Pleasant rivalry

JIM BENDER, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 7:23 AM ET

Team Kazakhstan will play its last game of the 2007 World Women's Hockey Championship at noon today.

And the Kazakhs take on the Russians with the loser likely destined to drop down to Division 1.

"There's no backing up," Kazakhstan defenceman Viktoriya Sazonova said, borrowing a phrase from the Russians in the Second World War yesterday. "We're going to die on our shield or we're going to beat them.

"We've played Russia before and we beat them and we're going to try to beat them again ... There's always a rivalry between Russia and Kazakhstan just because we're almost the same level."

But despite the fact that Kazakhstan once belonged to the Soviet Union, it is not a bitter rivalry, a la Canada-U.S.

"It's a friendship from beginning to end," Sazonova said. "Sometimes we meet in the city somewhere and exchange gifts or go out so, it's a very warm friendship."

But no matter how Kazakhstan fares this week, the players were certainly proud to be here.

"This is a big thing for us so, we try our best each and every game," Sazonova said. "We're playing on the world stage and we're very proud of it ... We just haven't had enough experience but the experience comes with time."

And with some sacrifice, especially being so far from home.

I miss Almati, my home city," said Sazonova, 23. "I still think it's the best place to live in the world. I miss my home country. I miss my home city. I miss my child."

Yes, she is married and her son is just 17 months old.

And she really misses the toastier climate of her home.

"Yes, I like warm," Sazonova said. "It's too cold for me here ... Almati's very warm. It's very rare you see -15 C and then, it doesn't happen very often."

Almati is Kazakhstan's largest city (about two million) and recently lost the bid to host the 2014 Olympics but will host the 2011 Asian Winter Games.

While here, the Kazakhs trained in Morden before the tourney started.

"I liked Morden," Sazonova said. "We spent a lot of time in Morden so we obviously had lot more chance to see the town and it's smaller than Winnipeg."

While there, the team skated with some young female hockey players ages 12-14.

"I see the little girls admire women hockey players and want to be women hockey players themselves," Sazonova said. "I always enjoy meeting girls who want to meet hockey players. I'm proud to be a hero for someone ... In Kazakhstan, girls that age don't play hockey."

But Sazonova believes that will soon change.

"Kazakhstan puts a lot of effort into every single sport," she said. "But women's hockey is going to be growing incredibly."

There are currently six women's teams that compete for the national championship there.


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