VANCOUVER - If this was a Disney movie, the Kazakhstan hockey team would return to Victoria one more time to see the fans that adopted the plucky underdogs as their own during the group stage of this year’s world juniors. As it is, the Victoria fans can at least appreciate that Kazakhstan will play at the top rung of the tournament next year after eliminating Denmark in the relegation round in a two-game sweep.
True, the Kazakhs didn’t have a single NHL prospect on their team and there is a very good chance that Germany (who earned promotion in December) could send them back down to Division 1-A next year when the world juniors heads to the Czech Republic, but sometimes it’s nice to just sit back and appreciate the effort it took for an underdog team to beat the odds. After all, Denmark was a more experienced squad with NHL draft picks such as Jonas Rondbjerg (Vegas) and Malte Setkov (Detroit) on its roster, plus a 2019 draft prospect in goaltender Mads Sogaard, who plays for WHL Medicine Hat.
But this was Kazakhstan’s day, which ended with two empty-net goals by Artur Gatiyatov and a 4-0 victory. As the country’s national anthem rang out through Rogers Arena and the flag was raised, the Kazakhs stood at the blueline, right hands on their hearts and left arms draped around the teammate next to them.
“It’s hard to explain, but it’s a big pride for our country and for the work we’ve done,” said goalie Demin Yeremeyev through a translator. “We hit the target.”
While this tournament is undoubtedly about the top teams going for gold, it’s hard not to get into the underdog stories as well. Slovakian goalie Denis Godla was a favorite in 2015 and earned MVP and goaltender of the tournament honors in Toronto, while the Swiss rode Nino Niederreiter and goalie Benjamin Conz to a huge upset over Russia in Saskatoon back in 2010.
This year, Kazakhstan didn’t have success in the group stage, but their plucky nature caught the fancy of Victoria fans, who bought every single Kazakhstan jersey on sale at the tournament.
Against Denmark, Kazakhstan seemed to have the momentum and they definitely looked more motivated in Game 2. Just as it will be hard for Denmark’s young players to suit up in Division 1-A next year, it is also gratifying for Kazakhstan’s older kids, knowing they helped the younger guys stay in the top echelon for next year.
“For a lot of the guys it was the first time ever at the world juniors, but when they come back next year they will approach the task a lot differently,” said 19-year-old captain Sayan Daniyar. “They’ll have confidence, they won’t just think about not getting eliminated, they’ll actually think about moving forward and getting out of the group stage.”
Like many smaller hockey nations, Kazakhstan’s players have known each other since they were children, first playing against each other and then coming together on numerous national teams, like the world under-18 squad. This year’s world junior team had seven veterans from the team that won promotion from Division 1-A last season and this year’s team has nine players who will still be eligible for the 2020 world juniors.
Whatever happens in the future is to be considered another time. For now, Kazakhstan has achieved its goal and they’ll always have their adoring fans in Victoria. That, and ‘Sweet Caroline,’ of course.