by Henrik Manninen – IIHF.com
Kyrgyzstan won the 2023 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division III Group B in emphatic style in Sarajevo, Bosnia & Herzegovina, to celebrate back-to-back gold medals.
Having finished top of the Division IV on home ice in Bishkek last season, Kyrgyzstan’s golden generation is currently on a roll. In Sarajevo the youngest team of the tournament took maximum points while scoring double-digits in each of their five games. Ruthless in front of the net, the Mikhail Chekanov coached Kyrgyz men’s national team left their opponents in their wake scoring 76 times and conceding on just five occasions.
“It was an awesome experience to represent your country and it means the world to play hockey with people you grew up with. We had a job to do when we came here and we did just that,” said Kyrgyzstan’s 20-year-old blueliner Ernazar Isamatov.
Kyrgyzstan had arrived in Bosnia & Herzegovina ready for the job at hand. A full month before touching down in Sarajevo, the Kyrgyz national team had been honing their skills at a training camp in Bishkek. The fruits of their labour in the Kyrgyz capital were clearly visible out on the ice in Division III Group B.
Brushing aside Singapore 14-2 in their opener, Kyrgyzstan then steamed ahead to beat hosts Bosnia & Herzegovina 10-1 before blanking Malaysia 22-0 and Iran 18-0. Needing a point in their final game against Hong Kong, China, which was ranked second before the final day of play, the Kyrgyz team did not disappoint winning 12-2 to secure gold and sweep the field with 15 points from five games.
Five Asian participating teams had travelled to the European hosts Bosnia & Herzegovina to compete at the Division III Group B in Sarajevo. To mark the occasion an ice rink had temporarily been installed inside the Skenderija Sports Arena. Ice hockey had last been played at this very venue during the 1984 Olympic Winter Games.
En route to their gold medals, Kyrgyzstan’s smallest margin of victory came during Day 2 against hosts Bosnia & Herzegovina, which eventually finished in second place.
Winning the shots against Bosnia 30-3 in the first period, Kyrgyzstan had to wait until 10:15 before team captain Kuzma Terentyev led by example to fire the Central Asians in front. Teenager Ersultan Mirbekov doubled their lead at 13:54. Despite a heroic performance in the Bosnian net by Dino Pasovic, top scorer Mamed Seifulov converted on a one-man advantage from a Anton Kudashov pass to add Kyrgyzstan’s third before the end of the first period.
“This was the only game where we changed our system to play total defensive hockey and try to make something from counterattacks. We had two-three good chances in the first period and made some mistakes when they scored, but Kyrgyzstan is simply better than us,” said Bosnia & Herzegovina head coach Uros Brestovac.
With the Bosnians trying to find a way into the game during the middle frame, instead, it was Kyrgyzstan’s first line and Vladimir Tonkikh scoring their fourth unanswered goal at 27:28. Only one position apart in the current IIHF World Ranking, but out on the ice gap was widening in Kyrgyzstan’s favour.
The on-song Seifulov added his second marker and Kyrgyzstan’s fifth at 35:27. Just 26 seconds later the puck was behind Pasovic once again as 18-year-old Sultan Ismanov converted on a Mirbekov feed. With 2:40 left of the middle frame, Alexander Petrov piled on the misery for the Bosnians with his 7-0 strike.
“After the second period I just told the players to continue working and fighting while sticking to our system and play their positions as it’s the only way to keep believing in the development of this team,” said Brestovac.
With the Bosnians on the power play, Mirza Omer finally got the tournament hosts on the scoreboard 3:17 into the third frame. The joy was however short-lived. 1:34 later World Championship debutant Seifulov potted his third of the evening to extend the Kyrgyz lead to 8-1. Blueliner Maxim Egorov added Kyrgyzstan’s ninth goal at 51:37 before the speedy Titov closed the scoring with his second of the evening as Kyrgyzstan hit double digits to complete a 10-1 win.
Kyrgyzstan’s Seifulov led the tournament with 28 points (18+10) in five games. He was followed by his linemate Islambek Abdyraev, who tallied 21 points (3+18) in five matches. Isamotov, selected by the tournament directorate as the top defender, explained the strong points of the Kyrgyz team.
“It’s the friendship and bond that we have. We are ready to do anything for each other. So it’s not just about hockey, but also how we treat each other,” he said.
Undefeated en route to the gold medals in Division IV on home ice last spring and now again winning gold with a perfect record in Division IIIB, the question is how much further this Kyrgyz team can continue to rise.
“Only the future will tell, but if you believe in what you do and keep working hard, you can do anything to be honest,” said Isamotov.
Bosnia & Herzegovina bags silver in front of their home crowd
Hosts Bosnia & Herzegovina rose to the occasion inside the Skenderija Sports Arena to win their first ever silver medal at an IIHF World Championship event. They quite possibly also played their best game since becoming an IIHF member on 10 May 2001.
The 8-2 win against fourth-placed Singapore on Friday night was when things fell into place. In front of a vocal home crowd of 850, Bosnia & Herzegovina had run away with a 6-0 lead after 38:11.
“This was the deciding game for us whether we were going to be second or fourth. I’ve been coaching this team since 2019, but in the five-six years before that, I knew everything about them. In my personal opinion the win against Singapore is the best game they played and the one I am most proud of,” said head coach Brestovac.
Bosnia & Herzegovina’s opening game against Hong Kong, China was also another memorable game setting the tone for the rest of the tournament. Trailing 3-5 after two periods, the Bosnians launched a fightback. Nikko Gakovic had pulled one back at 53:41 and with the hosts piling forward in a nervy finish, Adnan Mlivic scored the game-tying goal with only 13 seconds left of the third period.
With the momentum now with the hosts and the game being decided by penalty shots, Bosnia & Herzegovina’s top scorer Omer and then Haris Mrkva scored for Bosnia. Then up stepped 51-year-old blueliner Anthony London to became the unlikely hero. Going eye for eye against a fellow veteran, 50-year-old Keung Emerson Kwokway in the net of Hong Kong, China, London converted his game-winning penalty shot to the joy of the 800 inside the Skenderija Sports Arena.
“We basically grew in the system we wanted to play from the first game to the last. During our first game against Hong Kong, China we didn’t believe totally in the system that we wanted to play, but for each game the boys grew in self-confidence,” said head coach Brestovac.
Dino Pasovic was voted the best goalkeeper of the tournament by the directorate while Omer came third in scoring tallying 20 points (11+9) in five games.
Winning bronze last year and now silver, who knows what might lie in store for Bosnia & Herzegovina come next season?
Hong Kong, China claims historical bronze medal
Hong Kong, China entered the final round of games against the seemingly invincible Kyrgyzstan with a theoretic possibility to win gold. In the end, the Hong Kongers finished a fine third. It is their first medal at a World Championship tournament since entering in 1987. Arriving late to Sarajevo and without a chance to practise together, the end result delighted head coach Nikita Smirnov.
“We still have a lot to improve. Many of the younger players don’t have a lot of experience and played for the first time in such a tournament. But we fought in every game and it was a very good experience for us,” said Smirnov.
Hong Kong, China was led brilliantly in the offence by Chung Pan Justin Cheng scoring 20 points (8+12) in five games and was voted the top forward of the tournament by the directorate.
Singapore, which showed flashes of brilliance, finished fourth. Last season’s silver medalists in Division IV, Iran, won their opener in Sarajevo against Malaysia 14-4 before losing steam to lose all of their remaining games to finish fifth. Winless Malaysia battled valiantly in each of their five games to finish bottom.