BISHKEK – Adam Sollitt, the IIHF’s Project Coordinator Research & Audit, recently travelled to Kyrgyzstan, the IIHF’s newest member nation.
The Central Asian country that lies between Kazakhstan and China was accepted as the 70th IIHF member by the IIHF Annual Congress in May. Last winter they won gold in the second-tier ice hockey tournament of the Asian Winter Games.
IIHF.com asked the Canadian based at the Vierumäki Sports Institute of Finland about his impressions from the recent trip and his work with the audits.
Tell us a bit about your recent trip for the audit to Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan.
It was a well-organised audit by the local federation. You could see that they are excited to be a member of the IIHF and they really pushed to speed up the audit process and to have it early. After their success at the Asian Winter Games they’re now really motivated to do well internationally. That’s why they joined the IIHF. They want to compete in the IIHF World Championship and of course before they compete we need to understand their programs better. We need to understand what they have and what their current situation is. Because they really want to participate as fast as possible they pushed us to do the audit as quickly as possible, so I went there together with Harald Springfeld, our Asian Sport Development Manager.
What impression did you get?
It was only a three-day audit, but it was organised very well. They wanted to make a good impression and also organised meetings with various politicians like the Minister of Sports, the Prime Minister, the President of the Olympic Preparation Centre and the Mayor of Bishkek to discuss the future of Kyrgyz hockey. Our impressions were quite good. For a country that’s so young in the IIHF and rather small in the number of registered players they have a lot of attention right now because they won a gold medal in the Asian Winter Games. They have a lot of opportunities to develop because they have the commitment and backing of the political leaders. In this sense it’s a very promising nation because they have something that a lot of other countries don’t have and that’s really good communication lines with the political leaders.
What are Kyrgyzstan and its capital Bishkek like?
Bishkek is kind of a big city of about one million people. It is their largest city. It’s quite clean, with most buildings being from the Soviet times.
I didn’t see much of the country because we were only there for three days and it takes a lot of time to go through all the documents. But I heard that the country is very beautiful and they gave us a DVD so we can see what we missed.
In Bishkek we went to the ice rink and for lunch we went to these traditional yurts, some kind of tents, and we had horse meat, one of their national dishes. Once we also ate at the president’s building, which is also called White House in Bishkek.
Actually their one ice rink was pretty nice. It’s relatively new, just three years old, and it was in good condition. But they forgot benches for the players and officials. They have doors so the players have to sit in the stands, which might be interesting for the fans.
Did you watch a game there?
We did watch an exhibition game. Their league is split up into three mini-tournaments, but two of the teams that compete in this national championship played an exhibition game while we were there so we could get some kind of impression.
What’s most surprising is that there are also many older players who are still playing. A lot of players were over 40 years old and there was one player who was about 63. We have to keep in mind that there is only one indoor ice rink in operation right now. Therefore most of the teams are practising outdoor. That’s why their practice time and levels are not quite up to normal standards, although some of the players were pretty good.
There are also some Russian players who are playing in Kyrgyzstan and some of them are also living there.
Was it easy to communicate with the people during your trip?
We had a very talented translator in Kyrgyzstan, otherwise it would probably be difficult. Most time they spoke in Russian, but they also have their own language, Kyrgyz. When we were at the rink we also met some parents who were expats from North America. They and their kids are also playing ice hockey.
Did you have any special experiences during your time in Kyrgyzstan?
There was one evening we had a traditional Kyrgyz sauna night. The sauna was a bit like a Finnish sauna and they had a pool area where we were able to go. Afterwards they had set up a dinner where you could go between sauna and eat your food. And there it’s apparently a tradition to bring their guests of honour a head of a lamb. So they brought in a cooked head of a lamb and put it in front of us and asked us to cut up the head. This was an interesting experience. It’s something I haven’t been given before.
How many audits do you usually do per year?
It depends on the year. Last year was a rather quiet year, but we’re averaging about 20 audits per year. We’ve done totally 48 national association audits and seven female-specific audits for top countries.
What are you looking at when you go to a new country like Kyrgyzstan for an audit?
For a new member we’re mostly looking at what exists and what doesn’t. We need to know what opportunities there are for them and also for the IIHF. It’s a good opportunity for them to learn about our programs, not only the World Championship but also for example the Recruitment Program or the Learn to Play Program or that they can participate in Development Camps and look at our officiating manuals they haven’t been exposed to before. We’re also looking at their total structure and their organisation and strategies, their short-term and long-term goals. We are looking at all their programs and everything they do as a national association from organising their annual meetings to league operations. We’re giving them some directions on what they’re missing and what they could do and we give them some options and ask them to make decisions on where they want to improve and what is their priority and make it work together with us.
Do you actually rate the countries?
We give developing hockey nations a score based on what they have and what they do not have. We do that by going through their strategies and all their programs and give points for what they have and how it is used within their organisation. Like that we’re also giving them some kind of direction because all these programs are weighted according to importance.
What are the main goals of the audits?
The main premise in the end is to give us and our committees a better understanding of how the countries work and how we can better support them and develop programs that will address actual needs and not just perceived needs. Like that we can make decisions based on facts we know rather than what we think we know. At the same time we give countries a tool, the audit report, so they can address their weaknesses and address areas they want to focus on.
Which audits will follow in the next few months?
This year we are starting with the audit for the top-13 nations. These audits will be a little bit different. It will be more about benchmarking and collecting best practices and finding good examples that might benefit the other nations. And we want to analyse new trends and what the national associations identify as weaknesses and where they want to go.