December 28th, 2008. A day that will forever be etched in the minds of Kazakhstan hockey history. Red lights. Red lights everywhere. Sirens, screaming fans. The loudness war. Jamie Benn. Hat-trick.
Yes, I am talking about Canada’s 15-0 victory over Kazakhstan at the 2009 World Juniors. It wasn’t the largest blowout in World Junior history, as Canada beat Germany 18-2 in 1985, Poland 18-3 in 1986 and France 15-0 in 2001, but it was surely close. A 9-0 loss to the last place ranked Germans the previous night set the tone for what would be the final year that Kazakhstan was considered a competitive team by IIHF standards.
Division IB at the junior level is slightly different than Division IB at the World Championship level. For the men, the teams are made up of professionals, with some having played in the NHL at one point in his career. But for the kids, the drop-off at the top level is just incredible from first to tenth place. So you can imagine the quality of competition that you find in the third highest group.
To prove that point, Konstantin Savenkov, Kazakhstan’s top scorer in that tournament, had just three points in that tournament. Minus a three game stint in the KHL with Barys Astana, he has never made it outside the second highest level of Russian hockey, the VHL. The starting goalie in that tournament, Andrei Yankov, finished with a 10.47 GAA in six games throughout the tournament. He was considered the top goalie under the age of 20 in the entire country at the time, but the now 25-year-old spends time in both the VHL and the Kazakhstan Hockey League. If you don’t know much about the Kazakhstan league, I don’t blame you: they were ranked the 12th best European league by the IIHF back in 2010.
Let’s fast forward six years. It’s not 2014, the top division of the World Juniors is just over a week away, and yet, Kazakhstan isn’t even a thought. They be participating in a tournament this year, like every year, but instead of playing with the big boys like they once did, they’ll be battling in the Division I Group B tournament this time around.
So why is all that important? Unfortunately for Kazakhstan, that was the last time they’ve played at that high of a national level for junior hockey.
One of the obvious problems is the that the top league in Kazakhstan is truly not competitive. When your top player is Canadian Yanick Riendeau, who’s greatest achievement is winning the French League championship back in 2012, you don’t have much going for you. Like really, it’s going to be next to impossible for a league to develop when they can’t attract any top level talent. But that goes for many leagues, as players are more likely to seek out options in North America, Russia, Finland, etc. And with horror stories, such as the crazy one that former NHLer Mike Danton recounted on his blog about his time in Kazakshstan, why take the risk?
But this story isn’t on how to improve their hockey leagues. If it was, trust me, Kazakhstan wouldn’t be the only league included. It’s about how their junior team is struggling when it comes to international tournaments. After their four-year stay at the top level of the World Junior’s ended in 2001, Kazakhstan had a two year stay, competing with the top dogs in both the 2008 and 2009 tournaments. Since then, they’ve struggled in D1, battling teams like Italy and Poland in Division 1B ever since.
In order to move up to 1A, they need to finish in first place of their current group. After a fourth place finish back in 2011, Kazakhstan has finished in second place the past three years. And for that reason, it might be time to believe the team can finally earn promotion this year. They’ve been consistent for the past few years, so will they battle for a medal again? Will it mean they finally have what it takes to move up?
The days of getting obliterated by Canada are over, but even though they have been facing more equal competition, and with new players competing each year, they have yet to see any massive improvement. However, like in the majority of international tournaments that Kazakhstan competes in, much of the roster will be comprised of players competing for the same team. Will the chemistry gained from the majority of players suiting up for Kazzinc-Torpedo help them in a tournament in which teamwork is key?
Potentially, but after years of poor performances, they’ll need to be flawless if they ever intend on improving in the standings. They will get their chance to prove that they’re better than Division 1B when the 2015 edition of the World Juniors is played in Dunaújváros, Hungary, from December 14th-20th, 2014.
Follow me on twitter, @StevenEllisNHL.