Nikita Mikhailis gets his present package after being honoured as the best player of Nomad Astana in the game against Ritten. Photo: Alisa Keptyukha
Nomad can become first CC winner from the country
Several times Kazakh teams have made it to the IIHF Continental Cup Final. Nomad Astana is here to become the first team from the country to win it.
The chances to do so are probably better than ever. Mathematically it’s 50 per cent since only Nomad and host Yunost Minsk are left in title contention and will play a winner-takes-it-all game for first place tonight at 19:00 at Chizhovka Arena.
Nomad won the Kazakh championship and is boosted by players from KHL club Barys Astana since it’s part of the organization and serves as farm team. Some players on the roster used to play in the KHL or had the chance to help out for a few KHL games during the season.
The most notable players can be found on the first line that has been busy producing scoring chances and goals. Nikita Mikhailis leads the scoring stats with three goals and two assists after two games.
“Kazakhstan has never won a Continental Cup Final, so that’s my task, that’s why I spend part of the season here,” Mikhailis said.
That’s probably half the truth since Nomad is also his father’s team. Sort of. Yuri Mikhailis was in his fourth season coaching Nomad when his son joined in November to play for him in the Kazakh championship and the preliminary round of the Continental Cup. But two weeks ago the organization decided to make changes in the coaching staff of KHL team Barys Astana. The “Karaganda connection” came with Galym Mambetaliev promoted to serve as head coach and Yuri Mikhailis moved from the farm team to serve as assistant and be responsible for the defence.
The 48-year-old was a defender when Karaganda played in the second Soviet league and later played for other teams in the top-two Russian leagues before joining the Barys Astana organization in various coaching roles.
While playing for Yuzhny Ural Orsk in the second Russian league in the late ‘90s, his son joined him to the ice and started with hockey at four.
“I then played as a junior in Karaganda and left my parents to play in Satpayev, about 700 kilometres away from my parents, to develop there during five years,” said Nikita Mikhailis. As a 16-year-old he joined the Barys Astana organization and since 2014 he has split his season between KHL play and games in other leagues with affiliated teams, earlier the KHL’s junior league MHL, later Torpedo Ust-Kamenogorsk in Russia’s second-tier league VHL and Nomad Astana in the Kazakh championship.
While having played in Astana for a while, Karaganda, the country’s fourth-largest city, remains his emotional hometown. “Karaganda is a miners’ city. I’m not there so often since I play in Astana but I go there in the summers and always feel at home when I’m there,” he said.
That his name sounds neither typical Russian nor Kazakh has a reason that is little known. His ancestors came to Kazakhstan from Minsk, so coming here for the 2018 IIHF Continental Cup Final is a special trip also for him personally.
“Some people think the name comes from Latvia, some from Germany. I have relatives here in Minsk. My grandmothers just were on the tribune,” he said after the Saturday afternoon game. Today they will likely cheer on their grandson when Nomad takes on the home team, Yunost Minsk.
Nomad Astana started the tournament as the leader with an impressive 5-1 victory over the Sheffield Steelers. However, in the second game they had trouble beating Italian small-town team Ritten Sport and needed a shootout to win 3-2.
“We started bad. They’re a serious team, we knew them, and we were a bit tired from last night. But we said we can do this and we got stronger during the game,” Mikhailis said. “It was our fault that Ritten scored twice, we are self-critical about that. We need to discuss what to improve. There’s always something to improve.”
Improvement would come in good timing. Yunost Minsk is expected to be the biggest hurdle for Nomad. The hosts are the only team that hasn’t lost a point in the competition and has a convincing 5-0 record including preliminary-round play.
“It will be a final against a good team, everybody understands that. We need to get more rest, discuss everything at practice on Sunday and prepare well,” Mikhailis said.
Once the tournament is over it will be decided where Mikailis will continue. Joining his father at Barys wouldn’t be a surprise. And after making his debut with the men’s national team in official events at the 2017 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group A and the 2017 Asian Winter Games, he could also be part of the national team at the 2018 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group A in Budapest, Hungary.
His first attempt wasn’t as successful as he hoped despite scoring two goals as a rookie. Known as an “elevator nation” that often went up to the top division in odd years just to be relegated the year after, Kazakhstan had for the first time since 2008 missed out on promotion in Division I play by ending in third place behind Austria and Korea last April. Something the Kazakhs will be eager to change.
Despite the setback last spring Mikhailis isn’t worried about the future of ice hockey in the country. And the Continental Cup will be another opportunity to earn honour for Kazakhstan.
“It’s becoming better in Kazakhstan than in the past. Ice palaces have been built across the country, there are more hockey schools. More kids have the chance to play ice hockey. I think we will look good in the future,” the 22-year-old said. And at his age he may as well be part of better results.