Latvia: A Hockey Country

Today, on November 18th, 2014, one of our most beloved hockey nations has reached a new level, not only in hockey, but in world history. The small European country is turning 96 years old, a great achievement, boasting a rich history and a bright future. Latvia is my country – my home, which is why we are going to take a little peek into this northern nation’s world of hockey.

Hockey is in the top 3 when it comes to sports in Latvia. The game has been played since 1920 and currently has approximately 5,000 registered players, roughly 0.25% of nation’s total population.

History

Although the first signs of hockey can be found as early as 1920, The Latvian Hockey Federation was created in the early 1930’s. In 1931, the federation’s first season was played. In the same year, the LHF was invited into the mighty International Hockey Federation. From 1932-1940 Team Latvia participated in 26 international games, winning 6 of them, with 16 loses and 4 tie games, scoring only 37 goals, while allowing 93.

From 1940-1990, Latvia was forced into the Soviet Union, lost their freedom, and had to fight for their independence, but that didn’t stop Latvians from proving themselves as great hockey players. Latvian Harijs Mellups was Soviet Russia’s goaltender in their very first national game, where they won 23-2 against East Germany.

The fall of the Soviet Union came during the 1991 World Junior Championships. Latvian goalie Arturs Irbe refused to play, but the Soviet team had two youngsters from Latvia – Sergejs Žoltoks, and Sandis Ozoliņš. The USSR fell half way through the championship, but the team still won the gold medal.

Dinamo Riga

Dinamo Riga was one of the first 11 teams that played in the debut season of the Soviet Union’s championship during the winter of  1946/1947. During the 1960’s Dinamo dropped down to the USSR’s 3rd rate league, but before long, the team returned to top of the ranks in the 1973/1974 season, where they played until the fall of the Soviet Union. Their best season, by far, was their historical 1987/88 season, where Latvia made their first-ever appearance in the playoffs. The team fought their way to 3rd place in the regular season and lost only to CSKA Moscow in the finals, taking home their well-deserved silver medals.

Dinamo Riga was shut down in 1995. On April 7th, 2008, more than a decade later, the modern era of the team began, as it was recreated to play in the Kontinetal Hockey League. Since then, their best achievement has been their 2012 Nadezda Cup, known as a cup for teams that don’t qualify fir the playoffs.

IIHF World Championships/Olympic Games

Latvia returned to the IIHF in 1991, and as a new team, was added to the C Division. In 1994, Team Latvia played in the B division for the first time, from where none other than current Team Russia head coach Olegs Znaroks made sure Team Latvia could be one of the famous ”elite” teams.

Since 1936, Team Latvia has played in 5 Olympic tournaments and 24 World Championships, their best rankings being eight and ninth place. The Latvian National Team is now ninth in IIHF standings, repeating the position from 2005. It would be a shame not to mention how team Latvia made it to the elite division of IIHF WC. in 2006, Latvia got to host The World Championships, which were played in Riga and Liepaja.

Coaching

Team Latvia has gone trough many phases, some easier, and others more challenging, but the fans have always stuck by the team through thick and thin – back from when Olegs Znaroks became the head coach of Team Latvia, until most recent coaching changes, when Aleksandrs Belavskis took over, giving Ted Nolan full focus on the NHL’s Buffalo Sabres.

As much as I love the Sabres, I definitely didn’t want to give away Teddy. He inspired the national team and made youngsters like Miks Indrasis, Zemgus Girgensons, and Kristers Gudlevskis shine as bright as diamonds. He led the team in the last Olympic games in Sochi. He knew Team Latvia might not be the best team around, but they always had the most heart, the will to win, and a huge army of a fan following baking them up. Nolan’s motivation was a major factor when Kristers Gudlevskis made 56 Saves against Team Canada. Team Latvia stepped into the Olympic “big eight” thanks to the celebrated coach. Ted Nolan – By far the best head coach Team Latvia has ever had.

Future

No one knows what is coming next, but seeing new Latvian talents coming out of nowhere, I wouldn’t be surprised if after the small rebuild Latvian hockey is currently experiencing, the team will once again join the ranks of the best in the world. With current players aging, young guys like Kristers Gudlevskis, Zemgus Girgensons, Edgars Kulda, Rihards Bukarts, Teodors Blugers, and Elvis Merlzikins will have to step up their game . Gudlevskis and Girgensons  just have to carry on doing what they’re doing, because it’s clearly working for them.

The question of the decade is probably concerning who should wear the ”C”, as Sandis Ozolins has retired, Herberts Vaslijevs‘ career is coming to an end, and Karlis Skrastins is no longer with us (but still wearing a ”C”, watching us from above). All eyes and ears are on Miks Indrasis, a young talent with a great physique, but is he the one? He is one of the best candidates after having Ozolins as the captain of the Dinamo Riga to take an example from in dressing room – but it will be difficult to replace him, so the team might as well hope for the best. There can be some short term captains in the interim, but when the time comes, Zemgus Girgensons should be the next person to take this long term duty, that is, if he will be able to – after the Buffalo Sabres are done rebuilding, and will be serious contenders for the Stanley Cup.

 

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