MANNHEIM – Kazakhstan is struggling to keep its place in the World Championship's elite division, last managing that feat between 2004 and 2006. And yet, the former Soviet republic of 16 million inhabitants has made its mark on the international hockey scene in other ways.
Here are ten quirky facts about the nation that joined the International Ice Hockey Federation on May 6, 1992.
1) Team Canada GM Mark Messier has an old teammate on this year's Kazakh squad, although it's unlikely the two have kept in touch. Starting goalie Vitali Yeremeyev played four games for Messier's New York Rangers in 2000-01 before being released.
2) The first Israeli hockey player ever drafted by an NHL team was born in Kazakhstan. Max Birbraer entered this world on December 15, 1980 in Ust-Kamenogorsk. The son of ethnic Jewish parents, Birbraer moved to Israel with his family at age 15, and first suited up in Israeli colours in 1997. In 2000, he was selected in the third round (67th overall) by the New Jersey Devils. Today, the big left wing plays for the Cardiff Devils in Great Britain's EIHL.
3) The first coach to lead Kazakhstan into the Olympic Games was a renowned former Russian hockey star. Boris Alexandrov emerged as a sniper with CSKA Moscow in the 1970s, and scored the 3-3 tying in the famous 1975 New Year's Eve game against the Montreal Canadiens. After a stint with Spartak Moscow, he finished up his Soviet-era playing career with five seasons for Torpedo Ust-Kamenogorsk. A couple of years after retiring, he was invited to coach both the latter club and the Kazakh national team. His Olympic squad finished eighth at the '98 Games in Nagano. Tragically, Alexandrov, who had overcome a drinking problem, died in a car accident in 2002 at age 46.
4) At the 1998 Olympics, the biggest win Kazakhstan earned was a 4-3 decision over a Slovak team, which, despite being undermanned, featured stars like Peter Bondra and Robert Svehla. That got Kazakhstan out of the preliminary qualifying round and into the main tournament in Group B, where it didn't fare as well versus Russia (9-2), the Czech Republic (8-2), and Finland (8-2).
5) Kazakhstan doesn't have the oldest player in the 2010 IIHF World Championship: that honour belongs to Denmark with 42-year-old defenceman Jesper Duus. However, the Kazakhs do have two 1968-born forwards in their lineup: captain Alexander Koreshkov and Konstantin Shafranov. And both starred at the 1998 Olympics. In fact, Koreshkov finished fourth in tournament scoring (3-6-9) behind Teemu Selänne, Saku Koivu, and Pavel Bure, while Shafranov was sixth (4-3-7) behind France's Philippe Bozon.
6) While the Kazakhs rarely score many goals in the elite division (they peaked in 2004 with 15 in six games), it was a different story when they faced lower-calibre competition in the 2007 Asian Winter Games. In fact, they put up scores reminiscent of Canada's efforts in the pre-1950s era of international hockey, smashing Thailand 52-1 and the United Arab Emirates 38-0. However, apparently the Kazakhs should have saved some goals for the final stage, since they relinquished the title to Japan after a 3-2 loss.
7) Which defenceman do you think holds the record for most points in a single season of top-level Russian/Soviet club hockey? If you guessed the legendary Vyacheslav Fetisov, who was voted to the IIHF's Centennial All-Star Team in 2008, you'd be wrong. With 28 goals and 29 assist, Canadian blueliner Kevin Dallman set the new record in 2008-09 with Barys Astana, Kazakhstan's KHL team. Remarkably, the native of Niagara Falls, Ontario, never came anywhere close to such numbers in his 154 games with the NHL's Boston Bruins and Los Angeles Kings (8-23-31 in total).
8) Another Barys Astana player has a special connection to IIHF history: goalie Jeff Glass, who served as the team's starter last season. The 24-year-old former Kootenay Ice star and Ottawa Senators prospect made his biggest impact internationally when he backstopped Canada to the 2005 World Junior gold medal in Grand Forks, North Dakota. That team, featuring future Olympic champions like Sidney Crosby, Corey Perry, Ryan Getzlaf, Mike Richards, and Shea Weber, is widely regarded as the most dominant WJC entry of all time.
9) Kazakhstan was also responsible for perhaps Canada's darkest moment ever at the World Juniors. In 1998, the motherland of hockey's winning streak with five straight gold medals came to an abrupt halt. In the game to decide seventh place, the Kazakhs thumped Canada 6-3, with star forward Nikolai Antropov earning three assists.
10) Later in 1998, Nikolai Antropov became the first Kazakh ever chosen in the first round of the NHL Draft (10th overall to Toronto). He remains the best-known player ever exported by the Central Asian nation, with more than 600 NHL games under his belt. As Toronto fans ruefully noted this year, the 30-year-old notched a career-best, team-leading 67 points in his first season with the Atlanta Thrashers.