The Kyrgyz national them sings the anthem after receiving the gold medals of the 2022 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division IV.
photo: Janar Usenov
World Championship hockey came to Kyrgyzstan for the first time – and the Central Asian nation rose to the occasion. Bishkek hosted the newly-created 2022 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division IV and the host nation went perfect through its four games, compiling a 64-2 goal difference along the way.
It wasn’t the country’s first taste of international competition: back in 2019, before the pandemic disrupted the lower levels of IIHF play, Kyrgyzstan contested a Division III qualification tournament in Abu Dhabi and performed strongly on the ice only to be scuppered by player eligibility issues. Then, in November 2019 the Kyrgyz team made a successful debut in Olympic Qualification, powering through the first group phase in Luxembourg before bowing out in round two in Romania a month later.
This time, though, was the first World Championship tournament to be played in Bishkek and, after more than two years without competitive action, nobody quite knew what to expect from the host nation. Behind the bench, things had changed. Mikhail Chekanov, previously head coach of Russia’s women at the Sochi Olympics, took over from Pavel Sazonov. The roster also had new faces, with a clutch of 17-year-olds coming into a team that has an average age of just 22.5 years. However, with two years of pandemic-enforced inactivity, Chekanov admitted before the tournament that he wouldn’t really know the state of his team’s preparations until it played its first game.
In that first game it quickly became clear that the home team was some way ahead of the competition. The opener saw Kyrgyzstan defeat Iran 13-1 – and that proved to be the tightest verdict for Chekanov’s team. Subsequent encounters saw crushing victories over Malaysia (22-1), Singapore (15-0) and Kuwait (14-0). The Philippines, who were supposed to be the sixth team in the competition, had to pull out after two years without a chance to get on the ice due to Covid-19 restrictions back home.
Given those scorelines, it’s no surprise that the individual scoring charts were dominated by Kyrgyzstan’s players. Vladimir Nosov topped the scoring with 20 (9+11), ahead of Mikhail Chuvalov and Vladimir Tonkikh. All three learned their hockey outside of Kyrgyzstan, starting their careers in Russia or Kazakhstan, and all three represent the Ala-Too Dordoi club in the six-team Kyrgyz championship.
There is home-grown talent as well. Islambek Abdyraev, a Bishkek native, tied Tonkikh on 14 points. The 21-year-old wore the ‘A’ in this tournament and is currently playing in Finland’s third tier with HAKI. Despite playing just half the team’s games this season, the Kyrgyz youngster is ninth in scoring on that team.
Silver debut for Iran
Most of the nations that played in Bishkek had some prior experience of international competition, if not in World Championship play, then at the Challenge Cup of Asia. However, for Iran this was a tournament debut. The Islamic Republic joined the IIHF in September 2019 and has a pool of 100 registered male players. The first national championship in both the men’s and women’s category was played in 2021 when the first full-size ice rink of the country opened in Tehran.
The Iranian men’s national team had a successful debut winning three out of four games at its IIHF debut.
photo: Janar Usenov
In Bishkek the Iranians bounced back from a difficult start against the host to win its remaining three games and claim a silver medal. Day two of the competition brought a 5-2 victory over Singapore – leading scorer Jalal Keyhanfar led the way with two goals – to secure a first ever competitive international win. Then came further successes against Kuwait (9-2) and Malaysia (7-3) to secure second place behind Kyrgyzstan. Singapore took bronze, with Malaysia getting the verdict over Kuwait to escape last place among the quintet.
Putting on a show
It wasn’t just the hockey that made an impression. Kyrgyzstan was determined to make the most of its time at the centre of attention. The national team’s games drew full houses to the Gorodskoy Katok in Bishkek, and local journalists suggested that the scenes resembled an impromptu gig by Paul McCartney or local music star Bek Borbiyev. Opening night brought a performance from a military band and a visit from Kyrgyz president Sadyr Japarov. Japarov also met with IIHF President Luc Tardif and Vice-Presidents Petr Briza and Aivaz Omorkanov and awarded Tardif with the Kyrgyz order of friendship ‘Dostuk’.
From left to right: IIHF Senior Vice-President Petr Briza, IIHF President Luc Tardif, President of the Kyrgyz Republic Sadyr Japarov, IIHF Regional Vice-President Asia & Oceania Aivaz Omorkanov.
Japarov later donned his skates to perform the ceremonial face-off at the opening game and returned for the tournament finale, visiting the locker room to congratulate the Kyrgyz national team on its success and discussing about an even brighter future.