Bitter Sweet World Hockey Championships for Latvia

With everything said and done, Latvia placed 10th at this year’s International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) World Championships. Victories against Germany and Italy as well as a goal differential advantage over Germany and Switzerland who finished with the same number of points was enough to propel Latvia from last year’s 13th place finish to 10th.

Despite the jump in the standings, Latvia’s loss to Norway and then Denmark which eliminated them from a quarter-final berth, stands out as a major disappointment. Likewise Latvia did not automatically qualify for the Winter Olympics in 2014 at Sochi. It will now have to host one of three final Olympic qualification tournaments in February 2013 and will have to win against France, Kazakhstan and a yet to be determined entrant to get there.

The performance of the team was criticized by Kirovs Lipmans, head of the Latvian Hockey Federation (LHF) at a press conference following Latvia’s final game and loss to Sweden. He made it clear that the team had not met its goal of a quarter-final spot and blasted Dinamo Rīga players who did not give it their best specifically naming captain Jānis Sprukts and one of the KHL’s top forwards Miķelis Rēdlihs. The impact of Dinamo Rīga on the National Team has been simmering for a number of years. Critics argue that before Dinamo Rīga, Latvia’s players would come to the World Championships ready to play and hungry in search of next year’s contract. Now, with well-paying jobs for about half the National Team during the season in Rīga almost guaranteed, their motivation at the World Championships has been questioned. Lipmans did compliment a group of younger players who came out and seized the moment.

Ted Nolan, first year Canadian head coach of the Latvian National Team echoed Lipman’s comments but refused to criticize anyone while complimenting Miks Indrasis, Māris Jučers, Koba Jass and Jānis Andersons as some of the new arrivals who performed. He pointed out that the National Team has a solid core of veterans and promising youngsters who can take Latvia to the next level with a proper long-term development plan.

Some of the players that will be a big part of Latvia’s hockey future were still in North America and could not make this year’s championships. That includes Kristians Pelšs, an Edmonton Oilers draft pick playing in Canada’s Memorial Cup junior championships and turning pro next season, Zemgus Girgensons, another junior playing in the United States and expected to go in the first round of the NHL’s draft this year which would be the highest ever for a Latvian and Artūrs Kulda, a rugged defenseman who was still playing in the AHL play-offs and was called up this season to the NHL’s Winnipeg Jets.

Whether Nolan comes back for a second year is a hotly debated question in Latvian hockey circles. He has gone on record saying that he loved the experience, liked working with the players, being in Latvia and Rīga and that he’d be willing to continue working with and developing the National Team. Others say that Nolan doesn’t understand the mentality of Latvian hockey or that Latvian hockey players are not ready for a Canadian and former NHL coach. Ultimately the decision will be with Lipmans and the Latvian Hockey Federation.

But Latvia will be back at next year’s championships to be co-hosted once again by Sweden and Finland. This year’s semi-finals and finals are being played in Helsinki while next year they will switch to Stockholm. Of note is that this will be Latvia’s 17th consecutive year at the top level of international hockey. Quite an accomplishment for a country that has less than 5,000 registered hockey players of all sizes and ages.

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