VICTORIA — The goals are few, but if trophies were awarded for fan favourites at the world junior hockey championship, the determined but winless team from Kazakhstan would be wearing gold medals.
Despite losing its four Pool B round-robin games in Victoria against Finland, United States, Slovakia and Sweden, the Kazakhstan team quickly became lovable underdogs in the British Columbia capital where cheers of “Let’s go Kazakhstan,” filled the rink.
The Victoria love affair with Kazakhstan started with Demid Yeremeyev’s 51-save effort in a 5-0 loss to Finland on Dec. 27. He received an extended standing ovation after being chosen player of the game and the Kazakhstani team stayed on the ice to salute the cheering crowd.
On New Year’s Eve, Kazakhstan was outshot 24-1 and behind 3-0 to Sweden after the first period. Kazakhstan lost the game 4-1 after being outshot 56-11.
Sweden coach Tomas Monten said he could only dress 15 players Monday night due to a flu bug that has ripped through his squad.
Kazakhstan goalie Denis Karatayev, playing his first game of the tournament, made a heart shape with his hands while speaking through an interpreter following the loss and said: “We thank you Victoria.”
“These kids are playing heart and soul,” said Bill Bristow of Victoria.
Bristow and his son Eric, both wearing Kazakhstan’s blue, gold and white jerseys, said he appreciates the relentless effort of the players despite the odds they faced.
“It’s a bunch of teenage kids and they are playing against the best junior players in the world,” said Bristow. “Every team out there except them has National Hockey League draft picks, has NHL prospects and some have actual NHL players and these guys are out there giving it their all every night.”
Hockey Canada’s Dean McIntosh said Kazakhstan’s appearance at the world junior championship after years in the second tier of hockey countries has been a marketing bonanza for the tournament. Kazakhstan merchandise has been flying off the shelves and team jerseys are sold out.
“The great thing about Canada is we love the underdog and with Kazakhstan coming back to the event after being away for a number of years and coming from the relegation pool, it’s certainly an opportunity for the fans to grab hold of the underdog,” he said.
Tom Grainger, who’s in charge of the music at the Save-On-Foods Memorial Centre in Victoria, said the official goal song of the Kazakhstan team is Neil Diamond’s classic Sweet Caroline. He said he chose the song after consulting with Kazakhstan team officials.
“When we saw at the beginning of the first game how much the fans wanted to celebrate and cheer on Kazakhstan, we had to do Sweet Caroline,” Grainger said. “It’s been a great match.”
United States coach Mike Hastings said he can’t help but notice the affection the Victoria fans have for the Kazakhstan team, but he said his players have also felt the love.
“It seems when you talk about the spectrum of sports, baseball, basketball, football and I’m not saying anything negative on the other, I’m just saying I’m proud of being a part of what hockey is all about,” he said. “The Canadians, the people who are here watching the games, they appreciate the game and where people come from.”