Young Kazakhs having fun
by Derek O'Brien|17 MAY 2023
photo: © International Ice Hockey Federation / Matt Zambonin

There always seems to be a team that becomes the darling of a major international tournament and at the 2023 IIHF World Championship – at least for Group B in Riga – that team is Kazakhstan.

With a massively overhauled roster, Kazakhstan’s roster contains 17 players that are 25 years old or under and nine that were born in 2000 or later. Of the players who have appeared in their first three games, 11 have made their World Championship debuts in Riga.

“For more than half of the team, this is a first-time experience,” 22-year-old defender Tamirlan Gaitamirov said after the team’s first game – a 4-3 shootout victory over Norway on Saturday. “For myself too, I think I can say it’s the highest level of play I’ve ever experienced.”

The youngsters aren’t just playing supporting roles either. Batyran Muratov, 24, is the team’s leading scorer with three points – all assists – in three games. Maxim Mukhametov, also 24, leads the team with two goals. The youngest player on the team – 19-year-old Dinmukhamed Kaiyrzhan – has an assist.

And they’re all having the time of their lives. Even when they lose.

“We lost, but it’s a good experience for us. We’re learning and we’re enjoying it,” Muratov said after the team’s 5-1 defeat to Czechia on Sunday.

But some thought they would lose every game of this tournament, with the possible exception of the last one against Slovenia. After all, last year’s Kazakh team, which was much more experienced, needed a win in its last game to avoid relegation.

That hasn’t happened, though. The Kazakhs opened against Denmark and fell behind early 2-0, but battled back to eventually win 4-3 in a shootout.

“We were down, we let in two goals on the PK, but we believed that this was our game – we believed that right from the beginning,” said Gaitamirov. “The message from coaches was just play more simple, get more shots, just play our game and have fun. Then, like I said, we came back and won it.”

“It’s huge because it’s the start of the tournament and we need some points,” said defender Samat Daniyar, who at 24 is one of the more experienced players on this team, already in his third World Championship. “We want to win a lot of games and stay in Group A. That’s our main goal.”

Defeats to Czechia and Switzerland followed, but they certainly weren’t embarrassing losses. In the Czech game, the Kazakhs recovered from another rough start in which they fell behind 2-0 with another solid second period and trailed just 2-1 entering the third. The Czechs found their game in the third period and pulled away, and then came a 5-0 defeat to a Swiss team that nobody has scored on yet.

“We lost today but it’s a great experience for our young guys,” 21-year-old forward Abay Mangisbayev said after his debut game against Switzerland. “They’re a really fast, skilled, great puck-moving team with many players in the NHL. We can learn a lot from watching them and maybe improve ourselves.”

On getting the chance to play at this level, he said, “It was amazing. It’s a great feeling, a great opportunity for me, and an experience I’ll remember my whole life.”

Still to play are games against Canada on Wednesday, Slovakia on Friday, Latvia on Saturday and Slovenia on Monday.

Points might be hard to come by in those first three games, although the Kazakhs might not agree. If any can be gained they’d be invaluable, as Kazakhstan currently has a two-point lead on Slovenia – coincidentally the oldest team in the tournament at nearly 30 years of age on average – as both teams eye that potentially huge Friday-night encounter.