By Henrik

Once flying high at the top level of the women’s game, Kazakhstan has since seen its fortunes plummet drastically. With their top club team Aisulu Almaty competing in Europe and with more domestic teams on the rise, there is once again cause for careful optimism.

With Italy’s Asiago hosting the 2018 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship Division I Group B starting on Sunday, Kazakhstan makes a return to European soil with a point to prove. Having dropped down three places on the most recent IIHF Women’s World Ranking and currently occupying 20th spot, the Central Asians will be keen to reverse the trend as China, Italy, Korea, Latvia and Poland await.

Kazakhstan’s current predicament is a far cry from the heady days which saw them compete at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. It was followed up by four appearances at the top division of the World Championships between 2005 and 2011 with memorable victories against Russia and Switzerland.

An ageing team and a new crop of players thrown into the deep end saw Kazakhstan fall down as far as Division IIA in 2015. Arresting their slide and playing an integral part in their recovery has been Aisulu’s regular involvement in European competitive action.

Competing in both the Elite Women’s Hockey League (EWHL) and its adjoining cup-competition, the EWHL Supercup, sees Kazakhstan’s top players at Aisulu take on clubs from Austria, Denmark, Germany, Hungary, Italy and Slovakia.

“While Russia has invited us to play with them, we find it more useful to play here in Europe as we are regularly facing our main opponents in the World Championships, such as for instance Italy,” said Alexander Maltsev, head coach of both Aisulu and the Kazakh women’s national team on their involvement in the EWHL which began in 2015/16.

Apart from keeping close tabs to their rivals, the EWHL offers Aisulu competitive matches played in a very concentrated area of Europe. The drawback is that your team is based in Central Asia, separated 4,600 kilometres by air from this season’s EWHL-champions Austria’s Sabres Vienna. With all of Aisulu’s EWHL matches played on the road on venues across Europe, an intense schedule awaits the team whose name translates to ‘beautiful moon’ as it ventures to the west.

“Playing in the EWHL is for us a very good competition, but it is also difficult, especially by playing against many strong teams in such a short distance of time,” said Aisulu’s Alyona Fux, who keeps alive a family tradition of competing in Europe from her father and uncle, who both played in Germany’s top division.

The 30-year-old hailing from the hockey hotbed of Ust-Kamenogorsk was part of the bronze-winning Aisulu team in the 2008 edition of the now defunct European Women’s Champions Cup. She later also tasted immediate success when the team from Kazakhstan’s largest city finished third in their debut season of the EWHL in 2015/16.

Fux and her teammates play around 50 competitive matches a season, with the bulk of them being part of Aisulu’s intensive schedule in European competition.

11 games across Europe in 18 days in September was followed by a second somewhat more arduous schedule starting in late November last year. With 12 games in 20 days, it began with a jetlagged contingent of Aisulu players hurrying to a game from their delayed flight arriving in Copenhagen.

“In Denmark, we didn’t have much time to prepare to the game,” said Maltsev of a 3-1 loss against Hvidovre, which a day later saw Aisulu back up to speed again as they downed their Danish opponents 6-2. “After that, we continued to Central Europe for games in Slovakia, Hungary and Austria. With such a hectic schedule and moving around so much means that we are not able to practise much during those trips,” said Maltsev, whose team just missed out on the EWHL playoffs this season and with that a potential third trip back to Europe with Aisulu.

When they now make their return to Europe, it is in the guise of the Kazakh national team. Arriving in Italy to play at the Women’s World Championship Division I Group B, they do so as the second-lowest ranked team in the competition. Head coach Maltsev believes, however, that brighter days are looming around the corner.

“Our government is paying good attention to women’s hockey, but our player development is not so fast. Now we have more younger players in the senior national team and even in the national championship, we have an Aisulu U18 team taking part. What we know hope is that another team soon could play in Europe which would further help our development,” said Maltsev.

Despite opening the tournament with two defeats, Kazakhstan finished second at last year’s Division I Group B in Katowice, Poland. In this year’s edition in Asiago, they now need to get into their stride right from the outset. Despite a tricky opening game awaiting against Korea, there appears to be no shortage of belief within the Kazakh camp that following many barren years the only way will be up.

“To advance to the next division,” said Fux on her hopes for the outcome in Asiago. A level of optimism surpassed by head coach Maltsev when asked on when Kazakhstan once again will be locking horns with the likes of Russia or Switzerland at the top of the women’s game: “In three years, I hope,” he said.