Gillian Kemmerer Gillian Kemmerer
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Anna Prugova was the youngest hockey competitor at the 2010 Olympic Games in Vancouver, debuting between the pipes for Team Russia at sixteen years and eighty-six days old. The Khabarovsk native’s career had begun only a handful of years prior, when her father stood the young goalie in front of a glass window and began to shoot pucks in the family’s backyard.

Some stars rise in a measured pace, but I think it is fair to classify Prugova’s ascension as meteoric. At twenty six, the Agidel Ufa mainstay already has two Olympic appearances, two WHL titles and two World Championship bronze medals in her rear-view mirror. Prugova posted a league-topping GAA of 1.13 in the regular season, carrying her team to a thrilling final versus the KRS Shenzhen Vanke Rays, who would ultimately dethrone the two-time Russian champions. 

When she is not sporting her eye-catching Ninja Turtles helmet on the ice, Prugova is studying toward a degree in sports business, and hopes to learn the guitar. She shared thoughts on the regular season, snapshots of her impressive career and more from quarantine.

Gillian Kemmerer (GK): How would you summarize Agidel’s 2019-2020 performance, and who were the toughest snipers that you faced throughout the season? 

Anna Prugova (AP): I would classify the season as decent-ish. I can’t say it was good because we always want to achieve the maximum result. We got to the finals, but did not reach the main goal that had been achieved both years before. But it is a big plus, because being at the same level does not always lead to growth; the demand for yourself may decrease. I am sincerely glad that such competitors as the Vanke Rays have joined the league, and that the team consists of North American players. 

Despite the current situation with the virus, we hope that there will be more teams coming to the WHL. The league is now one of the best in the world in women's hockey, but if it becomes increasingly international, that would only be better for all of us!

As for the Vanke Rays—you need to play team hockey with them, because it is very difficult to deal on an individual basis. Players in KRS are skilled and experienced; they play perfectly as a team, and individually, they look really good. It’s a pleasure to play with them! Hockey is a team sport for us, so only as a unified team can we compete with such a strong squad. 

GK: Do you feel that the injury to Maria Batalova on your blue line created more difficult circumstances during the finals? 

AP: Sure, our competitive environment is not like men’s hockey. We don’t have a large roster of players, the bench is not that long—about three lines on average, and every player is as good as gold. Masha’s loss was noticeable, the coaches needed to change some lines, and our center forward moved to defense. There were not enough strong [replacements] – but this is a common problem. The average level of most players is not so high, so there was not enough. Of course we do some line rotations during practices, but we can’t do that all of the time. There are many young players who need more experience. As you know, we in Agidel have about 50% of players under eighteen years old, so it is really hard to lose a strong player from the first line. But we continued to fight.

GK: You were pulled during Game 1 of the Finals, and then your backup Maria Sorokina suffered a season-ending injury. How difficult was it for you to return to the net? How did you strengthen yourself mentally for the challenge? 

AP: It didn’t influence me psychologically—as you know, hockey is a sport and you should be prepared for anything. Masha [Sorokina] is a fighter, and I was so sorry to see her injured. As for me, it was one of the moments in the game that I realized we needed to do anything to take the lead. It is totally ok when the team starts to lose and coaches want to shake things up, to rally the team with changes. The players started to concentrate on defense because the goalkeeper had been cold for some time, but then they began to attack more confidently.

GK: What is the story behind your Ninja Turtles mask? 

AP: When I signed a contract with Agidel, there was an idea that I needed to come up with something creative. One of my favorite childhood cartoons was the Ninja Turtles. When I was a kid, I watched this cartoon at home a lot! I took a big bowl from my mother and used it as a shell. My dad made nunchucks for me, and I wore a ribbon around my head – all so I could pretend to be a Ninja Turtle.

It is a combination of my favorite cartoon characters and the green color of Salavat Yulaev—so the idea was born by itself. I wanted to put it on my helmet. I hope that next season I will show up with a new design. It was kind of the culmination or high point of this story at All-Star Weekend when I used a Ninja Turtle mask during the skills show, but now it is time to move on and come up with something new. I’ll try to surprise Agidel fans with something else—but it will definitely be green!

GK: What is your warmup routine, and do you have any superstitions or rituals? 

AP: People say that goalkeepers are from another planet. We do have our own warmup routine, and we train separately both in preseason and tournament time. But in agreement with what Noora Räty said earlier this year, I assure you that goalkeepers are normal! More than that, we are very disciplined. Hockey players can be carefree, but for goalkeepers, discipline comes first.

I don’t always have consistent work with a goalie coach during the season, so I need to train for myself. It is important for professional players to have a coach, someone who will help you or cool you off when you need it. During the season, goalkeepers should also train by themselves to remain really disciplined!

As for the routine—before the game, [goalies] warm up separately and join the other players only in the final round to cheer each other on. At the gym, we train separately both in the preseason and during the season. The foundation of preseason preparation is very important —we do it our own way as goalies, and then we join the team and do general exercises. During the season I work with the team or, if necessary, separately.

I have my own pre-game warmup, and I do the usual exercises automatically. It seems that there are no special rituals, but they are more like subconscious habits that I do all of the time. After the anthem, I hang on the blue line for a few seconds as I tune in to the game and then come to my spot. This is the only moment that fans can notice—everything else is more like a habit. 

GK: What was the most frustrating goal ever scored on you? What did you learn from it? 

AP: There was a curious goal at the beginning of the year, at the preseason tournament in China. I made a mistake because I didn’t close to the bar, so a player easily threw from the blue line toward the goal and the puck flew to the net through my skate. It is good that this was at the beginning of the year, because it taught me to control the situation during the season. In the WHL Championships, games could be blurred—there are so many moments and different goals and saves, therefore you cannot remember everything and need to review the mistakes. At the beginning of the season, it is easy to remember and not to repeat them.

GK: You were the youngest hockey competitor at the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Games; the oldest was Sergei Fedorov at age forty. Did this superlative add any pressure to the experience? 

AP: I think participation in the Olympics at such a young age determined my professional growth. I saw how professionals played and behaved. When you get into such an important event at a young age, you learn how to behave not only on the field of play, but everywhere else. The human factor was the main one.

As an athlete, of course, after the Olympics I wanted to continue to work, to achieve more and more heights, to train more and compete with the national teams of Canada and the USA. I still believe that we can move forward and be competitive with both. Maybe not right now, but the next generation Russian team will play at the same level and will have excellent results. A great chance to experience it is to play with the Vanke Rays at the WHL Championships!

GK: What role do you feel that Alexei Yashin has played in the development of the Russian women’s national team? 

AP: I can write a whole article about Alexei Yashin. I've known him since 2013, when he became the GM of the women's national team, ending his career as a player. It was Women’s Worlds in Ottawa that year. Alexei always came to the ice with the team during training camps. Can you imagine—such a big-name star, but he was so easy to communicate with, and chatted with everyone on the team. We usually bet for a chocolate in shootouts…it was fun!

Any female hockey player always strives for male players to reach out, to be at the same level. For me, Yashin is an excellent motivator who inspires you to play well against him, fight and work hard to be better.

I have only positive emotions from his work with the team, and I am glad that under his leadership, our team won bronze medals (twelve years after no medals) in the city where he played for an NHL club for a long time. He always has a positive attitude toward women's hockey.

GK: Describe your decision to become a goalie. Do you remember your first hockey experiences as a child? 

AP: I was born in Khabarovsk, in the Far East of Russia. When I was ten, there was a new ice arena in Khabarovsk, and my mother bought us tickets for a KHL Amur game. It was the first time that stands were full every night and everything was concentrated around hockey in the city. We bought season tickets and came to every game. 

In early March, I said that I wanted to become a goalkeeper despite many other options. I attended singing lessons and sang in a choir, played volleyball at school, and my mother wanted me to go to music school. My parents discussed it, and decided to let me try [hockey]. I will always be grateful to them that they gave me a chance to try. 

From my first look at a hockey rink, I knew that I wanted to be a goalkeeper and I have never regretted it! I liked the way that goalies moved in net, and when they caught the puck, everybody cheered for them. And I liked that the goalkeepers had painted helmets, while all of the other players looked the same. 

On the eve of March 8th, International Women’s Day, my dad and I came to the store and bought goalkeeper equipment. I did not care about the quality, but now I realize it was kind of retro for that moment! Regardless, I was very happy to have a real goalie uniform. I bought a helmet, a catcher, a blocker, ice skates and a wooden stick. At home, my dad taught me using the “Brazilian system,” as we call it. 

[Note: The Brazilian system is a slang expression from the Russian children’s program “Eralash.” A young boy convinces his friend to become a soccer goalie, coaching him via the so-called “Brazilian system.” The new goalie is stood in front of a barber shop window, forcing him to make saves to prevent breaking the glass]. 

My dad put me in front of the window and started throwing pucks. Mom came home from work and was shocked to find her child standing in front of the window, fully equipped and playing hockey! 

It was a success, and a perfect time for me to become a hockey player. Traditionally, all of the hockey teams were located far from us—in Moscow and central Russia (7,000 kilometers away), the Ural region (5,000 kilometers) or Kazakhstan (4,000 kilometers). But there was an amateur women's team in Khabarovsk created by Nataliya Trunova – she was a goalkeeper who played for the national team of Kazakhstan. She decided that she wanted to give girls the opportunity to play hockey at an amateur level. This idea was supported by the director of the ice arena, so I started to play women's hockey on this team. Although I played on women's teams, at the same time, I played on men’s teams for five years. It helped me to grow because men are physically stronger, and it always motivated me to develop. 

GK: Has the perception of women's hockey in Russia changed at all during your career? 

AP: I have noticed the biggest progress in the last two years. There is more and more media coverage and interest from journalists, and more girls want to play hockey at a young age. Some years ago, everyone thought that all female hockey players were big, square and muscular, had no teeth and were injured all of the time. I have heard that many times for myself, and should say that now these stereotypes are not so common. Just look at us— hockey players can be feminine too, and the sport does not wreck your body. Ice hockey requires a special kind of character: you should be a warrior, should not give in, and aspire to victory. The WHL has influenced a new point of view on women’s hockey, so more and more people have an interest in it. 

GK: What are your interests outside of the hockey sphere?

AP: Right now, I am concentrated on studying. This lockdown helped me to find time and focus. I read a lot of specific literature, and am finishing my graduation work. It is not connected to coaching, but a lot about marketing in sports and advertising. I have read and understand why all sporting events are so popular in America—they can attract 100,000 spectators for every game. It takes me a lot of time to study, and during the season I have no time or motivation. Sometimes in the evening after a game, I just want to relax. I also like drawing by numbers because it distracts me from everything, and I could do it all night!

I want to learn to play the guitar, and to learn English to speak at native level. But right now I prioritize finishing my studies, and I understand that it’s impossible to put everything into my head at the same time.

A special thank you to the WHL’s Valentina Volokitina for translation assistance.

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