And part of the success story is a family affair, with head coach Yuri Mikhailis working with his son Nikita. Mikhailis Jr had an assist on the tying goal against Finland before scoring in the shoot-out on the way to a famous victory.
Then came another big win, defeating Germany to move into second place in Group B. The dream of a first-ever trip to the quarter-finals is very much alive – and Nikita is confident that there’s more to come from the team.
“Beating Finland was big, but I think the best is yet to come,” he said. “We want to keep going. The tournament isn’t finished, everything is ahead of us.
“At first it was tough to adapt to a different size of rink. But now we’ve played a few games, we’re more or less used to it. I think that will help us play better. But the key thing is to implement the gameplan and give it everything. Then we can get results.”
That hard-working ethos was instilled in Nikita’s early childhood. His first experience of hockey came when he was just four and Yuri started taking him to practice. According to the forward, now 25, Dad used to be much tougher with him in his schooldays.
And Yuri agreed, telling video channel Sports True: “I demanded a lot from him. Schoolboy hockey forces you to learn a lot – skating, technique, puck control, character. That was my responsibility, and the responsibility of the coaching staff working with him.”
“Dad set me a target to be the best, to be a forward and score lots of goals,” Nikita added. “I mustn’t come second or third. But as the years went by, things got easier and now we have a fantastic relationship. We’re good friends as well as father and son.”
The have worked together in the Kazakh championship with Nomad Nur-Sultan, farm club of KHL team Barys. This season they were reunited at Barys when Yuri took over the head coaching role for Kazakhstan’s flagship club and its national team.
“He always asks more from me because he understands how people think,” Nikita added. “So he expects me to always play my best game, and then there won’t be any questions.”
Nikita’s production for club and country should eliminate any suspicion of favouritism. However, Yuri admitted that he is tougher on his son, whether at home or on the international stage. “It’s tough,” he told KHL.ru. “The more you demand, the more you find fault. When I was appointed at Barys, Nikita feared that I would be on his case again and, it’s true that this can happen.
“But I explained to him that when we are on the same team, the pressure on him is five times greater to silence any whispers.”
From the archives – Father-son pairings in the 21st century
The Mikhailis family isn’t the first time Kazakhstan has seen a father-son duo involved in World Championship play. Back in 2001 and 2002, Boris Alexandrov was head coach and called up his son Viktor to the team for some Division I action. However, the Alexandrovs could not steer Kazakhstan into the top flight.
Kazakhstan isn’t even the only team at the 2021 Worlds to have a father-son duo. Latvia’s Rodrigo Abols is playing under assistant coach his dad Artis, who is an assistant to Bob Hartley. But what of head coaches taking charge of their sons in top division play?
Belarus – Olympic Zakharovs
This is the first time Mikhail Zakharov has served as Belarusian head coach at a World Championship. Back in 2010, though, he was behind the bench for the Vancouver Olympics. And his son Konstantin, 24 at the time, was on the roster. The right winger, a third-round draft pick for the Blues in 2003, had one goal through four games in the tournament as Belarus finished ..., but in a career that brought six Belarusian titles alongside his father with Yunost Minsk, Konstantin never played at a World Championship.
Czech Republic – Father and son-in-law
When Nikol Hadamczik got married in 2009, her father Adam welcomed a new hockey player into the family. Michal Barinka was already an established part of the Czech defence, playing under Hadamczik at the 2007 World Championship before the wedding. Once in the family, their paths crossed again in 2014 when Barinka played under Hadamczik at the Sochi Olympics.
France – the Henderson factor
Few men can match Dave Henderson for contribution to a national program. The Winnipeg native first played hockey in France back in 1976 with Amiens. His involvement continued until 2018, when he stood down as head coach of the national team after 11 seasons in the top division. During that time, he gave his son Brian a World Championship debut in 2010. With two Hendersons, France achieved its only quarter-final of the modern era in 2014. With no Hendersons for the first time in 2019, Les Bleus were relegated after 12 seasons at the summit.
Latvia – for one game only
Before the Abols family this year, Latvia had a father-and-son pairing back in 2000 when forward Herberts Vasiljevs jetted back from Orlando after his Solar Bears were knocked out of the IHL playoffs. Herberts played one game under his dad, Haralds, in that year’s World Championship, joining the team for the quarter-final against the Czechs in St. Petersburg. Haralds continued as head coach for one more season, but Herberts did not return to the national team until 2004, going on to play in nine more Worlds, including three as team captain.
Norway – setting a national record
Patrick Thoresen was already established as Norway’s go-to forward when his father Petter took over as head coach following Roy Johansson’s long reign. In Petter’s first championship in 2017, Patrick had 7 (3+4) points to extend his national scoring record to 66 (30+36) points in World Championship play (a tally that includes two seasons and 17 points in Division I). He also went to the 2018 Olympics, getting a goal and a helper in PyeongChang. Mathis Olimb matched that 66-point haul this week with Petter Thoresen still behind the bench; Patrick, now 37, played last season with his first club Storhamer after a globe-trotting career that brought NHL action and two Gagarin Cups.
Slovakia – Hossa & Sons
Frantisek Hossa’s coaching credentials were established with his hometown team, Dukla Trencin. A former Dukla player, he took the club to the Czechoslovak championship of 1992 and the first ever Slovak title in 1994. By the time he took over the national team in 2003, his sons, Marian and Marcel, were featuring in the NHL. Both came back to play for their country at the Worlds, with the highlight in 2005 when a lock-out affected season united all three in Vienna for the World Championship. Marian had the bigger impact, with 7 (4+3) points in seven games, while Marcel went pointless in his two appearances. Frantisek’s best campaign was his first, leading Slovakia to bronze in 2002; he went on to coach the next four seasons. Marcel had 17 (7+10) points in 32 games, picking up silver in 2012, while Marian made his last World Championship appearance in 2011, with Frantisek as assistant coach. He has 41 (16+25) points in 52 appearances in IIHF play.
Slovenia – the Kopitar dynasty
The rise of Slovenia, the underdog that got itself to two Olympic Games, owes much to the Kopitar family. Anze, a two-time Stanley Cup winning centre with the LA Kings, needs no introduction, and he played with his father Matjaz at three Worlds and the 2014 Olympics. Matjaz also included his younger son, Gaspar, in the roster for the 2013 Worlds and the Olympic qualification tournament where Slovenia shocked the hockey world by blazing a trail all the way to Sochi. However, a three-way family party never materialized – a tough blow for all three. “[Dad] got put in a tough spot with my brother,” Anze said on the eve of the Sochi tournament. “Gaspar was in the team which qualified but this year hasn’t gone the way he wanted. In the end, I think the coach made the decision, but it was very hard for him and my brother – and for me, for that matter.”