Russian forward Yekaterina Pashkevich (72), a former running back for the now-defunct Manchester Freedom of the U.S. Independent Women's Football League, battles for the puck with Japanese forward Hanae Kubo (21) in a preliminary-round women's hockey game on Tuesday during the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games at Shayba Arena. Russia won, 2-1. (USA TODAY Sports)
From football in Manchester to women's hockey in Sochi, Russian trailblazer has had long career
SOCHI, Russia — For Russian women's ice hockey trailblazer Yekaterina Pashkevich, the Sochi Olympics have become her Super Bowl.
An eclectic athletic career that began by playing ice hockey with the boys in Moscow, before a switch to field hockey followed by nine seasons competing on the American gridiron as a running back in the United States Independent Women's Football League, Pashkevich has come full circle.
A charter member of Russia's first women's national hockey team assembled in 1993, Pashkevich hung up the football cleats and dusted off her skates in an unlikely return to competition late in 2012.
The 41-year-old forward — who spent several years with the Manchester, N.H., Freedom in the USIWFL before the team disbanded after the 2011 season — became the oldest woman to play in an Olympic ice hockey game on Sunday when she skated out onto the Shayba Arena ice to face Germany in their Sochi opener.
An assistant captain, Pashkevich wears the number 72, the year of her birth and the great Summit Series between the Soviet Union and Canada that gripped two nations during the height of the Cold War.
"It feels unbelievable, just the emotions, the high," Pashkevich told reporters after Russia's dramatic 4-1 comeback win over the Germans that sent the capacity crowd into a celebration frenzy on Sunday. "We had an awesome first game, a great start for our team. We can be very happy right now.
"We're not used to playing in front of so many of our own fans. It's been a while since a lot of big tournaments for me personally so it was unbelievable to play in front of our own crowd."
Russia has never placed higher than fifth at an Olympics but with the Winter Games being staged at the Black Sea resort, the Russian Ice Hockey Federation poured resources into the women's program in an effort to land the team on the podium.
At the 2012 world championships Russia lost all five games but a year later saw the first returns on their considerable investment by taking bronze at the 2013 worlds.
On Tuesday, Russia raised its record at Sochi to 2-0 with a 2-1 victory over Japan.
While on a tour of North America with the Russian team in 1994, Pashkevich was offered a chance to stay in the United States and settled in the Boston area, where she continues to live, coaching and working as an electrician.
She played for Russia in the 2002 and 2006 Olympics, retiring after the Turin Games and throwing herself into her new passion — football — and following the New England Patriots.
"They are similar as far as intensity and physicality of the game, but they are very different tactics, techniques," she said of her two sports.
"Just the toughness, the mental toughness, in football is unbelievable. You have to be focused no matter what bumps and bruises you just have to play hard and stay tough."
Pashkevich had been retired for nearly seven years when she made the short trip up to Vermont in 2012 to visit with some of her former teammates playing in the world championships.
It was on the way home that she decided she had to make a comeback and grab the chance to play in an Olympics on home ice.
"At first I thought, 'Oh my God, I'm so old,'" said Pashkevich, known as "Mama Katia" to her teammates.
"I am pretty proud of myself to come back at that age. I am not what I used to be, but whatever experience I can use to help the youngsters, I want to help."
While Pashkevich has indicated Sochi will mark the end of her ice hockey career she has not closed the door completely on the possibility of reappearing for the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Games.
"I want to say 'no,' but I've tried to stop twice before, and here I am," Pashkevich said. "I'll never say never."