(photo credit: JenniferBotterill.com)

The 4-1 New Year’s Eve victory by Canada over Russia at the World Junior Hockey Championship represented a relatively wide margin of victory when measured against some of the historical nail-biters played between the two nations. Whether at the junior level or professional level, hockey fans are usually treated to a tight one-goal game – perhaps even in overtime – when Russia and Canada collide.

At least, that’s the norm on the men’s side.

The countries’ respective women’s national programs are separated by a chasm as wide as the distance from Ottawa to Moscow, as evidenced by the all-time results of the Women’s World Championship. In the 14 events that have been held since 1990, Canada has never finished worse than second place, capturing gold on ten occasions. Russia has a lone bronze from 2001 to show for its efforts.

With Russia set to host the Olympics in Sochi in 2014, their women’s team has enlisted the help of retired Team Canada forward Jennifer Botterill, holder of five of those world championship titles and two-time most valuable player at the world tournament.

Botterill will serve as an ambassador and role model to the Russian team as part of an International Ice Hockey Federation initiative that pairs athletes from elite countries in women’s hockey – Canada, USA, Finland and Sweden – with their opponents from nations whose programs require development.

“I’ve always been very grateful for my experiences, and try to give back whenever I can,” said Botterill in a phone interview. “When I had this chance, I thought it was a great opportunity to see if there are ways that we could help Russia. My role has been a mentor to the players.”

Over the course of four Olympics, Botterill’s teams won two lopsided head-to-head games against Russia; a 7-0 spanking in 2002 in Salt Lake City and a 12-0 walloping in 2006 in Torino. The absence of funding of any kind for the team playing in the former Soviet Republic has led to its program’s demise. At the time that Botterill played her last international game at the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver, only six rinks were available for Russian women to play hockey.

In order to level the playing field, Botterill is sharing her experiences from her tenure wearing the maple leaf that included three Olympic gold medals. “We’ve been fortunate here in North America where our culture has embraced the game, and given girls an opportunity to play,” she said. “In terms of making strides, a lot of it has been down to the basics. It’s been about nutrition for the athletes. It’s also encouraging them to have the best quality training program that they can.

”From that, there are a whole bunch of steps that are needed in order to help build women’s hockey in Russia. Hopefully from there, that will trickle down to their grassroots and lead to more people in the culture playing the game. It’s not something we’re going to necessarily solve in the next year. But you have to start somewhere, and that was the goal of this IIHF program.”

In early December, the Russian team named former NHL player Alexei Yashin as its general manager. Botterill has yet to meet face-to-face the veteran of 850 career NHL games with the Senators and Islanders, but welcomes the opportunity to work with the three-time Russian Olympian. “He’s got a lot of credibility and respect in that country,” said Botterill of Yashin, himself a two-time medalist (silver 1998, bronze 2002). “I know the entire staff was excited about his hiring. With the leadership of Yashin and his vision of hockey and understanding of the game – with the people that he’s brought in as well – it’s been a real boost for the program.”

Ever since hockey’s cold war was forged on the ice of Luzhniki Ice Palace between the likes of Paul Henderson and Vladislav Tretiak in 1972, Canada and Russia have been fierce combatants, as far the men’s teams are concerned. But for the sake of growing the women’s game, Botterill doesn’t feel the slightest loss of patriotism.

“I don’t feel any sacrifice of national pride,” she said. “If anything, it’s a different expression of it. I feel that for the future of the girls that can make the Canadian national women’s team, there is a need for these other countries to get better, or these players aren’t going to have the experiences that I was fortunate enough to have.

You need to continue to build the game so that there is that international prestige. We all want to help and give back to other countries. So in one sense, I feel like I’m being a very proud Canadian!”

Barring an extraordinary miracle, Russia isn’t likely to finish on the podium at this year’s world championship in Ottawa, or at their host Olympics in just over twelve months.

But with help from a traditional hockey rival, the pieces are in place to build a women’s program that aspires to be as successful as its male counterparts.

Rob Del Mundo is the author of Off The Post, and is a regular columnist at TMLfans.ca

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