traits which are natural to the fair sex beyond hockey too. First and foremost, it is a strong emotion, great plasticity of movement, and, if you like, an utmost consideration of action. It goes without saying that for the present the girls have much less skill than those [male] athletes with whom I happened to work; and their speed is also more moderate." He acknowledges that the lack of experience contributes to this situation, "What do we have in women's hockey? We've got no championships, nor cup competitions for the present, our experience of international meetings is minimal. No sports schools are foreseen where we could train hockey players. Practically, we are starting from zero."

Anecdotes regarding the status of hockey for females in Russia:

Indeed, in all the sports school classes I observed in Moscow, including Dynamo, Spartak, and the Soviet Wings, I saw no girls participating. Spartak, actually, hosts what they refer to as the national women's "farm" team. When I asked the Director of the Dynamo school what the response would be if a parent approached the administration with the hopes of entering their little girl into the school, the reply was that they "would not allow small girls to play with boys." Then came this perplexing statement, "There is no women's hockey in Russia," (a categorical maxim I have heard from several Russian men who were well aware of the national women's program). Upon further thought, he said that the parents would be directed towards the girl's team at Spartak.

I participated in a practice at Spartak, which is the "people's" club-founded by national trade unions and similar in atmosphere to a North American community center. The team was on the road, so practice consisted only of girls new to the sport who were trying to make the team's roster. The youngest girl was 12 years old, the rest were in their late teens. This approach of beginning the girls' training in their teens and lumping them together in one age group is a reflection of the newness of the sport for women in Russia, as well as the lack of resources and commitment. It is in sharp contrast to the practice of the hockey sports schools, which puts one group of boys together, all born in the same year. The boys move ahead as one group, year after year, with the same coaches. By the age of eight, these boys are proficient in all basic skating maneuvers, stickhandling and scrimmaging. The little girls, like many in North America, come to practices only to watch.

There are quiet exceptions to the rules, however. The 16-year-old daughter of a female administrator at one of the schools occasionally participates in one of the younger boy's classes, and acts as an assistant in another. The fact that she knows the coaches and participates with boys much younger than herself makes it acceptable.

Katia Pachkevitch, a premier player on the Russian women's team, grew up playing on the yard rink behind her apartment building, and on local school teams in Moscow. Her mother gave her a hockey stick as a gift at the age of three, and she was spotted by a local coach not many years later. When he asked her if she wanted to play on his team, she told him yes, but that she was a girl. He agreed that could be a problem, but managed to get her onto a team of boys a year her junior. Katia attributes this breach of custom to the fact that the coach was "an old, kind man. A nice man."

Resources and opportunities are limited in Russia. In North America, if a woman wants to play hockey, she can buy the gear, take a hockey class, practice at public sessions, join a co-ed pick-up league, and find (or start) a women's team. In Moscow, if a young woman knows how to skate already, and wants to learn to play hockey, she can go to the Spartak team. That's her one and only option. The average Russian woman would not be able to afford her own gear. Indoor public skates are almost non-existent, and ice time, if she could find a free slot at one of the rinks, is either politically inaccessible or out of reach financially.

Two young women at the Spartak practice had no protective gear except helmets. They had both fallen and hurt their knees during practice. I asked them why they didn't have shin guards. They shrugged and said that the coach had not given them equipment. It did not seem an option to provide their own.

Going to and from the Spartak practice, we lugged our gear through the deep corridors of the Moscow subway system. Although it was common to see boys and men carrying hockey equipment throughout Moscow, the sight of women carrying gear elicited a barrage of stares and comments. "Look, girls playing hockey." The reactions were not negative, merely surprised and curious. With a total of 50 females playing hockey in a city of 10 million, it's not surprising the public is unaccustomed to the sight.

The Training of Team Russia

The national players commute to "work," at the Luzhniki facility at Sportivnaya, in western Moscow. The commute from the women's apartments can take as long as an hour and a half, via crowded buses and subways. Then there's a short walk to the guarded gates that lead to the sports complex grounds, and on into the arena where they practice. They have a large, wallpapered lockerroom, lined with shelves, with its own showers, toilet, and "drying room" (a room lined with hot water pipes to hang their equipment). They are provided with various corporate-sponsored (e.g., Nike) uniforms and imported gear.

A normal training day starts with a light fitness work-out. They use the large, stone entry way of the arena as their warm-up area. They keep the lights dimmed and radio blaring. The warm-ups are led by one of the assistant coaches. They do some slow jogging of various types-forwards, backwards, sideways, in pairs using resistance, or with a ball combining hand-eye coordination. The goalies juggle tennis balls. Then they do some upper-body conditioning. The coach varies the activities, and the women seem to enjoy it. There is a lot of laughing and support of one another.

This half-hour warm-up is followed by a climb up the arena stairs to a small weight room that has a stunning view of the city, with golden church domes glinting in the distance. They do a timed circuit, then return to the lockerroom to suit up for the ice.

Time on the ice is one and a half to two hours. They do your normal drills and scrimmages. The atmosphere is focused, but generally relaxed and friendly, with the occasional somersault imposed as punishment for a bad mistake. The women train six days a week, with one to two ice sessions a day. To provide them with game practice, the city's various teams of thirteen year old boys take turns playing the women.

The idea of women playing hockey is still new to Russia, and the sight of girls and boys playing together was amusing to the parents who were watching from the stands. As is true in North America, any body checks that the women delivered or received were noted and commented upon. The act of a boy bending to pick up the dropped glove of a female opponent before a face-off was greeted with applause. When a boy and a girl ended up sprawled one on top of the other, the small crowd erupted in laughter. One can only be glad that these boys are being exposed to women in the sport. Perhaps these boys, when they are adults, will say, "there is women's hockey in Russia."

The women seem to have fun on the ice and are generally a happy bunch. Although practice was sometimes approached with the drudgery shown towards any job, they seemed proud of their situation. There are some close friendships, as you would expect of a group of people who share so much of their lives. There are occasional locker-room picnic lunch parties, and cakes and flowers for birthdays. They are quick to laughter, and openly affectionate.

The image I had in my head of an army-like, sports camp existence of tightly scheduled days, with grueling training in a closed environment was ill-conceived. A true camp environment is only provided immediately prior to competitions, when they spend a few days at the Novogorsk Olympic training facility, which is located just outside Moscow amid quaint dachas and snowy fields. They are taken to this center so that they can concentrate on their training, with no worries about commuting, shopping, cooking, or personal distractions. There the days are controlled-when they sleep, when they wake up. But when they're not training, there is nothing to do but sit in their rooms.

This recalls the legendary Archangel days of the men's Red Army team, when the men were forced to live in this sort of environment for eleven months out of the year, with every aspect of their lives controlled by the coach. There is the occasional reminder that the women's team is training under the vestiges of the exact same system. It was recounted to me of one instance where a couple of the women went back to their home town for a visit. At the practice following their return, they performed poorly. The coach blamed the trip for their poor performance, and forbid them from travelling home again. A short while later, an occasion arose where they had to return to their home town again. The coach told them they could not go. They went anyway, preferring to risk being "fired" from the team than living under authoritarian rule.

The coaches don't really have the luxury of cutting team members. There is not a lot of choice in terms of developed talent. Much of the roster is stable, with the older players who have strong experience in Rink Bandy providing the core of the team, but some of the players are still in development and vying for position.


All of their thoughts are focused on Kitchener. Five teams will leave this tournament to begin serious training for Nagano. Only six teams will be competing in the 1998 Olympics, and the host, Japan, automatically qualifies. That leaves the eight teams in Kitchener to compete for the five remaining entries. Canada and USA are favored to take the two top spots. Finland traditionally has a strong team, and Sweden is well considered. The remaining four teams, Norway, Switzerland, China and Russia will most likely be duking it out for the final position, with Russia and China highly favored. Team Russia is most concerned about China, the only team they have never had the opportunity to play. China, similar to Russia, has been working on building their national team in a concentrated effort. The women on team Russia are hoping to beat both Switzerland and China in the first round.

Hopes for the future, for both the women and the training staff, are riding on their qualifying for the Olympics. Olympic Team status will ensure the continuation of the National Team program. Resources are tight, however, and failure to qualify might find the women out of a job. Some of the women lack even a high school diploma, and for them, the future could be grim.

--Barbara Pickering
December, 1996

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