The league mostly includes teams from Austria and Hungary but also has one team each from Denmark, Italy, Kazakhstan, Poland and Slovenia.
Between 19-20 October, two regular-season EWHL games will be staged inside the Bolyan Sholak Sports Palace in Kazakhstan’s second-largest city Almaty. The milestone event marks a much-awaited homecoming for Aisulu Almaty. Currently top of the standings in what is their fifth season competing in the EWHL, the Kazakhs will now play their first ever EWHL games in front of their home fans as they usually played all games at their opponents in Europe.
“We hope it will help to develop women’s hockey and make it more popular in Kazakhstan and especially in Almaty. We hope that approximately 1,000 spectators will come,” said Aisulu Almaty head coach Alexander Maltsev.
Embarking on a journey 4,600 kilometres further east, it also marks a significant first in the club history of the Sabres Vienna. The furthest the Austrians previously travelled in the EWHL has been to the Netherlands and Belarus. Now the six-time EWHL-champion and three-time EWHL Supercup winner will take a considerable leap further afield crossing four time zones to play in the world’s largest landlocked country.
“This means a lot for our team and it is a big step for us. We are extremely happy to have had Almaty in our league for so long and it’s great for the people at Almaty to have an opportunity to watch league games at home. Everyone on our team is very proud to be part of this,” said Christian Klepp, the Sabres Vienna’s Sport Director.
“While Russia has invited us to play with them, we find it more useful to play in Europe as we are regularly facing our main opponents in the World Championships there,” said Maltsev, who also is the head coach of Kazakhstan’s women’s national team.
14 out of 22 players from Aisulu skated for Kazakhstan at the 2019 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championships Division I Group B in Beijing, China. While Aisulu also competes in the six-team strong Kazakh championship, it is in the European-based club competitions that their credentials severely come to a test on a regular basis.
Currently in its 16th season, 14 teams from nine different countries compete in the EWHL and the additional EWHL Supercup in 2019/20. During the regular season, Aisulu Almaty play 10-15 games at a time in Europe with Vipiteno, Italy, and Zeltweg in Austria being their temporary homes. They then return to Kazakhstan for a month before heading back west again at least once more each season.
Being the EWHL’s sole non-European participant and accustomed to crossing continents, Aisulu’s stated long-standing ambition had for long been to one day play in front of their home fans. It came to fruition ahead of this season as final details were ironed out during the EWHL league meeting in Budapest in mid-June this year.
“Aisulu has been a part of the EWHL for many years and we are very happy to have them in our league. During these years we started talks with the Aisulu’s staff about potentially playing games at Almaty. They were also very excited about the plan and this summer at the EWHL meeting we got more into details. I have to say that the Almaty staff was very helpful during this organization process. Still, there were a lot of things to consider but we are very happy that we were able to finalize it this year,” said Klepp.
Travelling on a very tight budget, the Sabres Vienna will be playing two games in short succession before jetting back to Austria early Monday morning. Joining them on their travels will be the EWHL League Manager Martin Kogler and the PR representative Wolfgang Handler as the Sabres Vienna will be promoting the games on the club’s social media platforms.
With Aisulu Almaty also streaming their historical first home games live on Youtube, it promises to be an exciting weekend for the women’s game in Central Asia.
"There were Asian Winter Games and World University Games in Almaty in the past, but the club team will come for the first time and it is a great event for the city. And the Sabres team is one of the leaders of the league so we hope that the games will help create a great atmosphere for the sport,” said Maltsev.