Latvia has flipped another page on the huge book of Latvian hockey. Dinamo Riga held their season ending ceremony where they thanked one of the greatest Latvians of all time – Sandis Ozolinsh. After the team didn’t qualify for the playoffs, the team announced that they will honour their long time captain, as well as the long time captain of team Latvia. The team raised his number 8 to the rafters and retired his jersey.
During the ceremony, Ozolinsh was invited to take the ice from his former seat in Arena Riga’s locker room as the fans chanted ”Ozo, Ozo.” Ozolinsh thanked his mom and sister, and they were invited on the ice to join him. He then spoke of missing his late father. Ozolinsh also thanked his former coaches, Viktor Tikhonov and Leonid Bereshnev. He stated that it is only as part of a team that this was possible, and that it was working together with former teammates that he became what he is. He talked about those former teams, teammates, family and friends.
The highlight of the evening was when the chairman of Dinamo Riga, Juris Savickis said that while Ozolinsh will never play for our team again, he will always be here. The Arena lights were turned off and a spotlight shown on a banner that was covered with a white blanket with logo of Dinamo Riga. Suddenly the banner with No. 8 on it was raised as fans cheered and applauded. Ozolinsh’s number is the first retired by the club.
THIS IS IT! FIRST EVER JERSEY RETIRED BY DINAMO RIGA! pic.twitter.com/1ZZKkQrnEt
— Aivis Kalniņš (@A_Kalnins) March 7, 2015
He was also awarded with a special place in the stands, a seat number 8, in row 8.
Ozolins custom seat at Arena Riga. Again – Row 8, Seat 8 pic.twitter.com/zQH38xYiMn
— Aivis Kalniņš (@A_Kalnins) March 7, 2015
While the Latvian team failed to qualify for Gagarin Cup playoffs for just the second time in the modern era of Dinamo. With the teams financial future uncertain, Riga is rushing to make a positive impact and get rid of the negativity. The club has had financial problems since the beginning of the season and is now looking for a sponsor. If one can be found Riga will continue to play in KHL for three more seasons. However, if one is not found, this might be the last chance to see them on the ice. In some ways this can be the team thanking their fans for the support during this and previous six KHL seasons.
Sandis Ozolinsh – began his pro hockey career with Dinamo Riga in 1990 in the to Soviet league. In 1991, he was drafted 30th overall by the San Jose Sharks, and made his NHL debut on October 8th 1992, recording an assist and finishing +3 in his first game. After three seasons with Sharks he was traded to Colorado Avalanche where he won the Stanley Cup in 1996, becoming the first, and only Latvian to ever raise the world’s greatest hockey trophy above his head. Ozolinsh would go on to Florida Panthers, later to Anaheim Mighty Ducks and New York Rangers before returning to the Sharks. Ozolinsh was a Norris Trophy finalist in 1996-1997, and played in seven NHL-All Star games.
In 2009, Ozolinsh signed a contract to return to the place he started his hockey career, Dinamo Riga. In 2009, he signed with the team and became their captain. In 2010-11 he was named the KHL’s defenseman of the year. He moved on to Atalant Mytishchi in an attempt to win the Gagarin Cup, the KHL’s biggest trophy. When it became clear Altant was alson not a contender, he returned to Dinamo for one last season before retiring.
Following the season, he announced his retirement on live TV stating that he wants to become a politician. While the reasons are not quite clear, he never did get into politics. Reports indicated that he was offered an assistant coaching job with the Buffalo Sabres but instead decided to take over as the general manager for Team Latvia. Following an unsuccessful World Championships he was fired, together with head coach Olegs Znaroks.
It appeared that Ozolinsh had walked away from Team Latvia, until coach Ted Nolan asked him to help the team qualify for the the Sochi Olympics. He returned to the ice, playing on defence for the team in the Olympic qualifying tournament. When Latvia earned their place he also played in Sochi, as part of the Latvian national team which almost beat Canada.
Ozolish played 869 NHL games, scoring 167 goals and recording 564 points. He also played 224 games in KHL, scoring 28 goals recording 89 assists. There is no doubt he is one of the greatest all-time Latvian hockey players.
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