SARAJEVO - Despite being newcomers at this level, Turkmenistan blazed through the competition to win a place at the 2019 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division III.
The up-and-coming Central Asians were in a class of their own in the winner-take-all encounter against hosts Bosnia & Herzegovina at the 2018 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division III Qualification. Trailing 1-3 after the first frame, Turkmenistan fought back and steamrolled their opponents in ruthless fashion during the next two periods. A barrage of unanswered goals silenced the expectant home crowd and saw Turkmenistan sail away to a 13-3 victory at the Olympic Hall Juan Antonio Samaranch (aka Zetra Olympic Hall).
Earlier in the tournament, Bayram Allayarov's men had needed one period to get on the scoresheet, before three final frame goals saw off United Arab Emirates 4-0 on the opening day. Ahead of their second game, the Turkmen had found their scoring touch as they annihilated fellow newcomers Kuwait 24-2.
Scoring a whopping 41 times while only conceding five throughout the tournament, Turkmenistan captain Ahmet Gurbanov led the team in scoring with 6+6 in three games, closely followed by Pavel Barkovskiy's 3+8. Netminder Keremli Charyyev was hardly tested and only faced 29 shots in 140 minutes of play.
The 2019 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division III now awaits the new kid on the block on the hockey scene who come a long way since being admitted as an associate member of the IIHF in May 2015.
"We enjoyed ourselves here. Everything was perfect for our team and I also got to score in every game," said 23-year-old Dovlut Soyunov on his experience in Sarajevo. As one of 15 players on the roster representing Galkan, Soyunov and his compatriots' hard work are paying dividends as they aim to continue their rise in the World Championship program.
"We practise six days a week. We love hockey and our aim is to promote to division three, two and one. That is the reason we train so hard," he said of his team which so far is undefeated in a short history of competing at international level.
Predominantly a desert nation with a population of almost 5,7 million, Turkmenistan introduced itself to the international ice hockey world just over a year ago. Competing at the 2017 Asian Winter Games they won all their games in Japan's Sapporo to finish top of Division II.
While horse-riding, wrestling and martial arts are among the most popular sports in Turkmenistan, ice hockey has been on a steady rise since the first indoor rink was opened in the country's capital Ashgabat in 2006. The first domestic tournament was played in 2012.
"I had just been skating as a kid, but in 2006 I started to play hockey, then after 2012 hockey really took off in Turkmenistan," said Soyunov.
The first national championship was contested in 2013/2014, with all the country's eight teams currently based in Ashgabat.
"Our biggest ice arena holds 10,000 (Winter Sports Palace in Ashgabat) and we have four ice rinks in Ashgabat. In Galkan there's one more and we have another one coming in the town of Mary," said Soyunov.
With Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan and Iran as it's neighbours, Turkmenistan has instead opted to establish stronger ties with another former Soviet Republic which been contributing to their success with their hockey program.
Starting back in 2014 when Turkmenistan's first national champions Galkan were invited to Minsk in Belarus for the 2014 World Championships, the exchange between the two countries have since continued.
"We like their style of teaching hockey and we also visited Belarus before the 2017 Asian Winter Games," said Soyunov. "We were back in Minsk for a training camp for thirteen days in December last year."
While Turkmenistan's hockey program is on an ascent upwards, Bosnia & Herzegovina will be left wondering what could have been at the 2018 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division III Qualification.
Going into their final game with two consecutive wins, the hosts came out with all guns blazing against Turkmenistan.
Their influential second line saw Mirza Omer take a leading role from the outset. He opened the scoring at 4:28, had a hand in second as Bosnia & Herzegovina's lead was doubled a minute and a half later. Despite Turkmenistan replying at 7:50 with Soyunov firing home straight after Barkovskiy's winning the face off, the crowd of 1,000 were soon at its feet again. Omer once again being the provider when rounding Turkmenistan's cage to find pick out Amon Rakic for 3-1 at 11:40.
Omer's 2+10 minutes misconduct penalty for checking to the head at 16:18, was followed up by compatriot Nermin Logo who got ten minutes for unsportsmanlike conduct at 19:58. Two incidents that turned out to be disastrous for Bosnia & Herzegovina as the game tilted firmly over into Turkmenistan's favour as they scored a dozen unanswered goals in the two final periods.
"We knew that their goalie only received around twenty shots in two games and it proved us right by scoring three goals in seven-eight shots, so had them against the wall. But those two ten minute misconducts shortened our bench and we didn't have enough depth and that cost us the game," said Bosnia & Herzegovina head coach Brian Jokat.
"I cannot stress discipline strongly enough and we need our players to stay on the ice," he continued but was also courteous in defeat to heap praise on Turkmenistan. "Once they got momentum, they got some good players. They can move the puck, skate and they can pass," said Jokat who despite the lopsided scoreline feels it is an experience that will stand the players in good stead for the future.
"I am optimistic and our guys showed a lot of heart. I am proud of them either way. After they get 7-8 goals, we got our extra goalie in and get the rest of the players some experience," Jokat said.
United Arab Emirates who had finished last of the teams participating at the 2017 World Championship Division III in Sofia, Bulgaria, clocked up their first win in Sarajevo during the final round of games in a slow burner of an encounter against Kuwait. Veteran captain Juma Al Dhaheri led by example with a hat-trick in a 4-2 win in the desert derby.
"We had expected to try and become second in this tournament, but we're not able to come up to that level," said new head coach Aliaksei Strakhau of Belarus after their third-place finish.
Debutants at this stage, Kuwait fought valiantly throughout the tournament. Despite lopsided scorelines against both Bosnia & Herzegovina and Turkmenistan, they outshot United Arab Emirates 22-20 in a 4-2 loss.
"It is a big step up in level, but it is a huge step for Kuwait to be here. Game by game, we are learning more, so hopefully, the results will improve for the future," said Kuwait's assistant coach Bojan Zidjarevic. Click here for tournament scores and stats