Gillian Kemmerer Gillian Kemmerer
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One of Alexei Yashin’s most emotional moments in Ottawa occurred after he had hung up his skates, twenty years past a hotly-anticipated NHL debut. As GM of Russia’s Women’s National Team, he helped a roster of young stars to capture a bronze medal at the 2013 World Championships, their first podium appearance in twelve years. Yashin’s tearful reaction was one of the most enduring images of the tournament—both a celebration of his team’s achievements, and a reckoning with his own retirement.

Former captain of both the Ottawa Senators and New York Islanders, Yashin began his career with Avtomobilist Sverdlovsk and Dynamo Moscow, notching two Russian championships before a twelve-season stint in North America. He returned to Russia in 2007 to play for Lokomotiv Yaroslavl and SKA Saint Petersburg, eventually retiring from his childhood favorite club—CSKA—in 2012. Yashin, 46, splits his time between New York and Moscow, and will be inducted into the IIHF Hall of Fame later this year.

Yashin participated in WHL All Star Weekend this season, and continues to keep a hand in hockey both philanthropically and as a minority investor in the Vegas Golden Knights. We discussed his work with women’s hockey, views on KHL development and much more from Moscow.

Gillian Kemmerer (GK): The last time I saw you, we were on Red Square for the WHL All Star outdoor game. I knew of your involvement in women’s hockey in Russia, but I was wondering how it all began?

Alexei Yashin (AY): I was at the end of my playing career, and I knew that I wanted to be involved with hockey—especially international hockey. The Women’s General Manager position had opened up and not a lot of people paid attention to women’s hockey in Russia. I spoke with Vladislav Tretiak and said, “Let me help them prepare for the Olympic Games in Sochi.” I took the job one year and a half before the Games and was trying to figure out how to help them. I didn’t know much about the competition inside Russia because I had been in the States. I helped them with my skills on the ice, to bring the girls together and build the team to get better results.

My contract was until 2014, and while we didn’t get the result we wanted to in Sochi, the girls played very hard and we had a tough loss against Switzerland. They had probably the best goalie in the world [Florence Schelling] who had played in a men’s league. We just couldn’t score despite having so many chances.

GK: You were brought to tears when the women’s team won bronze at 2013 Worlds. That tournament took place in Ottawa. Did the location add an extra layer of emotion for you?

AY: I know a lot of people were sad because I got very emotional in Ottawa. The girls did me a huge favor and played very well. I got very emotional when they won the bronze medal. We wanted to narrow the gap between us and the United States and Canada. It hasn’t happened yet, but that bronze medal was like gold for everyone else.

The girls really played hard. I got emotional because it happened in the building where I had played for the Ottawa Senators for many years and had started my NHL career. I came over at nineteen years old and here I was, almost 40 or 41, and I understood that my hockey career was over. On one hand I was so happy for the girls, and on the other, I had been playing hockey for almost twenty-five years and I understood that it was done. I had to do something different.

GK: How would you assess the state of women’s pro hockey in Russia right now?

AY: I am glad that we have a very strong league. The Chinese team from Kunlun who won the championship has a lot of big stars—[former NHLer] Bobby Carpenter’s daughter Alex plays there. A lot of big stars from North America play in the Russian league and it is great for hockey. I think the girls are playing in better environments—[Agidel] Ufa basically plays in the men’s arena. They haven’t drawn huge crowds yet which we are hoping will happen in the future, but at the same time, they are moving in the right direction. They run games on KHL TV which helps women’s hockey to be recognized in Russia. Of course, there is nothing you can do without putting money into it. I am very happy that the KHL is helping the [WHL] to have the right stuff to run successful hockey clubs. At the same time, the national team has improved a lot. Before, it was a success to win medals—now we are contenders. I hope that this gap with the U.S. and Canada will get smaller and smaller. I just wish the girls the best of luck.

GK: You played in the Soviet, Russian and Kontinental Hockey Leagues. What progress has been made?

AY: I played for my hometown for one year, and then two years with Dynamo Moscow. We won two championships in Russia. When I came back, I played for Lokomotiv Yaroslavl and went twice to the finals. I played for SKA and I played for Red Army—basically most of the teams in the Western Conference who fight for the lead! They are very professional clubs with good support.

When I came back, they had built new arenas. It was not 20-25,000 seats like in North America, but 10-12,000 is a good number for now. I was very happy to play there and the environment was great. The competition level has been high and star players from North America have come to Russia to play. The fans were happy to see me back and I tried to be the best I could be for them.

GK: Looking at your career timeline, it struck me that you played on Lokomotiv Yaroslavl just two seasons before the plane crash.

AY: I was in New York [at the time of the crash] and knew a lot of people there—some very close friends of mine were on the plane. It was devastating news and you cannot really understand that it happened—even today. It was very hard for a lot of people who played together.

GK: You coincided with Maxim Afinogenov during your time at SKA. Can you believe that he is still playing in the KHL at 40?

AY: I can believe he’s still playing! He was probably one of the fastest players ever in professional hockey. It’s all about desire and your reason to play. If you want to keep yourself in shape, that’s great—hockey is not like other sports that are not very physical. You have to be in shape and spend a lot of time outside of the ice surface training. The older you become, the harder it is to do. Over time, the desire to play wears out and people retire afterward. I see in Max that he still wants to play, and we keep in touch. It’s great that he has continued to do what he loves to do.

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GK: I know that you watch a lot of KHL games when you are in Russia. What are some of the standout talents you’ve witnessed?

AK: There is a lot [of talent] on Red Army and SKA—but I look at almost every team. I always keep an eye on the teams I played for both in the NHL and the KHL. Last season, Red Army won the championship and of course there was big buzz about Ilya Sorokin as a goalie. He played so well and was drafted by the New York Islanders. The way he played, he gave an opportunity for CSKA to win. Kaprizov, of course, is a young guy who became a superstar in Russia. We’ve been good friends and I keep an eye on him too. He’s going to try himself in the National Hockey League, and I wish him all the best. SKA is playing with guys from the national junior team and it’s exciting, you know? There is still a lot of talent coming from the Russian juniors who go on to be top players.

GK: Are there any early coaches to whom you attribute your success and development?

AY: My first experience at Avtomobilist Sverdlovsk [now Yekaterinburg] was with Viktor Kuznetsov. I was almost sixteen years old and he gave my line from the junior hockey team the chance to play a full season. I really appreciated this decision to let us play and develop our skills on the big stage.

Afterward I was recognized by Dynamo Moscow and I was very happy to be a part of two Russian Championship teams. Vladimir Yurzinov, Pyotr Vorobyov and Zinetula Bilyaletdinov all became star coaches in the Russian league and worked in North America and Europe. Yurzinov became very special to me because even after I went to North America, we kept in touch and practiced together over twenty years of my career. We kept a very close relationship and he was a big part of my hockey life. Because of him, I found a lot of success.

Владимир Юрзинов и Алексей Яшин. Фото: Владимир Беззубов

GK: Who gifted your first pair of skates?

AY: My Mom and Dad were both athletes. They gave me a little stick and little skates when I was three years old, and we would skate outside of my apartment building. Throughout my career, they helped me a lot. Sometimes parents enroll kids in hockey school and leave the kids on their own with their interests or what they will do later. My Mom and Dad were very close and made me feel like I had support at every stage.

GK: Did you grow up idolizing Red Army like many players of your generation? You were maturing in their golden era.

AY: It’s a funny story with me, because I always wanted to play for Red Army. At seventeen years old, I had the choice of playing for Red Army or Dynamo Moscow—and I chose Dynamo! It was kindof weird.

GK: Hold on—why did you do that?

AY: I was at an interesting stage—my Dad, Mom and I altogether made the decision. My Dad spoke with [Dynamo head coach] Vladimir Yurzinov and he said, “We can’t pay a lot of money but I can see talent in him, and I will help him to become a very good hockey player. He will make up in the future what he loses now.” This approach interested us. I understood that in order to get a good contract or lifestyle eventually, you have to be a good hockey player first and focus on that. We became close with Yurzinov and he helped me throughout my career until I retired.

GK: Who specifically did you idolize from the Soviet era?

AY: Kharlamov and Tretiak—I wanted to be like them. But after, because I played as a centre, I wanted to be like Igor Larionov. He was the centre of the KLM line and the first unit of the Soviet national team—Larionov, Makarov, Krutov, Fetisov and Kasatonov. When I was little, I idolized these hockey players for many years. I was very happy because in the future, we met and became good friends.

GK: What does “life after hockey” look like for you right now?

AY: Two things—the first is charity work. I do weekly master classes on Red Square and I am invited to give hockey trainings and lessons in different cities. I work a little bit with the Russian Hockey Federation and Sirius Group in Sochi, where they bring kids from all over the country [to play hockey].

On the investment side, I have become a part of the Vegas Golden Knights in the NHL. It’s a small part of the team, but it gives me an opportunity to cheer for them. There’s a big time difference between Moscow and Las Vegas—every morning during the season, I wake up and see the results or actually sometimes I catch the second or third period.

Basically I concentrate on the business side to make money to live on, and charity programs where I can help other people to improve their hockey skills or raise money for those in need.

GK: And lastly, how are you keeping fit during quarantine?

AY: We are in an unknown situation—we’ve had to stop the full economy. I don’t think it has ever been like this. Doctors and governments have a plan and I am trying to be a good citizen, following the restrictions and staying home. In Moscow, we can only walk toward the closest food store and otherwise stay in our apartments.

The funniest part is that I spend hundreds of dollars a month to be part of a fitness club. Now I bought myself a little machine, basically a small stepper, and I do cardio work while watching TV! Pushups with some rubber band work, biceps, a routine. I’ve been doing that for almost four weeks and I was happy to see that I lost some weight. You can’t really go outside to run or do some exercises, but I’m glad I’ve found a way to stay home and be healthy.

It’s nice when big stars go on TV and tell you what to do, but it’s basically one minute of work. Even now, I do a routine or workout between an hour fifteen, an hour thirty. It’s a little different than giving a speech on Instagram!

A lot of athletes, when they finish careers, wonder what to do. You don’t play anymore and there’s no reason to practice. I tried to put it into my mind to keep in shape. If you want to do that, you still have to do the work. Instead of going to the office, I go to the gym—and it has become part of my job! It takes a lot of time because the older you get, the more work you have to do. It’s how you keep yourself busy and it helped me to retire in a good way. Not a lot of athletes retire easily because they don’t have the feel of competition and fans cheering. You lose a lot of this “oomph” in your life, so that’s why I try to keep myself in the best possible shape.

Алексей Яшин. Фото: Юрий Кузьмин

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