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Meet the Russian sniper fighting for women’s hockey — and the Calgary Flames

Iya Gavrilova (center) and Team Scotiabank celebrate during the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association (PWHPA) Secret Dream Gap Tour at the Seven Chiefs Arena on the Tsuut’ina Nation on May 26, 2021. (Photo: Dave Holland/PWHPA).

When the bright lights of the NHL draft go down, it’s up to the American Hockey League farm teams to help promising prospects become full-fledged NHL-ers.

That’s a difficult task all on its own, but for many players, there’s the added obstacles of culture shock and language barriers.

Read more: Calgary Flames sign defenceman Yelesin

When the Calgary Flames added Russian defenceman Alex Yelesin, goalie Artyom Zagidulin and forward Dmitri Zavgorodny to the roster, they realized they needed to make a change.

“We just thought that there was a gap of making these players comfortable,” Flames Assistant General Manager Brad Pascall explained.

Enter Iya Gavrilova.

The sniper has dominated university hockey in the NCAA and then-CIS, the CWHL, the Olympics, and now, she’s the lone Russian competing for the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association.

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Read more: PWHPA’s Erin Ambrose fighting for hockey equality and mental health

But the 33-year old still remembers adjusting to life in North America as a teenager who spoke very little English.

“It wasn’t great. I was also shy, so that’s not helping to talk to people, especially in a culture where everyone is trying to make a conversation- even if it’s about nothing,” Gavrilova recalled.

The Flames organization brought Gavrilova on to translate messages in practices, team meetings and media interviews.

“She has such a great and storied hockey background of playing in the Olympics and playing college hockey and speaking perfect English and knowing hockey terminology and then being based in Calgary,” Pascall noted.

“She would be on the bench and be able to listen to what the coach would say, and then be able to clarify any questions that the players had.”

As it turned out, most of the support came off the ice.

“I think it’s made the boys more comfortable being here that they had someone to go to for something as simple as getting groceries. One of them had a dog so we had to call a vet to make sure the dog had proper shots and stuff,” Gavrilova recalled.

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“It was important for them to have some kind of translation and also a friend at the same time.”

It’s created a strong bond within the Russian group and has helped the players develop.

Earlier this year, they all saw the hard work pay off when Zagidulin made his NHL debut against the Ottawa Senators.

Now, the Flames are throwing their support behind Gavrilova and the PWHPA.

Read more: Brigette Lacquette making an impact on and off the ice

They’re the fifth NHL team to join forces with the association in hopes of creating a new professional women’s hockey league.

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“It’s important to have that resource and have a sustainable league, consistent gains and 30 to 40 games per season so we can grow and get better collectively,” Gavrilova said.

The Flames hope to see Gavrilova back on board in the future as they continue to tap into Russian talent, and she’ll continue to break language and gender barriers — continuing an impact on hockey that goes beyond goals and assists.

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