First tournament win for Kazakh girls
by Ivan Tchechankov|02 FEB 2023
The Kazakh players celebrate with the gold medal and trophy after winning the 2023 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 Women’s World Championship Division II Group B.
photo: Bonchuk Andonov
The strong favourite Kazakhstan won the 2023 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 Women’s World Championship Division II Group B, which was held in the Winter Palace of Sports in Sofia. The main star of the tournament was a 15-years old player, who shares the same name with the Capital of Bulgaria: Sofia Zubkova.

15 games were played in this group. Kazakhstan won all of its games with at least six goals difference with only one exemption – a 5-3 win versus Belgium. Newcomer Estonia lost all games with the same amount, six or more goals difference. The match-ups between Iceland, Belgium, Bulgaria and New Zealand were very even and finished with one or two goals difference.

On paper Kazakhstan’s team stood out also because of the country’s hockey background and the professional approach to the event. The Kazakhs participated in the men’s top-level World Championship 10 times and were at Winter Olympics. The women’s national team was part of the 2002 Olympic Winter Games and had five IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championships at the highest level (2001, 2005, 2007, 2009, 2011). Kazakhstan’s women defeated Russia for the seventh place in 2005 and finished sixth in 2009 after a shootout win against Switzerland. In the Women’s World Ranking the Asian country reached 7th position in 2011.

Kazakhstan played in the 2007 IIHF U18 Women’s World Championship Qualification and made its official debut in this age category in 2010. The tournament in Sofia was the 11th participation with the best result until now in 2016 (3rd in Division I Qualification) and 2019 (2nd in Division I Group B). The 2022 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 Women’s World Championship Division II was staged from 27 June to 5 July in Istanbul and Kazakhstan won only against Iceland, 2-0. Zubkova was not on the roster though. This time in Sofia, Bulgaria, Belgium and Estonia made their debuts in the U18 Women’s World Championship category. It was the second participation for Iceland and New Zealand (4th place from 4 teams in Division II Group B in 2020). 

As expected, the “final before the final” was the game between Kazakhstan and Belgium on Sunday. Sofia Rakovskaya and Sofia Zubkova made it 2-0 in the first ten minutes, but Ans van Hoof cut the deficit in half just 13 seconds later. Belgium turned around the score to 3-2 in the second period with tallies from Abby Azitemina Kuddila and Fenna Sempels, but the last word was for Kazakhstan with three goals in the third. The first two by Kira Krukholskaya and Zubkova came in a span of just over three minutes and the last one completed the hattrick by Zubkova one second after the penalty against Louise Paulissen had expired.

“We wouldn’t like to split all the games on tough and easy. Because all the games were very tough for us. Despite the final score, the mission of the coaching staff was set up on the right way. That game against Belgium was one of the most emotional games, because we had to show our character to get the victory. The girls needed a game like this one,” said Kazakhstan head coach Maria Fedorenko, who was in this position for the U18 World Championships for a third time after 2017 and 2020. “It’s just a start of their long journey as hockey players and such games temper the spirit. Such experience will help in the future as well. I believe that the main secret was faith in yourself and what you do. Believing in each other. The girls were in a difficult situation because this was the third game in three days, which is hard to play at any level. We are so proud of our girls and we are so happy that we did it.”

Fedorenko had three assistants – one for the goalies, one for the defenders and one for the forwards. All of them on full-time jobs with the Kazakhstan’s Ice Hockey Federation, which has quite a financial support for the development of the game in the country. The U18 team arrived in Sofia with a physio, doctor and equipment manager, who brought his own sharpening machine. The pre-championship camp was ten days long and featured five friendly games. The players were selected from the five women’s clubs in the National Championships. In previous years there were not so many young players to choose from for the U18 Women’s world stage and this is the given reason for the unimpressive results in this age group, but the times are changing and there is bright future for the girls.

Kazakhstan had 5 wins in 5 games, a 35-5 goal difference and won convincingly against Bulgaria – 8-1, New Zealand 7-1, Estonia 8-0 and Iceland 7-0. Zubkova scored in every game – only once versus the host, but had also three assists in that game. She had four goals in the New Zealand’s net and three a piece against Belgium and Iceland, two versus Estonia. Zubkova was named the best forward in the tournament after finishing with 13 goals and five assists.

“Sofia is from a city named Satpayev. We have a lot of players from this city in the KHL and on national teams. Now she plays for the women’s team of Torpedo Ust-Kamenogorsk. Until this season she was playing with boys. Her strength is just the great desire to show her game and the passion for ice hockey. She just turned 15 on 7 January. Her secret is that she loves to learn something new and has motivation to become better and better every single day,” Fedorenko said about Zubkova.

Iceland played in both games that were tied after regulation in Sofia. In the opening game of the championship, Belgium beat  them in overtime, 3-2. This turned out to be the clash for the silver medals. The captain Anke Steeno scored the game-tying goal and the overtime winner. Last season she was a star player in Sofia during the Women’s World Championships Division III Group A. Belgium won the gold medals and Steeno had 11 points in 4 games. This time around the second place was the maximum and she contributed with 10 points. The second game for Iceland that went overtime was against Bulgaria on Tuesday and finished with a win for the Nordic country in a shootout. Iceland thus finished on third place. The best goalkeeper in the tournament was Sofia Salamatina of Estonia and the best defender Jirne Wagemans from Belgium. Katya Blong (New Zealand) was second in scoring with 15 points (13+2) ahead of Maria Runevska (Bulgaria) with 10 (7+3) and Steeno.
2023 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 Women's World Championship Division II Group B