International Ice Hockey Federation

Alga Kazakhstan

Alga Kazakhstan

Asian fans make themselves heard

Published 12.05.2014 14:58 GMT+3 | Author Slava Malamud
Alga Kazakhstan
MINSK, BELARUS - MAY 10: Kazakhstan's Talgat Zhailauov #8, Andrei Gavrilin #33, Fyodor Polishuk #18 and Kevin Dallman #38 celebrate after a first period goal against Germany during preliminary round action at the 2014 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship. (Photo by Andre Ringuette/HHOF-IIHF Images)
Fans in “kalpak” hats and embroidered robes and loud teenagers with Kazakh flags are the most colourful guests in Minsk. And the Worlds are happy to have them.

The Kazakh hockey fandom phenomenon is a relatively new thing in European ice arenas. In any case, it isn’t something like the Latvian support, which is quite capable of ripping the roofs off any of those arenas and is now considered an irreplaceable accessory of the IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship scene. Or like the Swiss, with their well-rehearsed repertoire of classic fan songs. Or even the Russians who hold their own with sheer numbers and passion. But the Kazakhs are more than capable of being heard and standing out, even as their team is still trying to get its first World Championship win in eight years.

By “the Kazakhs”, of course, we mean – well, the Kazakhs, as in an ethnicity. It’s not a secret to anyone that, historically speaking, hockey in this mostly Asian country has always been the domain of ethnic Slavs who constitute the majority in Kazakhstan’s northern regions. And is still is, at least the domain of the actual sticks, skates and ice. But when it comes to the support in the stands at World Championships, the native population is increasingly carrying the load.

“Who are we? We are Kazakhs!” was the rallying cry of a substantial group of young men and women in yellow-and-sky-blue shirts at the Minsk Arena. Ironically, the group spoke and sang in Russian, but looked decidedly Asian, the point they punctuated with their chant.

Of course, their performance was a little raw, featuring mostly hasty reworks of football chants, popular Russian songs and, as the sole representative of the native language, the chant “Alga Kazakhstan!” (“Forward, Kazakhstan!”), which they immediately translated into Russian. But where the loudness, enthusiasm and frantic flag-waving was concerned, the Kazakh boys and girls didn’t leave any room for improvement. The fans were being constantly photographed, which they seemed to genuinely enjoy.

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“It sounded as if the entire arena was rooting for us,” said Kazakh forward Talgat Zhailauov after his team’s first game at the 2014 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship. “We never heard the opposing fans, only ours. We could feel the support and it really helps out on the ice.”

Zhailauov knows what he is talking about, when it comes to passionate fan support. After all, he is the only ethnic Kazakh on the team and the only Kazakh star in the KHL, where he plays for the country’s sole representative in the league, Barys Astana. Not to say he is the only reason the natives are making room for hockey among their favourite sports (which traditionally include football, boxing and wrestling), but he greatly contributes to the process.

This is something Zhailauov knows quite intimately, as he has recently become not just a beneficiary but also a victim of the fans’ devotion. Some weeks ago after Barys was returning home with a playoff win, the very same passionate ethnic Kazakh fans surrounded their hero in the airport and commenced tossing him into the air – the traditional Russian congratulatory ritual. This festive activity proceeded with more sincere emotion than expert precision, as on the second toss they flipped the player and dropped him on the floor, head first. Not quite the “Alga Talgat!” moment they had in mind. Love hurts, indeed.

The concussed Zhailauov had to sit out the rest of the playoffs and has just recently returned to the ice. Of course, he still made sure he came to Minsk, even though he describes the current state of his health as “My head doesn’t hurt as much now.” But he isn’t about to tell the fans to reign in their passions.

“Maybe, it would be good if they didn’t toss me anymore,” he said, tentatively. “But everything else is alright. I thank them for their love.”

Zhailauov is from the city of Ust-Kamenogorsk, which has a majority Russian population and is the hotbed and the breadbasket of Kazakh hockey. This is perhaps why he prefers not to put too much stock into his own person as being the reason of the Kazakhs’ growing interest in hockey.

“Of course, it’s not me”, he says. “It’s because our team is in the KHL and hockey is slowly beginning to develop (in Kazakhstan). It doesn’t matter if we are Russians, Kazakhs or Ukrainians. Let them come, chant and support us, we all will be very happy.

And so they do – come, chant and support, outshouting the opposing fans, egging on their boys to a rare victory. Even if it’s all a bit amateurish for now, it is quite genuinely Kazakh, which means that the global hockey culture is acquiring new and unique colours, but, more importantly, that after Zhailauov there will definitely come others. One could only hope that the fans will treat them a bit more gingerly.


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