Tuesday, 14 July 2020

All About Kazakhstan Today

It's not often that we find Canadian hockey players looking for their Olympic dreams through other countries, but former Toronto Varsity Blues forward Breanna Berndsen might have found a way to the Olympics, only without a maple leaf on her chest. We've seen this happen with a handful of men who have played hockey in European countries only to be granted citizenship in those countries, and it seems that the sociology graduate from Kelowna, BC who played three seasons for the Varsity Blues may be following that exact plan when it comes to her Olympic dream as Berndsen will head to Kazakhstan for the foreseeable future with visions of a future Olympiad in her mind!

Announced today, Berndsen signed a two-year contract with the Aisulu Almaty in the European Women's Hockey League. Almaty is the largest city in Kazakhstan, but since Berndsen is coming from Toronto it may feel like a smaller city to her. Nevertheless, the team is highly successful within the borders of Kazakhstan, and has shown some flashes of brilliance on the international stage at the IIHF European Women Champions Cup. While they haven't won the European Women Champions Cup yet, adding Berndsen should help as she brings size and skill to the lineup.

Berndsen graduated from the Pursuit of Excellence program in BC where she was part of a silver medal-winning team in 2014 and gold medal-winning team in 2015 at the Female World Sport School Challenge. She would play her freshman season at the University of North Dakota before transferring to the University of Toronto after UND decided to cut the women's hockey program.

Berndsen's 11 goals and 13 assists in three seasons with the Varsity Blues doesn't sound like she was a scoring machine, but she was an effective player for Toronto as her career moved forward as she received more power-play time. Berndsen was responsible for three game-winning goals out of the seven she scored this season, helping Toronto win the OUA Championship and earning a berth in the U SPORTS National Championship.

No one will question Berndsen taking an opportunity to play at a higher level following her university career, but it was her declaration of her future plans that was a little surprising.

"I'm applying for dual citizenship to become a Kazakhstani citizen," Berndsen told the Varsity Blues. "Then I would be eligible to compete in IIHF sanctioned events, like the world Universiade, world championship, Olympic qualifiers and hopefully the 2022 Olympic Games."

Again, no one will fault Berndsen for chasing her dreams, but applying for dual citizenship is a big undertaking considering some of the requirements that Kazakhstan has for prospective new citizens like singing the national anthem at the citizenship hearing. If she's chasing her Olympic dream, I'm all for her finding a way to achieve that dream, but Kazakhstan has "dropped down considerably in the IIHF Women's World Ranking", showing up at 21st-overall on the May 2020 rankings.

The achievement of this dream may take some incredible effort, but, as the Theodore Roosevelt said, "Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty". In saying that, I'm all for Breanna Berndsen chasing greatness in Kazakhstan, and I'll be cheering for her as she runs down this dream of representing Kazakhstan in the Olympics in the future. Let's hope she can make a lasting impact on Kazakhstan hockey in helping that country's national women's team find their way back to the biggest international tournament.

The reason this article is all about Kazakhstan is because Nigel Dawes, pictured to the right playing for Kazakhstan, did what Breanna is trying to do in earning citizenship with Kazakhstan while playing in the Olympics for the country. Dawes isn't playing in Astana with Barys as he once did, but he's still playing in the KHL as he suited up for Avtomobilist Yekaterinburg last season. This season? He won't be playing there as often as Dawes has signed with another KHL squad for what appears to be a legitimate shot at winning the KHL's Gagarin Cup for the first time in his illustrious KHL career.

He'll be reunited with Stepane Da Costa from Avtomobilist there, but it seems the lure of one of the best teams in the KHL annually was the draw for Dawes to leave Yekaterinburg for Kazan. Undoubtedly, Kazan has to be a favorite for the Gagarin Cup in 2020-21 with the additions of Da Costa and Dawes, and having Dawes on the roster for Kazan would mean he's not seen as a foreigner due to his Canadian roots thanks to his Kazakhstani passport. That would allow Kazan to pursue another foreign-born player if they so desired.

Regardless of how they use their foreign player spots, Kazan already looks like a formidable foe for KHL opponents this season.

For two Canadian-born kids, Kazakhstan has become their second homes as Breanna Berndsen looks to establish herself in the Eastern Bloc country while Nigel Dawes already has. Although their Olympic hockey dreams didn't come in the red-and-white, both players are looking to make Kazakhstan a bigger player on the international stage with their talents.

If nothing else, Berndsen may chase down her dream while Dawes already got to play in an Olympic Games. Follow Breanna's and Nigel's examples, and never give up on your dreams, kids.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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