HELSINKI – When Vitali Novopashin and two of his teammates stepped onto the ice against Canada on Saturday night, they were re-living a piece of hockey history that ranks among the greatest victories in Kazakhstan hockey and arguably the greatest upset in U20 history.
It was January 3, 1998, and Canada and Kazakhstan were playing in the seventh-place game. Canada had won gold the previous five years running, but the ’98 edition of the team finished a worst-ever eighth place. Despite having Roberto Luongo in goal and 17-year-old Vincent Lecavalier, as well as future stars Eric Brewer and Brad Ference, Canada lost 2-1 to Russia in overtime of the quarter-finals and was forced to play a game it has never before or since played.
Canada started the tournament by losing to Finland, 3-2, and Sweden, 4-0. Two victories put the team in the quarter-finals, but in fourth place, so in the crossover playoff round it had to play first-place Russia from the other group. Maxim Afinogenov scored in OT to eliminate Canada.
Meanwhile, Kazakhstan lost to Russia 12-1, 8-2 to the U.S, and 7-0 to Switzerland. Incredibly, three members of that team played against Canada here in Helsinki: Vitali Novopashin, Denis Shemelin, and Dmitri Upper. Perhaps even more incredibly, the three had not played Canada in the intervening 14 years. “This was the first time,” Novopashin confirmed. He was a teenager for the game in 1998, and now at 34 he is closer to the end of his career than the beginning.
“It was a long time ago, of course, but I remember the score was 6-3, and it was a great victory for our team. We were very happy to beat Canada.”
Novopashin recorded an assist in that game, but the star was Andrei Troshinski, who had a hat trick and an assist. Sergei Alexandrov, Anton Komissarov, and Vadim Rifel got the other goals, while Nikolai Antropov, the biggest name on the team, had three assists. The only other meeting between the nations’ senior men’s teams in between was a 4-1 Canada win at the Nagano Olympics.
Have the three talked about the game since? “We all remember the game, but we don’t talk about it that often. But before the game against Canada,” he said with a little smile, “we were joking that it would be nice to win today again the way we did in 1998.”
What is not lost on Novopashin is not just the result of the game, but its implications for the national junior program. “The win against Canada was the highlight of the tournament, for sure. But it was also important for us to finish seventh and stay in the top pool for the next year as well.”
In fact, the two junior teams met again in 1999, in the quarter-finals, and Canada, with the loss fresh in its collective memory, whipped the Kazakhs, 12-2.
The Kazakhs won the B-Pool in 1997 to earn a promotion to the A-Pool for 1998, and they played in the top level of the U20 for four straight years starting in 1998. Since then, however, it has participated only twice, in 2008 and 2009. The senior team has faced the same lack of success, having played in the top level only five times in the 20-year history of the newly-formed nation.
“The level and quality of hockey in Kazakhstan has gone down since 1998,” Novopashin explained. “This is evident by the simple fact that our national team isn’t in the top level of the U20 now. And the senior team hasn’t played in the top level either very often.”
Still, the lesson he draws from that game some 14 years ago is one every player on every team must carry with him every time he steps on the ice.
“We knew Canada always has a good team no matter when they play, but you have to believe you can win if you’re going to win. We believed, even though we knew it might not be likely or happen all the time. You cannot win if you don’t believe.”