B.C. hockey fans fall in love with Team Kazakhstan at World Juniors in Victoria
Team Kazakhstan may be out of the World Junior Hockey Championships, but the players have certainly won the hearts of one of the host cities.
“The Cinderella story is just too good to resist,” said one fan gearing up for Monday’s game against Sweden in Victoria, which would end up being their last.
The team, which made its first appearance in the international hockey competition in a decade, quickly became heroes to the Island crowds. Fans chanted their name and sang their goal song — Sweet Caroline — despite the team never winning a game.
“I’ve never seen anything like this, where it’s Kazakhstan-Slovakia and it’s so one-sided for Kazakhstan,” said ESPN.com writer Chris Peters. “I think that the Canadians’ support of the underdogs throughout this tournament has been really special.”
Every available jersey has flown off the shelves. There’s not even a scarf or flag for sale.
“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: “With Kazakhstan coming back to this, even after being away for a number of years, coming from the relegation pool, it’s great to see the support here in Victoria for Kazakhstan.”
But no one was feeling the love more than the team itself.
“We were deeply touched,” said Serik Imanbayev, one of the only English-speaking staff members with the team.
“The guys really appreciated that, and they told me that the support from the crowd pushed them to go forward, to keep fighting.”
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.”
The team is going to need all the support they can get in order to stay up in the top division for next year’s World Junior tournament in the Czech Republic.
Monday’s game saw Kazakhstan fall to Sweden 4-1, meaning they’ll have to survive a relegation game in Vancouver on Wednesday.
Either way, Peters said this experience was a win.
“They may never get that kind of reaction again,” he said. “They’ll never forget what happened here in Victoria.”
—With files from the Canadian Press
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