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Canadian Influence Enhances Hockey Experience in Kazakhstan (Part One)

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Emerging as one of the rising nations in women’s ice hockey, Kazakhstan represented the potential for the game to build on past glories while ensuring a future where women the world over can experience the jubilation of donning the proud colors of their homeland. Of note, Kazakhstan hosted the seventh Winter Asian Games and served as the host country for the 2017 Winter Universiade, which saw Russia capture the gold medal in women’s ice hockey. In addition, Almaty, one of the nation’s biggest cities was a finalist for the 2022 Winter Games, which were awarded to Beijing, China.

 


Part of such a promising future has involved the remarkable involvement of Canadian players, serving as ambassadors for the game while happily sharing their love of the game with a group of ambitious players. Such an effort also adds to the growing legacy of Canadian women making an impact at the club level in Europe (highlighted by the likes of Jennifer Wakefield and Bailey Bram). 


Some of Kazakhstan’s home grown stars certainly benefited from the opportunity to sharpen their skills and further their love of the game from some exceptional Canadian mentors. This group of players included the likes of Tatyana Mozhayeva, Meruyert Ryspek, Karina Felznik, Saltanat Urpekbayeva and Lazzat Mingzhassarova, all cornerstones for their nation`s hockey future.


The Canadian influence has definitely paid positive dividends. Among the recent milestones in program history, Kazakhstan enjoyed a respectable finish at the 2015 IIHF Division 2A women’s worlds in Dumfries, Scotland. 


Earning promotion to the 2016 IIHF Ice Hockey Women Championship Division I, Group B, it is testament to the efforts of the Canadian names that have skated for Aisulu Almaty. Among them include the likes of former Toronto Furies skater Haleigh Callison, an exceptional triumvirate of Jillian MacIsaac, Chelsea Purcell and Karolina Urban, who have all suited up for the CWHL’s Team Alberta/Calgary Inferno franchise and CIS star competitor Jesslyn Lagasse. As Purcell recounts, MacIsaac was the catalyst in this exciting chapter of her storied career,


“I played Team Alberta in the CWHL with Jill MacIsaac who had actually been recruited after she stopped playing. Knowing the opportunities she was getting from playing with the team I told her as soon as I retire, I want to get on that team. The only problem was that everyone was telling her that. 


Thankfully, the first year I was out of the CWHL they were finishing a trip in Turkey and told her they needed some players in November. Jill messaged me asking if I was able to make the trip and I said yes please and asked how many they needed. Luckily enough they wanted two forwards so Karolina was able to join as well.” 


For Karolina Urban, the opportunity to grace the ice in Kazakhstan definitely had some serendipitous ties. Having began her CWHL career with the Toronto Furies, she would make the move to Western Canada, helping the Calgary Inferno qualify for their first-ever appearance in the Clarkson Cup playoffs. 


Of note, relocating to Calgary involved more than just hockey for Urban. Highly educated, she would also pursue her academics at the University of Calgary. With the pursuit of her Masters Degree taking precedence over hockey for a period of time, the need to be back on the ice was visceral,  


“The opportunity could not have come at a better time for me as I was just finishing up my MSc at University of Calgary and had retired from the CWHL the year prior. I was starting to miss hockey quite a bit as November approached. Team Kazakhstan (was) looking for two forwards for the upcoming tournament. It did not take long for either of us to say yes!”


As Purcell recounts, Urban was the ideal teammate. In addition to their on-ice heroics at the CIS and CWHL levels, both also played together with the Canadian national women’s ball hockey team gaining gold at the 2015 ISBHF Women’s Worlds in Zug, Switzerland. The chance to continue their international hockey careers as teammates was ideal,  


“Right away when Jill said they needed two players, I asked Karolina and she said she could make it work. I wouldn’t have wanted to experience any of this with anyone other than her. We’ve been so lucky to get all these trips to Europe together so it’s been quite perfect.”

Although Haleigh Callison, who was raised in Smithers, BC, had competed in Kazakhstan prior to Purcell’s arrival, not enjoying the privilege of being teammates together, each helped carve their own legacy there, establishing a solid foundation to build upon. 


While the experience would have likely been more memorable as teammates, there is no question that there was a strong feeling of Canadian pride for Callison. The chance to serve as a herald for one of the world’s greatest hockey nations comprised an unforgettable experience. 


Having starred with the University of British Columbia Thunderbirds, Callison would also take on the role of ambassador, highlighted by an admirable effort of serving as a volunteer team host for the Finnish national women’s ice hockey team that captured the bronze medal at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games. Undoubtedly, the chance to be part of a new culture was enhanced by the privilege of contributing towards the growth of the game in Kazakhstan. 


“My favorite moment playing in Kazakhstan was having the opportunity to experience a completely different culture, not just outside of the rink but inside the rink as well.  

Having the chance to practice and play with players from Kazakhstan who are looking to grow the game in their country and improve on the world stage within the pool they are in was an honor.”

“All quotes obtained first hand unless otherwise indicated”

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