BUDAPEST – Hockey has mostly been seen as a “Russian” sport in Kazakhstan but it is also more and more admired by ethnic Kazakh fans in the stands and youngsters on the ice. One of their idols is Talgat Zhailauov, the only ethnic Kazakh on the country’s national team.
When hockey fans watch the Kazakh national team play in the first two tiers of the World Championship they usually see little of a typical Kazakh flair apart from the jersey and the national anthem that somehow reminds of heroic hordes in the steppes of Central Asia.
The players’ names usually look Russian as do their faces. The head coach, Vladimir Krikunov, came from Russia as did his predecessor, Andrei Khomutov. And the best club teams Barys Astana and Torpedo Ust-Kamenogorsk have been playing in Russian leagues for many years. All this in contrast to the fact that only one fourth of the population in Kazakhstan actually is of Russian descent, mostly in the north of the country, while the majority is of indigenous Kazakh roots.
Of the 22 players on the roster at the 2013 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group A, 19 made their way through the hockey school in Ust-Kamenogorsk, the rest learned to play in Russia before immigrating to Kazakhstan.
Ust-Kamenogorsk is about 100 kilometres away from the Russian border – a stone’s throw by Kazakh standards – and not far from China and Mongolia. The city with a vast population of Russian origin is Kazakhstan’s hockey hotbed.
That’s also where the only Kazakh-looking player currently on the national comes from. And he admits that it’s a bit special for him although he’s got used to it.
“I usually play on the first two lines and all teammates are of Russian descent,” Zhailauov said. “The coach pushes me a lot as a ‘real Kazakh’. But I’m not alone on the team.”
After eight years on the national team the 27-year-old has developed into an offensive contributor.
Last year he scored two goals in seven games in the top division where Kazakhstan played in Helsinki and was selected one of the top-3 players of the team. In February he scored two goals in three games in the Olympic Qualification and in Budapest he has added one marker so far, in the 5-2 victory over Japan.
“I have to say thank you to my linemates because they help me to score,” the centre said.
Zhailauov is not the first star of Kazakh descent. Before him Yerlan Sagymbayev, now an assistant coach on the team, has been the Kazakh flag bearer. In the ‘90s he went with the team from the C-Pool to the top division and played in the 1998 Nagano Olympics where he’s mostly remembered for the 1-1 goal against Russia in a game that started well for the Kazakhs but eventually ended in a 9-2 loss against the big neighbour.
In recent years the hockey landscape has been reshaped with the ambition of expanding the sport to other parts of the country. Hockey is today followed by more ethic Kazakhs who traditionally preferred football, boxing or wrestling. This also thanks to the creation of Barys Astana in the country’s capital where Kazakhs enjoy watching the games as much at ethnic Russians do and kids of different origins learn to play the game in the hockey school.
Barys Astana was founded in 1999 and first played in national competitions before joining the Russian system in the third tier in 2004. In 2008, Barys Astana overtook Torpedo Ust-Kamenogorsk when three Kazakh teams played in the second-tier Russian league and was admitted to the newly founded Kontinental Hockey League the same year as the only Kazakh club in Russia’s top league.
Also Zhailauov has been playing for the team since 2007/2008. He just finished his most productive KHL season with 16 goals and 17 assists in 52 games and was happy to play with his hometown hero Nikolai Antropov, who joined the Astana team until the delayed start of the NHL season.
While having ambitious projects at the pinnacle with Barys Astana and a new state-of-the-art arena planned, Kazakhstan in the last years also focused on creating a new and stronger domestic competition rather than having too many clubs play in Russia. This year the national league included ten teams from nine cities across the country and even import players from Europe and Canada.
The teams played a 54-round regular season followed by best-of-seven quarter-finals. Currently, the final series is going on between Yertis Pavlodar and Beibarys Atyrau. It’s tied at one.
With the goal of making hockey more popular in Kazakhstan, also outside of its traditional hockey towns, a player like Zhailauov is the perfect poster boy and flag bearer to inspire kids. Looking at the U20 and U18 national teams where names and birthplaces are more diversified, changes may be visible sooner rather than later.
Apart from Zhailauov there was also a second player of Kazakh roots on the team with Yesmukhanbet Tolepbergen. The captain of this year’s U20 national team played in exhibition games but was cut from the roster before the start of the World Championship Division I Group A in Budapest.
For now, the pressure is on the current players including seven Soviet-trained veterans born in the ‘70s.
On Wednesday the team suffered a setback when it lost 2-1 to host Hungary, in a game head coach Krikunov afterwards openly criticized his players for having underestimated the opponent.
Kazakhstan can still return to the top division but then it may most likely not afford another loss in the remaining games: today against Korea and on Saturday against Italy, so far the only undefeated team in the tournament.