Kazakhstan’s Slovak colony

Yertis Pavlodar counts on two import lines


Slovak forward Miroslav Zalesak plays his second season for Kazakh champion Yertis Pavlodar. Photo: Andre van Elten

BREMERHAVEN – With professional ice hockey spreading to more and more cities outside of Kazakhstan’s traditional hockey hotbeds, a higher demand for gifted imports has come with it.

For defending Kazakh champion and league leader Yertis Pavlodar, the way to success hasn’t been the traditional one – inviting players from big neighbour Russia.

Instead, the club named after the Yertis river (also called Irtysh in Russian), which flows from China via Kazakhstan to Siberia, travelled to the 2015 IIHF Continental Cup Super Final with a Slovak head coach, 13 Slovak and two Czech players. Hardly a team outside of Slovakia could be found with more Slovak players on the roster.

“We have a lot of Slovak and Czech guys. It’s a bit different but I stay there with my family and other guys have a family and kids. We’re a good group of friends,” said former San Jose Sharks forward Miroslav Zalesak.

Asked about the dressing-room language he replied with a smile: “Slovak probably. But we try to speak the Russian language.”

There are seven Kazakh players too, although all with ethnic Russian roots and two of them born in Russia. The only player of Kazakh descent, 17-year-old forward Rustem Aidash, didn’t make the 22-man roster for the tournament but travelled with the team to support his teammates.

“It’s pretty good for me. We have a Slovak coach and many Slovak and Czech players on the team and we get along well with the Kazakh players. It’s fun to play, it’s a good place to play, we like it there, that’s why we stay there for a long time,” said Yertis Pavlodar goalie Jan Chovan.

“There are many Slovaks there. The club had good experiences with Slovak players and we go to the training camp to Slovakia every summer. Also the junior coach is Slovak. We’re like a family there and part of the people in Pavlodar.”

While it will take some years before the first generation of Pavlodar-born players will make the senior team, the imports continue to play a crucial role. The majority of the time you look on the ice there are almost exclusively Slovak or Czech players there including both goalkeepers and nine of the ten players from the first two lines in Saturday’s game against the Angers Ducs.

Hockey’s roots in Pavlodar, almost midway between the Kazakh capital of Astana and Novosibirsk in Russia, date back to the ‘70s when Energetik Pavlodar was shortly playing in the second Soviet league.

Only in the early 2000s there was another attempt to found a hockey team and a professional hockey team became established when the 2,800-seat Ice Palace Astana opened in Pavlodar in 2003. Today’s Yertis Pavlodar organization was founded in 2009.

While there have been imports from the West coming and going quickly in the Kazakh league, Zalesak appreciates the stable situation in Pavlodar.

“Some guys have been here for three years. Some players come to Kazakhstan from great places and land at an old ice rink. But in Pavlodar it’s pretty good. We have a new arena where we have everything we need,” he said.

“Pavlodar is a big city with a lot of nice places. The worst thing is that it’s quite cold there. It can be -20°C or -30°C sometimes. But we got used to it. I brought my family with me. My son goes to a Russian school and speaks Russian now. You get used to it.”

“The buildings in the city are different like in other former Soviet countries but I grew up in communism when I was little so I know how it was. But now it’s getting better. They’re building malls, movie theatres and everything. It’s not bad.”

Also Chovan likes living in the city of 350,000 inhabitants.

“At home many people ask me how it is in Kazakhstan. It’s a normal place to live. There’s a cinema, there are schools, stores and malls. It’s a little bit different, you can feel a certain Soviet impact but we get along well there and people like us there,” the goalie said.

Over the last few years Yertis has become one of the top teams in Kazakhstan behind KHL club Barys Astana and the traditional powerhouses Torpedo Ust-Kamenogorsk and Saryarka Karaganda, which play in Russia’s second league, the VHL.

The Yertis club also competed in Russia, in the third tier, in the mid-2000s. That’s until more money was invested into hockey in various Kazakh cities to make the clubs and the domestic league more competitive, rather than having too many teams compete in minor leagues abroad.

Yertis reached the Kazakh final in 2012, won the championship in 2013 and 2014 and left home as the leader of Kazakhstan’s Vysshaya Liga. Everything went well this season, up until the team lost the first two games in the Continental Cup Super Final after a convincing performance in the preliminary round. And unlike its influence neighbour Russia, there hasn’t been a recent economic or currency crisis in Kazakhstan that could hit hockey teams.

“There are four or five teams that are very good. It’s totally different hockey. There’s a lot of skating and hitting. The game is fast. But if I compare to the Slovak or Czech league it’s maybe tactically worse,” Zalesak tries to compare the league, which besides Czechs, Russians and Slovaks also includes imports from Belarus, Canada, Estonia, Finland, Israel, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovenia, Sweden and Ukraine at other teams.

“My first year in Kazakhstan was five years ago and it’s a big difference between now and then,” said Chovan, the former Slovak national junior team goalie who also played for Arlan Kokshetau before returning to Kazakhstan after years in Slovakia and Ukraine.

“The league has become so much better. It’s a fast-paced game. It has a really good level now and every game is a hard game in which we have to play well 60 minutes,” he said.

Unlike in the preliminary round where Yertis Pavlodar had the best record, the team wasn’t able to show the progress in the Kazakh league that well in the Super Final in Bremerhaven. But with the motivation of Yertis and other clubs that want to step up it may be just a question of time until there will be a better finish for a Kazakh team in the competition.

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