KOSICE – It’s great to host a party like the World Championship. When most of us throw a party our first priority is, of course, to make sure our guests have a good time. But it’s not a lot of fun if you – the host nation – just watch everyone else dig in and enjoy themselves while you, meanwhile, don’t get anywhere near the desert table. At that point, you’re just waiting for people to leave.
Belarus will host the 2014 IIHF World Championship and they are doing all they can to make sure their team, and supporters, won’t be feeling left out.
“Playing in Belarus, in Minsk, in three years in front of thousands of people and friends and relatives makes it a significant responsibility for us. We know this,” acknowledges Team Belarus general manager Sviatoslav Kiselev.
The team is struggling this year. A 2-1 overtime loss to France in their final Preliminary Round game sealed their fate – Belarus will now have to fight through the Relegation Round in order to stay up in the top level for the 2012 IIHF World Championship. But Kiselev, and fellow Belarusian hockey officials, realize they must keep pushing forward and looking at the big picture of the future of the game in their country, and not just one tournament.
“There is pressure to win, but there is also pressure because we see how ice hockey is improving and developing in other countries right now,” says Kiselev. “We don’t want to be left behind. We want to continue to grow and develop with all of the other hockey countries.”
Canada has played a role in recent developments of the sport in Belarus. Glen Hanlon and Curt Fraser traded off coaching duties from 2005 to 2009. Swiss national team head coach Sean Simpson was also involved in Belarusian hockey a few years back.
“There were things that we could take from people like Hanlon and Fraser and things we could learn. They’ve been a great help,” Kiselev says. “The coach we have now [Minsk native Eduard Zankovets] started his coaching career as an assistant coach when Hanlon was first here in 2005, then he continued in this position when Fraser took over.”
Play at this tournament aside, Belarus has a decent core of players, who will be around in 2014 (subject to NHL playoffs). Both Andrei and Sergei Kostitsyn will be there. Mikhail Grabovski, the captain of this year’s team, wants to play. Ruslan Salei, despite the fact that he’ll be 39 by then, would probably love to play in his home country. Up and coming prospects include Nikolai Suslo, who was selected as the best forward at the World U20 Championship Division I last December.
On the club team level there are some positive results for Belarusian hockey. Dinamo Minsk made the playoffs in the KHL for the first time. Another club team, Yunost Minsk, won the IIHF Continental Cup in January. Both teams featured players who are also on the Belarusian national team – nine from Dynamo and three from Yunost.
“Ice hockey is team sport number one in Belarus,” says Kiselev. “I’m involved in the process of getting ready for 2014 and I find it difficult to put into words how excited we are about the tournament. Right now is a very exciting time for Belarusian hockey and I’m happy to be a part of it.”
Let’s just hope the Belarusians enjoy the party as much as everyone else does.