Born to Play Kazakh: Mission Accomplished
Kazakhstan National Hockey Team Thrives with Homegrown Talent
"To be or not to be." It became a pivotal decision for several players of the Kazakhstan national hockey team, who held dual citizenship, ahead of the World Cup. They made their choices, and Kazakhstan competed without them. Despite immense pressure before the tournament, the national team secured its place in the elite division.
The Kazakhstan national hockey team finished in sixth place in the World Cup Group B standings, accumulating six points. In their first game, Kazakhstan emerged victorious against Norway. After regular and extra time, the score remained deadlocked at 3-3. Ultimately, Kazakhstan outperformed their opponents in the shootout, scoring two goals out of six attempts.
However, our national team suffered consecutive defeats against the Czech Republic, Switzerland, and Canada, putting them on the brink of relegation. But our players fought back. Kazakhstan triumphed over Slovakia in a penalty shootout and stunned Slovenia with four goals.
Although the national team couldn't advance to the knockout stage, the overall results surpassed expectations. One of the factors contributing to this optimism was the participation of homegrown talents in the World Cup. This year's Kazakh roster excluded dual-nationals who had dominated in previous years.
Last year, the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) suspended the Russian and Belarusian teams in response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Additionally, both countries are barred from participating in all IIHF world championships next season. Consequently, the Russian and Belarus teams were excluded from this year's tournament.
As a result, several players from the Kazakhstan national team, including head coach Andrey Skabelka from Belarus, were unable to participate in the World Cup. Ultimately, this ban on players holding Russian or Belarus citizenship sheds light on another issue within Kazakhstan's hockey scene. Most naturalized hockey players possess dual citizenship.
Sports journalist Ali Bitore acknowledges that this year's ice hockey world championship was held under unique circumstances for the Kazakhstan national team. He emphasizes the significance of the participation and performance of homegrown players in the tournament, noting that the team's results were commendable, perhaps even better than previous years.
"Older fans may recall that the last time Kazakhstan's hockey school solely represented the country was at the 1998 Winter Olympic Games in Nagano, Japan, and the World Championship in Switzerland that same year. In other words, Kazakh players competed in two equally important tournaments and emerged victorious in Switzerland. Despite it being our first Winter Olympic Games appearance, Kazakhstan reached the quarterfinals. Our team only lost to Canada in the semi-final match," stated A. Bitore.
Subsequently, Kazakhstan's hockey scene followed the global trend and began naturalizing foreign players for the national team. Each year, we welcomed third- and fourth-tier hockey players from America, Canada, and Russia, investing substantial sums to bring them to our country. However, neither our performance nor our hockey infrastructure in Kazakhstan improved. On the contrary, the national team experienced multiple declines and even faced relegation to lower divisions of the world championships. In fact, over the past decade, the Kazakhstan national team hasn't participated in any Olympic Games," said A. Bitore.
When the IIHF prohibited Russian and Belarus players from participating in the tournament, the issue of players with dual citizenship arose. Due to citizenship conflicts, players such as Dmitry Shevchenko, Aleksey Maklukov, Pavel Akolzin, Egor Petuhov, Anton Sagadiyev, Dmitry Gurkov, Egor Shalapov, and Emil Nurgaliyev were not included in Kazakhstan's roster.
Moreover, naturalized players such as Canadians Darren Dietz, Jesse Blacker, Curtis Volk, and Sweden's Viktor Svedberg didn't represent Kazakhstan at the World Cup. According to the shaiba.kz website, they declined to renounce their former citizenship.
In accordance with paragraph 3 of Article 10 of the Constitution of the Republic of Kazakhstan and Article 3 of the Law of the Republic of Kazakhstan on Citizenship, a citizen of Kazakhstan is not recognized as a citizen of another country.
"If a citizen obtains foreign citizenship without renouncing Kazakh citizenship, they are required to inform the relevant authorities within 30 calendar days and surrender their Kazakh passport and/or identity card to the internal affairs bodies or foreign institutions of Kazakhstan. Kazakh citizenship will not be granted if the applicant holds citizenship in another state. To become a citizen of Kazakhstan, the applicant must renounce their foreign citizenship and surrender their foreign passport to the authorized body of their former country," as stated by eGov, the Public Services and Online Information platform.
If a citizen continues to use identity documents after renouncing Kazakh citizenship, they will be subject to administrative penalties amounting to 100 MCI, as specified in paragraph 1 of Article 496 of the Code of the Republic of Kazakhstan on Administrative Offenses.
Nurzhan Eshniyazov, an assistant professor at Narikbaev University, highlights the loopholes in legislation. According to Article 17 of the Law on Citizenship of the Republic of Kazakhstan, an application will not be accepted if the applicant still holds citizenship in another country. However, this provision does not apply to "persons who have made exceptional contributions to the Republic of Kazakhstan or individuals who possess professions and meet the requirements outlined in the list established by the President of the Republic of Kazakhstan."
"Therefore, some individuals do not need to obtain a withdrawal document from their foreign citizenship to become a citizen of Kazakhstan. It is sufficient for them to submit a notarized application renouncing their foreign citizenship to the original country and present this application to the internal affairs bodies of Kazakhstan. Hockey players often acquired Kazakh citizenship through this process. It is not surprising that their previous (foreign) citizenship remains intact. Perhaps their application may not even reach the official bodies of their former country. The law does not impose any punishment for holding dual citizenship. However, their citizenship in Kazakhstan will be withdrawn," explains N. Eshniyazov.
He emphasizes that the legislation does not specifically outline the procedure for invalidating citizenship. Furthermore, N. Eshniyazov asserts that overlooking athletes retaining their foreign citizenship is a political matter and an entrenched practice.
Even some hockey players themselves view naturalization within the Kazakhstan national team as a failed project. Kazakhstan national team defender Leonid Metalnikov underlines the significance of children's sports and their coaches. He believes that winning major tournaments is not solely dependent on clubs recruiting players for financial gain during the season.
"First and foremost, it is essential to invest in the development of schools and children's coaches. There are numerous avenues for improvement. The state of hockey in Oskemen requires particular attention. We cannot allow the erosion of traditions built by hockey pioneers over several decades in a mere 5-10 years," Metalnikov wrote on Instagram.
National team forward Yevgeny Rymarev believes that not much has changed within the team in the absence of naturalized players when discussing their performance at the World Championships in Riga.
"We did have concerns about our performance in this World Cup since our younger players lacked experience at the adult level. However, the absence of foreign legionnaires hasn't drastically altered the team. They were replaced by our talented young homegrown players, who gained valuable experience during this World Cup. This will bolster their confidence in future games and further enhance their growth as hockey players," Rymarev states.
Sports journalist Ali Bitore sees this issue as an opportunity for young players. Even without naturalized players, the Kazakhstan national team performed significantly better than with them.
"If the World Championship hadn't taken place in Finland and Latvia this year, would we still be relying on naturalized players? When the organizers banned the entry of Russian and Belarusian hockey players and coaches to the tournament, it was revealed that several players on our national team held dual citizenship. Consequently, players such as Dmitry Shevchenko, Alexey Maklyukov, Yegor Petukhov, and Anton Sagadev were prohibited from participating in the World Cup. Due to Kazakhstan's prohibition of dual citizenship, Swedish, Canadian, and American athletes who were included in the national team had to vacate their positions. Even Belarusian coach Andrey Skabelka, who assumed the role of head coach for the Kazakhstan national team just last year, was affected.
Looking at the results, Kazakh players demonstrated that they can perform far better than foreigners and maintained their elite status in Kazakh hockey. I believe the Kazakhstan Hockey Federation will prioritize local players instead of squandering money on foreign players. At this World Championship, 18-19-year-old boys like Maksim Mukhametov, Batyrlan Muratov, Maksim Musorov, Madi Dikhanbek, Danil Butenko, Alikhan Omirbekov, Artem Korolev, Abai Mangysbaev, Tamirlan Gaitamirov, and Dinmuhamed Kaiyrzhan showcased their natural talent and proved that they are born to play for Kazakhstan," asserts Ali Bitore.