The Kyrgyz Globetrotter
by Henrik Manninen|05 MAR 2023
Kyrgyz forward Islambek Abdyraev during the game against host nation Bosnia & Herzegovina at the 2023 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division III Group B in Sarajevo.
photo: Jaca Kalac
Kyrgyzstan’s globetrotting forward Islambek Abdyraev’s coming of age has coincided with the Central Asians nation’s ascent in the world of hockey.

The Bishkek-born forward has featured in all three of Kyrgyzstan´s IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship campaigns so far between 2019 and 2023. With Kyrgyzstan now thundering ahead towards back-to-back World Championship gold medals, Abdyraev is a vital cog in the team’s offence forming a lethal line with Alexander Titov and Mamed Seifulov at the ongoing 2023 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division III Group B in Sarajevo, Bosnia & Herzegovina.

“Winning gold here in Sarajevo has been our goal right from the start and it’s going to be our goal for next year and the year after too. We will try to get up to Division IIA, but it will be pretty hard also because of the big gap of players coming through from the next generation,” he said.

Kyrgyzstan is leading the tournament with the maximum of 12 points from four games. One point in the last game against Hong Kong, China, which as nine points, will be enough to get awarded the gold medals tonight.

Equipped with an easygoing and positive mindset, Abdyraev has come a long way since starting to play hockey in his native Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan. 

“I’ve always liked winter sports such as skiing and skating. I was around ten years old and at the ice rink in Bishkek when a session of hockey was taking place. My dad asked me if I wanted to try. I immediately liked it and have been playing ever since,” he said.

These days Kyrgyzstan fields an up-and-coming men’s national team and a U20 team competing on the world stage. Back in the early days when Abdyraev got hooked on hockey things weren’t as easy in a capital city with a population of around one million.

“Around 30 kids were then playing in the whole of Bishkek. Aged between four and twelve, we all played together. As we didn’t have other teams to play against, we had to look elsewhere,” he explained.

He was aged eleven when a solution to their predicament was found in Kazakhstan, a northern neighbour and powerhouse for hockey in the Central Asian region.

“First we travelled there with a whole team from Bishkek. Then after two years, I started to go on my own to play for various Kazakh teams. One was a team in Almaty, which is not so far from Bishkek. Another team I played for was in Ust-Kamenogorsk (Oskemen) and the train journey there lasted almost a day and a half,” he said.

With his wandering days now underway, Abdyraev became eager to speed up his progress. Fully supported by his parents, Abdyraev bade farewell to his parents at the age of 16. Flying further afield to Europe he combined studies with playing for the Okanagan Hockey Academy in Austria.

“It was the first time I went somewhere without my parents and it was not easy being all alone. But after a few months, I got used to it and after that, it all went well,” said Abdyraev, who also quickly had to try and catch up with his peers out on the ice.

“Right away when arriving in Austria I started to play for the U18 team. They already had a clear structure as a team, like break-outs and all the fundamental stuff I didn’t know anything about. I was already 16 years old but I just knew how to skate, pass and shoot. So it was pretty hard at first to get to know how to play hockey as a team and the game was also much faster than I was used to,” he said.

His first taste of European hockey had left him wanting more. Abdyraev briefly returned to Kyrgyzstan before Sweden became his next port of call. He found spots skating for a couple of well-renowned junior clubs in the Stockholm area where his progress continued. He was 18 when a proud moment in his career saw Abdyraev being called up to skate for his country as Kyrgyzstan debuted at the 2019 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division III Qualification in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.

Then in the early part of 2020, an excited Abdyraev travelled to Kyrgyzstan as Bishkek was about to host the 2020 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division IV. Instead, the Covid-19 pandemic pushed ahead the tournament for the unforeseeable future. Being unable to return to Sweden, Abdyraev’s temporary visit back home dragged on for a couple of years. Eventually, he was able to find an opening in Finland where he skated for most of last season. Finland became another very positive experience for Abdyraev. His memories from a previous visit had been fond. Abdyraev had been 14 when attending the 2015 IIHF Hockey Development Camp, held at the Vierumaki Sport Institute.

“From that Vierumaki camp, I remember playing with kids from North America and Russia who now play in the NHL. It was really cool to observe them as they were way, way ahead of me. I remember Grigori Denisenko was one of them,” he said. Others taking part in Vierumaki that summer included Benoit-Olivier Groulx, who had since skated in the NHL and Germany´s national team player Dominik Bokk.

Then ahead of the 2022/23 season, Abdyraev was finally able to return to Sweden. Currently skating for Brinkens IF in Stockholm, his nomadic hockey career now appears to have reached a temporary halt.

“My decision to first move to Europe was one of the best things I have done in my life. Having first studied in Austria at an international school means that I have friends from all over the world. The same goes for my experiences in Sweden where hockey is much better than in Austria. I also love the whole culture of being in Sweden. People are really nice to me and my coaches believe in me. I’d like to stay in Sweden as long as I can play,” he said.

With Abdyraev being in a very happy place in Swedish hockey, another highlight in his career was fulfilled in early March last year. Bishkek was then finally able to host the 2022 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division IV with friends and family cheering him on firsthand.

“Playing in front of our home fans in Bishkek was awesome. The whole energy they created was crazy. Even after scoring our twentieth goal in a game, they would still cheer. I would like to experience playing in Bishkek again in the future and hopefully, once we are in the upper divisions where the games will be tighter,” he said.
Kyrgyz forward Islambek Abdyraev thoroughly enjoyed playing in front of the home crowd in Bishkek during the 2022 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division IV.
photo: Janar Usenov