OTTAWA — Times have definitely changed for Alexei Yashin.
There was a time when Yashin was as popular as a throbbing toothache here in the national capital city. What started out as a love-in between him and fans of the Ottawa Senators turned into a tumultuous tenure that ended badly.
Yashin was a highly skilled forward who made many NHL headlines for the wrong reasons. He tried to have his contract renegotiated three times in five years when he played with the Senators. He sat out the 1998-99 season over a contract dispute, and there was a sketchy $1 million pledge to the National Arts Centre that was cancelled, which wound up being a public relations disaster.
But all that matters little today as the newly minted general manager of Russia’s women’s hockey team watched his squad beat Germany 4-0 in the opening game of the 2013 women’s world hockey championship on Tuesday.
Yashin was perched in the stands with girlfriend/model Carol Alt at his side. There were no autograph seekers chasing the former second-overall pick in the 1992 NHL draft, and it seemed that any lingering bad blood had long washed away.
Yashin finished his playing career last season with a Moscow-based club team. He remains on the New York Islanders payroll and pocketed $2.2 million this season, the residual of a 10-year $87.5 million contract signed with the Islanders more than a decade ago.
He jumped at the chance to become GM when the Russian Ice Hockey Federation approached him in December, despite the fact he has no previous managerial experience. Yashin’s name carries weight in Russian hockey circles. He always answered the call to play in the (men’s) world championship, and played in three Olympic Games.
"When I retired I wanted to help Russian country prepare for the (Sochi 2014) Olympic Games and the world championship,’’ he said. "After I finished my career, I decided I really wanted to help and women’s hockey is not very popular, and there are a lot of problems with a lot of things.
"So I thought if I could be part of it, it would be better. I want to see where we are at and what changes we have to do to be more competitive. We struggle with finishing. Hopefully we can continue to improve. My goal is to make sure they want to get better, they want to improve, play hard."
Active role for Yashin
Yashin takes an active role at practices. He spends time with the forwards teaching them how to be more productive when they get the puck on their sticks. He’s shown them how to hold the stick so they can release the puck quicker and with better accuracy.
While Yashin was thrilled with win over Germany, he knows much work lies ahead.
"Today we created a lot of scoring chances but we have a hard time finishing. This is how I can help them," he said. "They are not snobbish. They are normal human beings and they want to get better, and that is important for me, to be part of something where people appreciate my talent and my personality. They want to get better and I have a lot of things I can teach them.
"They understand the game but they have to get better from a skill level, make sure every shot is a quality shot."
Yashin realizes that women’s hockey in his homeland has a lot of growing pains to go through before it can keep pace with Canada and the USA. He said there is no shortage of young girls who want to play, and compared Russian hockey culture to Canada.
"A lot of the [Russian] girls grew up with the guys and they were hockey fans. That’s why it is so big in Canada. The [Russian] girls grew up with their brothers. They are big fans and they want to play. They just don’t want to sit at home and play with the dolls. They want to be part of it."
The carrot on the stick is the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi.
"It is huge especially when you play in your home country," said Yashin. "For them, it is also an opportunity to make some money because Russia, we pay very well for athletes in the Olympic Games. So for the girls it is a good chance to make a living."
The Russians are in the mix for a bronze medal at the women’s world tournament. They beat Switzerland, the defending bronze medallist, in a tune-up game last week.
"A medal would be a success. For me personally, I have been in a lot of competitions and anything can go right or wrong in one game,’’ said Yashin. "I just want to see from the girls they just give everything they can.
"I think we have a good chance to get a bronze medal. I just want to make sure they get better."