When CBC kicks off its Olympic hockey coverage next week, viewers in Canada will see a familiar, yet rather strange, face as part of the team. Former Ottawa Senators and New York Islanders star Alexei Yashin will serve as an in-studio panelist for both the men’s and women’s tournament.
The last most of us in the hockey world heard of Yashin was three years ago, when he finally came off the New York Islanders’ payroll, eight years after being bought out by the team. Yashin, who went on to star in the KHL after leaving the Islanders, was the GM of Russia’s women’s program for two years, up to and including the 2014 Games team that had six players suspended over what was found to be systemic doping violations. As a result, both the men’s and women’s teams will compete as Olympic Athletes of Russia in PyeongChang.
Trevor Pilling, the head of CBC sports programming, said it was important to get some international flavor in the network’s hockey coverage, given that these Olympics will be the first in 20 years in which NHLers won’t be participating. Yashin, who played in the KHL until 2012 and represented Russia in three Olympics, will be able to give viewers a less Canada-centric view of hockey coverage. He’ll be part of the CBC’s panel, along with Craig Button and P.J. Stock, that will provide analysis pre- and post-games as well as between periods and for the network’s daily hockey show, which will air each morning of the Games.
“They told me I have to wear a jacket and a tie,” Yashin told THN.com in a telephone interview. “I haven’t done that too much since I retired, the tie especially. I think I can bring some expertise and I think they’ll be looking for some European perspective and the Russian team is very strong, so they probably thought they needed somebody from Russia.”
That was exactly what Pilling was thinking when he approached Yashin to be part of CBC’s coverage. “We thought that it would be relevant to have Alexei as part of our coverage,” Pilling said. “It will definitely give us a different look and some different opinions and perspectives. A lot of the players will be a lot less familiar with our audience and we thought he would be able to help connect people with them and speak to the different hockey systems.”
Yashin admits he’s a little nervous about the assignment. He has done some TV work in Russia, but this will be the first time he does it in English. “It’s the Olympics, it’s a big deal, you know?” Yashin said. “Hopefully I can do a good job and help Canadians to enjoy the Olympics. I did lots of interviews in English when I played, so I don’t think that is going to be a problem.”
This will indeed be an interesting Olympics for everyone involved. Not only will there be no NHL players, which opens the tournament up to a whole host of players who are not household names, but the Russian teams will be competing as individuals under the Olympic Athletes of Russia banner. As someone who so proudly wore his country’s colors in both the Olympics and World Championships, Yashin can relate to the identity crisis. In 1992, he represented the Commonwealth of Independent States at the World Junior Championship in Germany during the breakup of the former Soviet Union. His team won gold in that event, just as the Russian team is a favorite to do in these Olympics.
“We started that tournament as the Soviet Union team, but by the end of the tournament it had collapsed and they gave us a different name,” Yashin said. “It’s a little different this time. To me personally, of course it’s a disappointment because I didn’t see enough evidence from the Olympic committee, but at the same time they made their decision and we move forward. They’re probably going to have the strongest hockey team in the tournament and hopefully they’re going to win the gold medal.”
Yashin headed the women’s team in 2014 that had six players who were allegedly part of a systemic doping scandal, and even though he was a part of the team’s inner circle, he steadfastly insists he knew nothing of it. “I didn’t see any of this going on,” Yashin said. “I’m just reading from the press what is going on. To me, a lot of this is relying on one person’s (whistleblower Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov) testimony,” Yashin said. “How accurate it is, I can’t say, because I’m no longer in the system, but I’m disappointed because a lot of Russian athletes got caught up in the scandal. I think as a fan of the sport, we all want a clean competition.