One of these changes also involves top-level players from abroad coming to Kazakhstan, finding a new home there and even becoming Kazakh citizen. Such as former NHLer Brandon Bochenski, who has been playing for Barys since 2010, or Darren Dietz, who has been here just for two years but is eager to learn the Russian language to talk with the local people, teammates and journalists.
While Dietz has called Barys Arena his home rink for many games, it’s the first time in the jersey of a national team for the man from Medicine Hat in the Canadian province of Alberta from where he knows the continental climate with cold winters he encountered in Kazakhstan.
“It feels fantastic here. To come out in front of these awesome fans gives me chills. It was a pretty cool moment. It’s an amazing place to play,” Dietz said.
For him living in Kazakhstan’s modern capital of Nur-Sultan, or Astana as it has been known until recently, feels similar like in North America. That’s why there was not too much to adjust.
“There’s not a whole lot of differences. The language is the biggest one but there’s a bit international community here in Nur-Sultan. It’s been any easy transition for North American players and it’s a great place to play,” he said.
He is actively working on making the language barrier smaller in Nur-Sultan and the vast KHL-land that spans from Bratislava in Central Europe to Vladivostok at the Pacific Ocean. “I’ve been trying to do a little bit here and there but it’s pretty difficult for me. I study every day, it’s coming along but it’s an extremely difficult language, I make lots of mistakes but I have a lot of fun with it and receive a lot of support with my efforts.”
Despite being a defenceman, Dietz led Barys in points this KHL season. In 73 games he had 18 goals and 39 assists.
His girlfriend moved over to Nur-Sultan around Christmas time and during the tournament his parents as well as his girlfriend’s parents came over as well to support him and his team. And even his grandmother made the trip. His family in Kazakhstan to support him in the colours of Kazakhstan is something he probably couldn’t have imagine when joining the team.
“It’s something I never imagined but I’m grateful for this opportunity. It’s a pretty big responsibility and a pretty big honour when another country makes that offer to you and I’ve been accepted,” said Dietz.
For now he only has one thing in mind: “I want to lift Kazakhstan to the top division.”
So far it has been going well. Only the top-two teams will be promoted to the 2020 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship in Switzerland and with last night’s win against Korea the Kazakhs reduced the number of undefeated teams to two. Beside Kazakhstan also Belarus has won all its three games in regulation time. The two top teams will meet on Saturday evening and a win in regulation time would already mean the tournament win for Kazakhstan before the last round of games on Sunday.
For Bochenski from Blaine, Minnesota, Kazakhstan has become his second home. For Ottawa, Chicago, Boston, Anaheim, Nashville and Tampa he played 159 NHL games during six years of professional hockey in North America and represented the United States at the 2007 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship in Russia. Then he moved to Kazakhstan in 2010 to join Barys and hasn’t played for another club since. In 2016 he even started representing the country internationally and is now the captain of both Barys and the national team.
“It feels good. I’ve been here a long time. They gave me a lot of respect and a lot of responsibility to be the captain,” he said.
“I came here originally only expecting to be here for a two-year contract and nine years later it’s my second home,” he said.
And then the 37-year-old planned to retire. He left Barys in 2017 to spend more time with his family in the United States with the kids starting schooling there. He didn’t play competitive hockey the entire 2017/2018 season.
“I just try to have a good time, try to have fun. I just missed the game, I was still pretty healthy, stayed in pretty good shape so I called the team up and said: ‘Hey, maybe you want me back?’ They said sure and signed me to a contract,” Bochenski said.
With 19 goals in 56 games he was as productive as in his earlier few seasons despite the one-year time-out from hockey. And with his return Barys made its return to the KHL playoffs.
Despite being over 9,000 kilometres (5,700 miles) away from his family in Minnesota, living in Nur-Sultan isn’t a drastic change for him.
“You make the most of it. There’s nothing you can’t have here that you can have back home. It’s pretty much the same, people are friendly, a pretty good lifestyle,” he said. And while missing his family here he says: “When I go back to the U.S. I just miss my friends here and many good restaurants.”
Beside his one World Championship participation with the United States, Bochenski also played a top-level World Championship in 2016 with Kazakhstan. Whether there will be another one depends not only on his career plans but can also be decided on the ice this weekend.
“It’s the best you can do,” he said about the wins and maximum of points but knows how balanced this group has become. “No one is going to have an easy path. It’s going between these three [Belarus, Kazakhstan and Korea] and two will survive.”
With yesterday’s win a big step was already done before tomorrow’s crucial game against Belarus.