03.01.2009. Yzerman, Chris. The Ottawa Citizen

 Everyone may love an underdog, but sometimes even the underdog gets a little tired of being kicked around.

Such is the case with Kazakhstan at this world junior hockey championship.

Lumped in among the traditional powers, the Kazakhs have taken a beating here.

They've lost all four of their games so far by a combined scored of 46-2 and been outshot 227-62 along the way.

Their plight has resulted in an outpouring of reactions, from readers of this paper who have written in to express their unhappiness with the portrayal of the team as "likable, but laughable," to critics of the tournament's format who want to see it changed, downsized to eliminate the "make-weights" like Kazakhstan.

So why do they keep getting off the mat? Because maybe, just one day, the underdog won't be the underdog anymore.

For the Kazakhs, there's no other place they'd rather be and, given their desire, they'll keep coming back for more.

"The best teams play in the top division so it's a great chance to play in this division and we want to save our place in this division so we can come back next year," says forward Vyacheslav Fedossenko, in broken English.

Even the Kazakhs admit they've been in over their heads.

"We don't have enough world experience and practice to come into a championship like this," defenceman Yevgeni Bolyakin says, with the help of a translator.

"We want to play much better, but sometimes we make mistakes or take penalties or something like that and we've lost a lot of games," adds Fedossenko.

In light of the blowouts against Kazakhstan, some are calling for the International Ice Hockey Federation to trim the number of teams to eight, from 10, to lop off the weaker ones. This is unlikely, given the federation's suggestion of expanding to 12 instead.

Another idea being floated is having a qualifying tournament ahead of time involving four weaker teams -- the bottom two teams from the previous world junior tournament, who are automatically dropped off, and the top two teams from a lesser tournament in Europe who are automatically promoted to the world juniors. This way, the two stronger of the four teams would be in the tournament.

A simpler solution being suggested is removing goal differential as a tiebreaker, so teams won't be encouraged to score as much as they can.

In the meantime, however, it's the Kazakhs who are winding up on the receiving end of beatings, like the 15-0 drubbing they took at the hands of the Canadians.

"It's frustrating, but it's pleasing to be playing in such a tournament. We just don't have enough experience," goaltender Andrei Yankov says, also with the help of a translator.

While the Latvians, another of the tournament's minnows, traditionally bring a strong following with them to these events, many fans here have adopted the Kazakhs because of their struggle. The reception from the crowds is one of the best memories the players will take home with them.

"We really enjoy being here," Fedossenko says. "We were really excited to come to Canada and we really enjoy the people who come to our games. It's really pleasant to have them with us.

"We want to say, 'Thank you so much, that they come and we'll try to play much better than we've played right now'."

However, they know they're in over their heads and, like any athlete with competitive pride, they don't want it sugarcoated when they don't perform -- it's as insulting as being called an "embarrassment" by critics.

After losing 10-2 to the Czech Republic in the final game of the preliminary round, the fact the Kazakhs managed their first two goals of the tournament and recorded their most shots on goal was of little consolation.

When asked about the improved "success," Bolyakin uttered a couple of quick words in his native tongue. It didn't take a translator to understand his answer.

Right now, the Kazakhs just can't make up for the gulf in skill, speed and strength they face.

They're a younger team that gets pushed around. They have only half a dozen players at least six feet tall. Only two weigh more than 180 pounds.

Forward Mikhail Lazorenko stands 5-4 and weighs in at 148 pounds, while Yankov, the team's No. 1 goalie, goes at 5-8, 128 pounds.

Right winger Yakov Vorobyov played five games with the Ontario Hockey League's Ottawa 67's earlier this season before returning home.

67's coach and general manager Brian Kilrea already had other options at the position and Vorobyov had trouble adjusting to the more physical style of play. He wasn't getting much playing time, so the 67's released him.

Vorobyov says there's no comparison between Canadian junior hockey and the level the Kazakhs compete at back home.

"There's a big difference. Here, hockey is much faster. Most of our players can't keep up. We don't have enough speed," he says.

Unfortunately, their only way to gain experience is to go through more tournaments like this, which is why avoiding relegation, takes on such importance.

"It is very frustrating, but the main task is to stay in our own group and that's what we're trying to accomplish," forward Oleg Onichshenko, who holds the distinction of scoring the Kazakhs' first goal of the tournament, says through a translator.

The Kazakhs came into this with their eyes wide open, knowing they'd be in for some long days, but it's a measuring stick from which they can gauge how much more work is needed to be able to compete.

After qualifying for the main tournament more than two years ago, they did well to finish eighth last year and retain their place for Ottawa, but age took away many of the players who were instrumental in that success.

When it came to picking this year's squad, coach Oleg Bolyakin, Yevgeni's father, had a talent pool of about 30 players to build the team. As a result, the Kazakhs' 20-man roster included 11 players aged 18 or younger in a tournament typically made for 19-year-olds.

Fourteen of the players come from the Kazzinc-Torpedo program in Ust-Kamenogorsk.

"There are simply no other ones," the coach says.

"In general, so far the hockey schools in Kazakhstan are very, very weak and it's difficult to work with them so far."

Fedossenko adds: "Most of the players now study in university, so we have practice, then we go to university when we finish our practice."

The Kazakhs did have a couple of camps leading up to the tournament, but they're not yet at the stage of Canada and the U.S., who begin a program of excellence that sees players rise up through the World Under-17 Challenge, the under-18 world championship and other tournaments and summer development camps.

"The reporters in our own country knew we were selected to go to Ottawa for the world juniors, but ... we didn't know. There's a lack of information," Yevgeni Bolyakin says.

Practice facilities are also in short supply. Asked if it's true that Kazakhstan only has a dozen arenas in which to play, Yankov pauses.

"I'm sure they have 10, but maybe 12," he says.

Ultimately, these players go on to play in Kazakhstan's Championship league, Russia's second-tier Vysshaya Liga, where Kazzinc-Torpedo has a team, or Russia's Kontinental Hockey League, which has one-Kazakhstan-based team, Barys Astana.

Earlier this season, Yevgeni Bolyakin played for Amur Khabarovsk in the KHL. Among his teammates there were Nepean native and former NHL goaltender Tyler Moss and a former Senators' draft pick in defenceman Jan Platil (seventh round, 218th overall in 2001).

Of course, there's also the NHL, but following in the footsteps of a player like Toronto Maple Leafs forward Nik Antropov or San Jose Sharks goaltender Evgeni Nabokov (a Kazakhstan native who represents Russia in international play) is just a dream to most of the players in Ottawa.

However, it's the dream that makes it worth the effort, says Fedossenko.

"If you don't have a dream, you can't play much better, so I think all guys on our team have some dreams and they try to make these dreams come true," he explains.

Now it's the relegation round that will decide the fate of the Kazakhs.

They play the Finns tonight at the Civic Centre and wrap up against the Latvians tomorrow night, also at the Civic Centre.

"These are more equal opponents to us," coach Bolyakin says. "It's a game, everything is unexpected, but these are the Finns and the Latvians, they're certainly going to be a lot easier than the Americans and Canadians."

Germany is the fourth team involved in the relegation round, and the Kazakhs' 9-0 loss to the Germans in the preliminary round counts toward the round-robin format that will decide which two teams will be bounced to the Division 1 championship for next year -- a step back for any program trying to be taken as a serious hockey nation.

Which raises the question: is it all worth it to the Kazakhs?

"Of course," the elder Bolyakin says. "That's unconditional." 

1 Канада 6 5 1 0 0 46-12 17
2 Швеция 6 5 0 0 1 27-11 15
3 Россия 7 5 0 1 1 32-18 16
4 Словакия 7 2 1 0 4 22-28 8
5 США 6 3 1 0 2 34-19 11
6 Чехия 6 2 0 1 3 23-22 7
Подгруппа А
Канада, США, Чехия, Германия, Казахстан
Подгруппа В
Швеция, Финляндия, Россия, Словакия, Латвия
За 7-10 места
Финляндия, Латвия, Германия, Казахстан

1/4 финала
США - Словакия
Россия - Чехия

1/2 финала
Швеция - Словакия
Канада - Россия

США - Чехия
Россия - Словакия
Канада - Швеция
Первая страничка турнира
Молодежные чемпионаты мира (до 20 лет) 2009 года.
Первая страничка
Дивизион I. Группа А
Дивизион I. Группа B
Дивизион II. Группа А
Дивизион II. Группа B