http://www.iihf.com/typo3temp/pics/c68bd57cd3.jpg

By Jack Gallagher – IIHF.com

Japan – One of the nice stories of the Asian Winter Games thus far has been the play of the Turkmenistan men’s hockey team.

The squad comes from a central Asian nation with a population of five million people that is a relative newcomer to the sport. Ice hockey has just started recently and was never played in the country during the Soviet times.

Despite that fact, Turkmenistan has posted three impressive victories in the Division II tournament here. They opened with a 9-2 win over Malaysia in their first-ever international game, followed that up with a 16-0 rout of Macau, and beat Indonesia 12-2 on Friday at Hoshioki Skating Rink.

The Turkmens displayed both good speed and power in their latest triumph and their showing bodes well for the future growth of the sport back home.

Forward Dovlet Soyunov, who scored two goals against Indonesia, expressed his pleasure with the team’s latest performance.

“These are good teams here and we came to play with our hearts,” Soyunov commented. “We beat Malaysia, Macau and today Indonesia. I am born in Turkmenistan and am a student there. This is our first time to play in a championship like the Asian Winter Games.”

The 22-year-old provided some background on the sport in Turkmenistan.

“We have eight teams and we play against each other,” he said. “This is a really good experience for us. I play for Galkan, the No. 1 team back home.”

The Turkmenistan roster features 15 players from the Galkan club.

“Hockey is becoming popular for people in Turkmenistan,” he noted. “We have been playing for 10 years. We started with professional coaches about three years ago. All of the players are from Turkmenistan. Our players play for private clubs that have sponsors.”

Soyunov is often called on to translate in English for teammates, having had some education in the United States.

“I studied English in the United States,” he stated. “It was in Houston, Texas, at a place called North American College. Learning English as a second language.”

Soyunov clearly paid attention in class, because he speaks and comprehends the language well.

When asked about his favourite NHL players, Soyunov quickly identified two he follows closely.

“I like Yevgeni Malkin and Alexander Ovechkin,” he replied.

Yakut Berdiyev, a forward who has recently finished high school, is enjoying the chance to travel abroad with the national team.

“It is has been a good tournament so far,” said the 18-year-old. “Today was a good game. Japan is a nice country. Hockey is popular here.”

Berdiyev took to the sport after he first saw it at the age of 11.

“I have played for seven years,” he commented. “I saw hockey and it was interesting. I love it.”

The growth of the sport back in Turkmenistan has Berdiyev dreaming of a career outside his country.

“I hope to play in some league outside Turkmenistan someday,” the shy Berdiyev said.

Jora Hudayberdiyev, who was recently appointed as new Chairman of the National Winter Sports Centre, was on hand for his team’s latest win and provided some details on how hockey is progressing in the country.

“There are around 700 hockey players currently in Turkmenistan,” he cited. “Our president, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, is helping us to get the players and improve the sport in the country. The president is sponsoring everything. He is giving the money for the uniforms, the equipment, and travel to competitions.”

Hudayberdiyev has enjoyed the Asian Winter Games and is already eyeing the future.

“It has been interesting. We are very happy,” he said. “We need to get points to get into the first division. We hope to win the next game. We will try our best to win. We hope to play interesting hockey.”

The Division II tournament of the Asian Winter Games in Sapporo was played in two groups that were won by Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan with an undefeated streak. The two Central Asian nations will play each other for tournament win on Sunday. The Philippines and Macau will play for third place.