- Associated Press - Sunday, February 9, 2014

SOCHI, Russia (AP) - Yekaterina Pashkevich remembers playing in front of a Russian crowd as rowdy as the one that cheered on the country’s women’s hockey team for its Olympic opener.

It was in 1996, when she played in the European championships a few hours’ drive from Moscow.

“But I’m the only one who remembers it,” said Pashkevich, who at 41 is the oldest player in Olympic women’s hockey history. “We haven’t played in Russia in a very long time in front of similar a crowd. We really haven’t experienced anything like that.”

In a country with a lot of ice and a long history of success on it, the Russian women’s hockey team stands out for its lack of international credentials. The Russian women have never medaled at an Olympics, and they reached the semifinals of the world championships just once in the event’s first two decades.

But the announcement that the 2014 Winter Games would be in Sochi helped redirect resources to the women’s game. Russia finished fourth at the 2011 world championships and reached the podium at last year’s worlds, winning its first bronze medal since 2001.

“Last year, when we went to Ottawa (for the world championships), the expectation was for winning the medal out there,” said Pashkevich, a Moscow native who is working as a union electrician in Worcester, Mass. “The last few years, you did see it.”

Olga Sosina scored twice as Russia netted four goals in a span of 7 minutes, 11 seconds to turn a one-goal deficit into a three-goal victory to beat Germany 4-1 on Sunday. Yekaterina Smolentzeva had a goal and two assists, and Yulia Leskina made 14 saves for Russia in her Olympic debut on her 23rd birthday.

The Russians are trying to play their way out of the second-tier Group B and into a spot in the quarterfinals. Only the top two teams in the round-robin will make the elimination stage, where they will meet the bottom two teams in Group A; the top two teams in the upper tier will get a bye to the semifinals.

Sweden won its Group B opener 1-0 over Japan on Sunday when Jenni Asserholt deflected a shot into the net for a first-period goal.

Group A play continues on Monday with Canada facing Finland and the United States meeting Switzerland.

A crowd of 5,048 banged drums and chanted “Ro-ssi-ya! Ro-ssi-ya!” - the biggest and most boisterous group yet at the puck-shaped venue on the coast of the Black Sea. It’s no secret that the Russians love their hockey, but to see the attention focused on the women’s team was refreshing for coach Mikhail Chekanov.

“They gave us all the support,” he said. “They gave us a lot of fire.”

Forward Iya Gavrilova, who attended the University of Minnesota-Duluth, said she had goosebumps when she came onto the ice and felt like women’s hockey was getting the attention it deserved. She credited former NHL star and the Russian women’s team general manager Alexei Yashin for boosting the sport’s popularity.

Pashkevich played for Russia in the 2002 and 2006 Winter Games - the country didn’t even qualify for the Olympics when the sport made its debut in 1998 - and came out of retirement to compete on her native soil.

Things have changed.

“You can see more and more girls playing hockey. My sister says, ‘Every time you turn on the TV, you’re on there,’” she said. “When I was a kid, I was a weirdo for wanting to play hockey.”

With the new attention, though, come new expectations.

The Russian men face high expectations for the Sochi Games, with star Alexander Ovechkin the focus of most of the pressure. Pashkevich said the women don’t mind the added attention, and they expect to thrive in it.

“We’ve got some pressure - obviously everyone in our federation worked hard to get us where we are. So we feel the pressure to do well,” she said. “But I feed off of it. I’m a performer. I love playing for fans, so it was awesome.”


Follow Jimmy Golen on Twitter at: https://www.twitter.com/jgolen.

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