Miss Vancouver 2010? Head to Astana-Almaty 2011

The Winter Olympics has mainly been the domain of European and North American countries, although the various Olympic committees of the world are looking to change that.  The Olympic Council of Asia has been busy trying to strengthen the Winter Sports program with their member nations, some of whom may be more naturally inclined to embrace winter sports, but not all.  In 2011, the 7th Asian Winter Games will be taking place in the Kazakh cities of Almaty and Astana, with fourty-five nations scheduled to participate in eleven sports (further broken down by discipline).   The list of participating nations includes war-torn Afghanistan, internationally shunned Myanmar, Palestine (but not Israel, they are in a different OC), and the tropical island nation of the Maldives.  Of note, the games will include not just hockey, but the hockey precursor known as bandy, which is still quite popular in Kazakhstan.  Bandy gets spoiled, actually, getting to play at the Medeu Alpine Ice Arena just outside Almaty, which has got to be one of the most awesome arenas on the planet.

The hockey events will be split between Almaty and Astana.  Almaty should be considered the real host of the event, but with Astana being host to the KHL's Barys Astana and the country's largest hockey arena, they get the men's hockey events.  The women's hockey events will get to stay in the more picture-esque and apparently lively city of Almaty, which was the capital of the country and the old Soviet Republic until December 1997.  They'll play at the Buluan Sholak Sport Palace, which can hold 5000 fans and has also been used for international volleyball competitions and even UEFA events.  The men's competition will actually be divided between the top Asian nations (properly called the 'Top Division') and the nations in a more developmental stage (oddly dubbed the 'Premier Division'), and both will take place at the Kazakhstan Sports Palace, which has been reconstructed to hold two rinks.  The Top Division will play before the larger crowds in the main arena, while the Premier Division will play its games in the second arena, before about 1000 spectators.  

Kazakhstan will be a focal point of the international hockey community from January 28 through February 6, but the Olympic movement also gave us a new Winter Games event this season, in the Indian Himalayan state of Uttarakhand.  India's first indoor ice skating rink was constructed at Raipur Sports College in the city of Dehradun, as one of the venues for the first ever South Asian Winter Games.  Ice hockey was only a demonstration sport, as only India has a national team amongst the participating nations, but hopefully this event, which seemed to have a lot of issues in being organized, can spur on the development of the sport in nations like Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan and maybe eventually Afghanistan.  Afghanistan was scheduled to participate in some events, but it appears they did not.  

Another Olympic event, the 2012 Youth Winter Olympics, is scheduled to occur in Innsbruck, Austria.  The hockey discipline will feature five teams in both men's and women's events, with the hosts getting a team in each discipline, while the other four teams will be taken from the IIHF World Ranking at the end of the year.  Current standings would see the men's competition include Russia, Canada, Sweden, Finland and Austria, while the women's would include Canada, USA, Finland, Sweden and Austria.  

Join me after the jump for a look at the nations participating in Astana-Almaty 2011:

2011 AWG Men's Compeititon - Top Division
Country World Ranking 2010 Finish
China 37 38th:  5th at IIHF WC Div. 2B
Chinese Taipei N/A 1st at IIHF Challenge Cup of Asia
Japan 21 21st:  3rd at IIHF WC Div. 1A
Kazakhstan 17 16th at World Championships
South Korea 33 25th:  5th at IIHF WC Div. 1B

 The teams will play a round robin tournament, starting on January 31st, the day after the Opening Ceremonies.  There will be no final game, the medals will be awarded based on their standing after the round robin.  This will be Taiwan's biggest ever showcase on the international stage, as they have been brought in to replace North Korea, who did not send their men's team to the games.  Taiwan has never sent a team to any level of the IIHF World Championships, but their win at the most recent Challenge Cup of Asia is what got them in the top group.  Japan won this event in 2007, upsetting Kazakhstan. 

2011 AWG Men's Competition - Premier Division
Country Group World Ranking Recent Results
India A N/A 8th at 2009 IIHF CCOA, DNP at 2010 IIHF CCOA, participant at 2011 South Asian Winter Games
Qatar A N/A International Debut
United Arab Emirates A 47

46th:  4th at IIHF WC Div. 3A, 2nd at 2010 IIHF CCOA, 1st at 2010 Gulf Championships

Kuwait B N/A 7th at 2010 IIHF CCOA, 2nd at 2010 Gulf Championships
Kyrgyzstan B N/A International Debut
Thailand B N/A 3rd at 2010 IIHF CCOA
Bahrain C N/A International Debut
Malaysia C N/A 4th at 2010 IIHF CCOA
Mongolia C 46 47th:  4th at IIHF WC Div. 3B, 6th at 2010 IIHF CCOA

Yep, that's right:  three countries are making their international debut in ice hockey at this tournament.  That's pretty awesome anyway you slice it.  You may have caught the images I linked to of Kyrgyzstan's national championship from a couple years ago, which actually occured just on the other side of the mountain range south of Almaty.  Bahrain and Qatar are expected to be added to this year's Gulf Ice Hockey Championships in Dubai, but this is their first official tournament.  Welcome to the awesome world of international hockey, you three...  you won't regret it.  

The UAE are the stars of this division, but they won't be able to avenge their loss to Taiwan in last year's CCOA final, which is too bad.  I'm not sure how this format works beyond the simple round robin within the groups, whether there are more games or not.  This tournament starts two days ahead of the Opening Ceremonies, on January 28th, and the group stage concludes on February 1st.  Hopefully there is more than two games each here, and that each placement gets to play the other afterwards, making at least four games each. 

Missing in action:  Hong Kong (5th at 2010 CCOA), Macau (8th at 2010 CCOA), Singapore (9th at 2010 CCOA), Saudi Arabia (3rd at 2010 Gulf), Oman (4th at 2010 Gulf). 

2011 AWG Women's Competition
Country World Ranking Recent Result
China 7 7th at 2010 Winter Olympics, 2nd at 2011 IIHF Women's CCOA
Japan 9 10th in 2010 Winter Olympic Qualification, 1st at 2011 IIHF Women's CCOA
Kazakhstan 8 9th in 2010 Winter Olympic Qualification
North Korea 21 3rd in 2010 IIHF Women's CCOA, 17th in 2009 IIHF WCs
South Korea 28 3rd in 2011 IIHF Women's CCOA, 27th in 2008 IIHF WCs

 Women's hockey had a bit of a boom in Asia due to the sport being introduced at the 1998 Nagano Olympics, but it hasn't managed to grow as anticipated.  Kazakhstan was upset in the qualifying for the 2010 Olympics by Slovakia, missing the Vancouver games despite finishing 6th at the World Championships in 2009.  Japan got some measure of revenge on China qualifying ahead of them by winning the most recent Challenge Cup of Asia on home ice (Niikko, Japan) back in November, so maybe this tournament's hosts will get a bit of revenge here.  The Koreas just need to start participating again internationally...  North Korea was at the first Women's CCOA in 2010, but didn't go to the most recent ones, which occurred just prior to the most recent flare-up on the Korean peninsula.  

Side note:  the North Korean national women's hockey team made a brief appearance on Wolf Blitzer's recent reporting from Pyongyang.  Here's a snippet:

I saw the North Korean girls' ice hockey team jogging one afternoon and briefly caught up with them. They laughed as I ran with them -- probably thinking who is this crazy foreign person carrying a little hand-held camera. - Wolf Blitzer, CNN

If you watch the video on that link, you'll catch a glimpse of the team, as well as North Korea's top hockey arena.  Hat tip to the fine folks of International Hockey Forums for the catch.

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