A tale of two disparate hockey cultures played out at Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre as the undefeated United States (2-0) beat winless Kazakhstan (0-2) by an 8-2 scoreline in the lone Group B game scheduled Friday night in the 2019 IIHF world junior championship.
There was little doubt which team the neutrals in the stands favoured. The Kazakhstanis, making their first appearance in the world juniors in a decade, have become the darlings of the Island crowds with chants of “Kazakhstan, Kazakhstan … ” ringing out in the Memorial Centre the last two nights, including in the Kazakhstanis’ 5-0 loss to the Finns on Thursday night.
While hockey is hardly America’s game — ranking behind baseball, football and basketball — USA Hockey is still potent enough to produce the likes of the Hughes brothers with Quinn Hughes selected seventh overall in the first round of the 2018 NHL draft by the Vancouver Canucks and younger sibling Jack Hughes projected as the No. 1 overall pick for the 2019 draft scheduled for June in Vancouver.
Kazakhstan, the only Muslim-majority ice-hockey playing nation to qualify for the Winter Olympics, world championships and world juniors, answered with a group of game and earnest players who gave it their all, which the Island crowd has greatly appreciated.
Not that hockey is totally alien to Kazakhstan. As a former Soviet republic, how could it be? The nation even has a team in the Kontinental Hockey League, Barys Astana, on which star Kazakhstani junior team defenceman Valeri Orekhov plays.
“The support from the tribune [stands] is awesome,” said an appreciative Orekhov, of the Victoria fans.
“It helps us a lot to hold on and we are deeply touched,” he added, in Russian, through an interpreter.
The Kazakhstanis know they will need all the help they can get to stay up in the top group for next year’s 2020 world junior tournament in the Czech Republic. The 10th and last-place team in the 2019 tournament taking place in Victoria and Vancouver will be relegated to the Tier 1 worlds in 2020, while recent 2019 Tier 1 champion Germany, will be promoted to the top group.
“We will use all our chances to stay in the top division,” vowed Orekhov.
“In 10 years, we might have chances to get medals because we have good hockey schools with good coaching and our young players are growing better.”
This Kazakhstan group feels an obligation to the players from last year’s national side which qualified the nation for the top group before aging out of junior.
“Those guys from last year’s team deserve that from us because they did everything to qualify us,” said goaltender Demid Yeremeyev, who earned a standing ovation from the Victoria crowd by heroically facing 56 shots in Thursday’s loss to the Finns
“This is a very big thing for Kazakhstan and shows how Kazakhstan ice hockey is growing every year with more kids coming into hockey with good coaching,” he added, in Russian, though an interpreter.
Orekhov, meanwhile, harbours the same ambition as any hockey player. That is to play in the NHL, showing that some things are universal in hockey.
“For every ice hockey player, the dream is to play in the NHL,” said the rising KHL blue-liner.
“[The world juniors] is an opportunity. But you have to show you can play tough and you have to show your best qualities,” said Orekhov.
If he ever does make it to the North American big time, he might again face American forward and consensus 2019 NHL draft top prospect Jack Hughes barreling down on him.
“I don’t think about that [2019 NHL draft] a lot,” said Hughes, when asked about the pressure that will mount as June and sunnier days approach.
“My total focus right now is on this world junior tournament and helping my U.S. team do well,” said Hughes.
Meanwhile, looking to unseat Hughes from the No. 1 draft slot is Kaapo Kakko, who is skating for Finland in Group B on Blanshard.
“There are no comparisons [in style]. Kaapo is a different player than I am and he is going to have success wherever he goes,” said Hughes.
Right on both counts. While the five-foot-10, 157-pound Hughes flits about with the puck like a water-bug and is not easy to contain, the six-foot-one, 180-pound Kakko plays more of a physical game.
A lot of fans are awaiting the Hughes-Kakko matchup when the U.S. plays Finland (1-1) on New Year’s Eve on Blanshard.
There is also a key game tonight for the Americans at 7:30 against the undefeated Swedes (2-0), who have won 46 consecutive games in pool play at the world juniors dating to 2006. The vibe should again be lively. Nobody in Group B is complaining about being in the secondary venue on the Island to Group A at Rogers Arena in Vancouver.
“This is a really nice rink to play in,” said Swedish head coach Tomas Monten, of the Memorial Centre.
“Junior hockey is fun if it’s sold out. So this has been super with all the seats full. This is a great city with a great atmosphere.”
In today’s other Victoria game, Finland meets Slovakia (0-2) at 3:30 p.m.