Switzerland may have won the game, but Team Kazakhstan won the hearts of Port Alberni hockey fans with their World Junior Hockey Championship pre-tournament appearances at the end of December.
The two international teams faced each other in an exhibition game at the Alberni Valley Multiplex on Friday, Dec. 21. Switzerland scored four goals in the first two periods to take a commanding 4–0 lead. Kazakhstan team captain Sayan Daniyar scored their lone goal at 12:53 of the third period as Switzerland went on to win 4–1.
The game was the second that Kazakhstan played in Port Alberni, having defeated the host Junior A Alberni Valley Bulldogs two days earlier. Kazakhstan used the Multiplex as its training facility for the week leading up to the World Juniors in Victoria and Vancouver.
Kazakhstan appreciated the hospitality they received while playing two exhibition games in Port Alberni. “It was a great experience,” head coach Sergei Starygin said via translator Serik Imanbayev. “We would like to highlight the exceptional warm welcome here in Port Alberni. They were two good matches, one against Port Alberni’s Bulldogs and the second one against Team Switzerland.
“We can only characterize it as an outstanding pre-camp here. We got a lot of material for the coach staff.”
Starygin and the rest of the coaching staff trimmed their roster by four players following the game against the Swiss. The players flew home the next day.
Kazakhstan spent the Christmas break in Victoria. Being in the B-pool, they won’t be travelling to Vancouver for any games, Starygin said.
The Alberni Valley Bulldogs were the only B.C. Hockey League team to play against one of the World Junior teams, despite several Vancouver Island and Lower Mainland rinks hosting international teams.
“The only BCHL team that got to play was the Bulldogs. Otherwise, all the Lordco pre-competition Road to the World Juniors were competing federations for the World Junior tournament. I think that’s quite an honour for the Bulldogs as well as something they should be very proud of,” said Spencer Brennan, coordinator of events and properties for Hockey Canada.
The Bulldogs lost 5–2 against Kazakhstan in front of one of the largest crowds the AV Multiplex has seen in a few seasons.
“I think both (games) were outstanding,” Brennan said. “A while back when we were going through the process of identifying communities, Port Alberni stood out for us all along. We’ve had some tremendous success here in the past, in 2009 with the World Under-17s.
“We knew it was a place and community we had to come back to—absolutely great hockey fans, great community. They totally embraced Team Kazakhstan.”
Brennan called the turnout for both games “phenomenal,” adding that both teams “had a great experience”.
Port Alberni is not the only city to have adopted Kazakhstan during the World Junior Hockey Championship. During the team’s opening game of the tourney against Finland on Dec. 27, chants of “Kazakhstan, Kazakhstan” could be heard throughout Save-On-Foods Memorial Centre in Victoria. Several Port Albernians were seen in the crowd that night too.
Goaltender Demid Yeremeyev faced 56 shots in the first game, which Finland won 5–0. Every time Yeremeyev made a good save in the third period the crowd cheered. When he was named the Player of the Game for Kazakhstan, the crowd gave him a standing ovation.
The same happened in Kazakhstan’s second game of the contest on Dec. 28: when they scored their first goal against the United States, the Memorial Centre crowd cheered wildly. Kazakhstan lost that game 8–2.
Team Kazakhstan earned their way into the World Juniors via the relegation round. They dropped down to a lower level of competition a decade ago, and only this year managed to battle back into the World Juniors.
Although they have the least experience of any of the other nine teams in the championship, Kazakhstan is a hockey hotbed in Central Asia. It’s no different on Vancouver Island: hockey fans in Victoria have bought up every Team Kazakhstan jersey in the souvenir shop.