ASTANA – Asian ice hockey might sound like some kind of bizarre Bollywood fantasy with shades of "Cool Runnings" – but for Kazakhstan and their national team's new coach it's a serious business.
As the Asian Winter Games gets underway on home ice in Astana and Almaty at the end of January, Andrei Khomutov has been charged with ensuring his charges bring home gold.High expectations
Former Soviet international and CSKA forward Khomutov, whose day job has him coaching Kazakhstan's KHL flag-bearers Barys Astana, was appointed national team coach in autumn and handed two key tasks.
Step one is to wrest Asian gold back from the Japanese side, which beat them in China two years ago. Step two is to climb back to the top tier of the IIHF World Championship when they play in the Division I Group B in Kyiv, Ukraine, in April.
The first step, on paper at least, seems straightforward. Facing a round-robin involving Korea, China, Chinese Taipei and Japan, Kazakhstan should have little to fear.
With home ice and a passionate crowd expected to get behind the team, everything points to local success.
And that's without factoring in the fact that more than half Khomutov's squad plays together at Barys, sampling regular KHL action at a level far beyond anything the domestic championships of their rivals can offer.
But Khomutov is taking nothing for granted.
"The game with Japan will be very difficult," he warned, mindful of the fact that while Barys have no games during the tournament, his other Russian-based players could be recalled by their clubs as the play-off places take shape.
"I hope that all our guys will be allowed to come; it will help us a lot if the guys from the KHL can join us."Proud traditions
Barys is not the only Kazakh team playing in the Russian league: Ust-Kamenogorsk has a team in the second-tier Vysshaya Liga. And that town, with its noted hockey school, forms the bedrock of a Kazakh hockey playing tradition which dates back to Soviet times.
While the local team never managed to challenge CSKA for top honours – frankly, few did – it established a reliable production line of talent including the likes of recent NHL players Yevgeni Nabokov, Konstantin Pushkarev, Nik Antropov and Vitali Kolesnik.
Going further back, the Torpedo club was the starting point for triple world champion Yevgeni Paladiev and Boris Alexandrov of the Soviets’ 1976 Olympic champions before supplying half-a-dozen members of the Metallurg Magnitogorsk side which dominated Russian hockey at the turn of the 21st century.
Several experienced members of Khomutov’s squad for the upcoming tournament are also alumni of Ust-Kamenogorsk: goaltender Vitali Yeremeyev is plying his trade in his homeland once again after moving, along with his coach, from Dynamo Moscow while veteran forward Dmitri Upper is one of the men who the Kazakhs hope will be released from KHL obligations at Atlant Mytishi for the tournament.
And Khomutov is well aware of the strong tradition in the local game.
“I think everyone knows Kazakh hockey,” he said. “Not just in Russia, but in Asia as well. We have shown in the past that we can produce excellent players.”
And success breeds success, especially in a country barely two decades old and still forging a national identity for itself in all arenas, not just sporting ones.
A home win would be huge boost for hockey in the former Soviet Republic, while across the whole continent the profile of the Asian Winter Games is set to introduce a whole new generation to the pleasures of puck and stick.
“This can only increase the popularity [of hockey in Asia],” Khomutov said. “It’s a big draw for players back home, especially kids who might start learning the sport.”Looking up
Boosting Kazakh hockey does not just depend on Asian Games success; Khomutov is also confident that he can end the season by leading his team to the top table of the world game again.
Despite being relegated from the top tier in Germany, Kazakhstan has high hopes of edging out Division I hosts Ukraine when the World Championship get underway in April.
“We have every chance of getting back into the top division, and playing alongside Russia, Canada, America,” Khomutov said. “For our team, and for the whole country, that would be great.”Rivals
Japan have been identified as the strongest opponents facing the hosts, especially after they took gold at the last Asian Winter Games with a shock win in the final round-robin phase.
The Kazakhs went goal-crazy in that tournament – posting a national record 52-1 thrashing of Thailand in qualifying and thumping 17 past their Chinese hosts in the final group.
But Japan’s defence found the answers on the day and grabbed a 3-2 win which enabled them to top the table despite Kazakhstan’s 8-1 drubbing of Korea.
The Koreans have improved since then as well, and might also have the ability to cause a few upsets. The squad successfully survived the World Championship Division I campaign for the first time last year, and mindful of the strides made by their North Korean rivals, Min Byung-Chan’s men will be keen to continue their progress.
The team from the People’s Republic will not be competing, however. Despite successfully winning promotion from Division III last year, silencing a raucous crowd to sinking the hosts in the final in Armenia, the potential political implications of taking the ice against the South have denied that squad a chance to fly the flag once again. Both nations will face each other in the women’s tournament that will be staged in Almaty.From medals to minnows
The games might end with the medal ceremony, but the opening exchanges epitomise the Olympian spirit where taking part counts for everything.
A further nine nations are sending men’s teams for a preliminary round-robin contest, in the hope of nothing more than ice time and lively competition.
Among them are a trio of Gulf states – Bahrain, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates – where the improbable dream of a hockey tournament beneath the desert sun became reality in 2008. A fourth country, Qatar, had to withdraw in the last moment, same as India.
The improving Mongolian side could outstrip its fourth seeding, based on the evidence of its last World Championship Division III outing where opponents noted the Central Asian nation was proving more obdurate – at least in patches – despite succumbing to defeat.
Although the secondary contest, staged before the games officially open on Jan. 30, might seem trivial alongside the dramas of NHL, KHL, Euro Hockey Tour, World Championship and Olympics, the arrival of such events heralds the growing appeal of a sport which is steadily expanding beyond its icicle-festooned heartlands and winning new fans from Bangkok to Bahrain.Click here for the schedules of the 2011 Asian Winter Games.
ANDY POTTS, YEVGENIA CHAIKOVSKAYA