It may only be August, but there's a hint of winter in the air as Astana plays host to a curtain raiser for the upcoming ice hockey season. Barys Astana will compete against teams from Russia, Latvia and Belarus in the inaugural President of Kazakhstan's Cup tournament.
The action begins in the capital’s Kazakhstan Sports Palace on August 10 with Dinamo Riga (Latvia) playing Dinamo Minsk (Belarus) in the afternoon match and home favorites Barys taking on Atlant (Russia) that evening. After further games between the teams on August 11 and 13, the top two teams play off in the final on August 14. The event sponsor is Nur Otan, the political party led by President Nursultan Nazarbayev, which holds all the elected seats in Kazakhstan's parliament.
Barys was a founding member of the KHL (Kontinental Hockey League), set up in 2008 to bring together teams from Russia, Kazakhstan, Latvia and Belarus to provide a rival to North America's NHL (National Hockey League).
The Astana-based team's participation in the KHL is another pillar of Kazakhstan's attempts to promote its capital city through sports such as cycling and hockey. Kazakhstan Temir Zholy, the state railroad company, sponsors Barys.
The team features an international line-up with players from Kazakhstan, Russia, the Czech Republic and Canada. Last season Barys made it to the KHL play-offs only to be knocked out by eventual tournament winners Ak Bars, from Kazan, Russia, in the quarter finals.
The President's Cup is a warm-up for the real hockey season, which opens on 11 September when Barys travel to Russia to play Severstal. The regular season runs until February 2011, after which the play-offs will determine who will lift the Gagarin Cup, the KHL's answer to the NHL's Stanley Cup.
Paul Bartlett is a journalist based in Almaty.