Hockey politics overshadows World Championship

In most years, the World Hockey Championship being held April 24-May 9 in the Czech Republic would be dominating the media in Latvia. This year hockey politics is front and centre.

Following the 2000 championship in Germany, the International Ice Hockey Federation gave Latvia the right to host the 2006 tournament. The decision was swayed not only by the decent showings of the national team but also by legions of pumped-up Latvian hockey fans who impressed with their determined yet well-behaved support for their team. All Latvia had to do was build two new facilities, a 12,000-seat stadium and a second but smaller 8,000-seat facility.

Enter SIA Multihalle. Counting well-known personalities as its owners—including Kirovs Lipmans, president of the Latvian Hockey Federation (LHF); former basketballer and Latvijas ceļš politician and minister Ojārs Kehris, and Skonto head Guntis Indriksons—it would build the arenas with the blessing of the LHF. Multihalle unveiled its plans in 2002, initially promising to begin construction in the summer of 2003.

But construction has yet to start in earnest on the designated Skanstes Street site in Rīga. Multihalle has not been able to find investors and has been frantically stalling for time. On April 18, according to media reports, the company signed an agreement with Latvijas būvnieku stratēģisko partnerība (LBSP), a partnership of five locally based construction companies that would take over the project. Funding is still unclear, although Parekss Bank—Latvia’s largest bank—has been involved in the discussions. And on April 19, the LHF agreed to the change.

Another proposal has been put forward by SIA Merks, the Latvian subsidiary of an Estonian conglomerate, and Hansabanka for an arena on Lucavsala in Rīga just off the Salu bridge, according to the Rīga City Council information and public relations office. But media reports say the proposal doesn’t have support from the Latvian Hockey Federation. The Rīga City Council has final say because it has donated land for the Multihalle proposal on Skanstes Street and would have to do likewise for the Merks option.

Both proposals call for completion of the hockey arena by Feb. 1, 2006.

No matter which proposal is accepted, the city council will be asking for guarantees, Andris Ameriks, head of the Rīga City Council’s Development Committee, said April 14, according to the public relations office.

“If the hall is not completed by the forecast date, we’ll go after them for an appropriately large fine,” Ameriks said.

The city council is expected to consider the proposals April 21, according to media reports.

The site of the smaller rink has not been chosen but the City of Liepāja has submitted a proposal and is lobbying against Rīga interests. Lack of 600 four-star and five-star hotel rooms, which is an IIHF requirement, could be an issue for Liepāja.

Meanwhile, the newly formed Latvian Hockey Association (Latvijas Hokeja savienība, or LHS)—consisting of a who’s who in Latvian hockey and headed by Rīga entrepreneur Viesturs Koziols and openly feuding with the Latvian Hockey Federation—backs the Merks proposal.

And finally there’s the government-funded organizing committee of the 2006 championships headed by former Latvian President Guntis Ulmanis.

Ah, the murky world where Latvian business, politics and sports intersect.

Back in Switzerland, the IIHF is losing patience and on April 15 set a 10-day deadline for the mess to be sorted out. Otherwise it will take the games elsewhere. Things need to turn around quickly. If not, Latvia’s reputation in the sports world is going to take a beating with lost revenue and negative publicity. And, if so, don’t look for a major sports event to come looking for a Latvian venue too quickly.

Lipmans’ rule over Latvian hockey is being challenged. Unable to effect change through the LHF where the rules are stacked in favour of Lipmans and his friends, who include former Soviet superstar Helmuts Balderis, Koziols founded LHS earlier this year. It includes just about every hockey team owner, ice rink owner, general manager and coach of note in Latvia. Their objective is to focus on domestic hockey first, leaving the LHF to represent Latvian hockey internationally. The LHF would negotiate participation of Latvia’s best men’s and youth teams in leagues with neighbouring countries; would field men’s, junior mens and women’s teams at world championships, and would continue to organize the 2006 tournament.

Meanwhile the upstart LHS has started a critical review of domestic Latvian hockey. It has held a coaching workshop, is looking into improving qualifications of referees and has proposed changes to Latvijas čempionats, the domestic league that over recent years has included anywhere from six to nine teams. Changes include a revised play-off format, an all-star game, spreading juniors over all teams rather than have junior teams compete against senior men and limiting veterans on each roster. The latter two moves are important because veterans currently are not challenged for their positions and complacency often sets in. Younger players would also benefit, playing alongside rather than against veterans.

With the fiasco around building of the 2006 venues, LHS is now trying to dislodge Lipmans. It offered to take over the championships and to represent Latvia internationally. The IIHF, however, is unwilling to wade into Latvian politics and continues to recognize Lipmans.

Koziols owns the recently completed Siemens ice rink in Pinkus township between Rīga and Jūrmala. An entrepreneur and adventurer, he is a former advisor to the Latvian economics minister, is on the supervisory council of Latvijas Krājbanka and is involved with real estate as well as the building and management of large retail centres in and around Rīga. He is a hot-air balloon enthusiast who as navigator holds Latvian records for height and distance. He is behind Avantis, an organization focused on youth-oriented sports and cultural events and projects which have included a skateboard park in Rīga and the documentary film Atrasts Amerikā. Koziols himself plays amateur hockey and is linked to Deputy Prime Minister Ainārs Šlesers and the conservative Latvijas Pirmā partija.

Meanwhile, it’s still 2004

This brings us back to this year’s men’s World Championship, which will be played in Prague and Ostrava in the Czech Republic. Latvia’s national team is one of 16 squads in the competition.

While it is expected that Artūrs Irbe and Sergejs Naumovs will share most of the goaltending duties there is debate that it’s time to give third-stringer Edgars Malsalskis more international experience. At 37 and 35, respectively, both Irbe and Naumovs are nearing the end of their careers and Masalskis needs to be ready to step up. In two exhibition games on April 14 and 15 against Slovakia where Latvia lost 0:2 and tied 3:3, Masalskis outplayed Naumovs. He might get to start in at least one game in the World Championships. Naumovs finished the year with Cherepovets Severastal 200 kilometres north of Moscow in the Russian Super League. Irbe, on the other hand, was demoted by the Carolina Hurricanes to the Johnstown Chiefs of the East Coast Hockey League (ECHL), two levels below North America’s National Hockey League. Carolina tried to buy out Irbe’s USD 2.5 million annual contract, but he refused. After being injured playing with the Chiefs he returned to the Hurricanes late in the season and played well. Masalkis was back in Latvia with Rīga 2000 after playing in Sweden the previous year.

Pēteris Skudra, who arguably is Latvia’s best active goaltender after a number of years as a back-up in the NHL—most recently with the Vancouver Canucks—starred this season with Khimik of Voskresensk near Moscow in the Russian Super League. However, he decided to return to the United States with his American-born wife immediately after his season ended and not wait for the championships. He has promised to reconsider next year.

The bulk of the team will once again consist primarily of veterans who play in various European leagues. Some like Grigorijis Panteļejevs, who played 54 games in the NHL from 1992-1996, and Aleksandrs Kerčs, who played five games with the Edmonton Oilers from 1993-1994, are still able to contribute but were not able to land positions abroad and played last season in Latvia. Younger players have worked their way into the roster under head coach Kurt Lindstrem. They include last year’s surprise Vadims Romanovskis, who after playing in Latvia moved this last season to the Italian Series A league, and Florida Panthers draft-pick Jānis Sprukts, who refused to report to Florida’s farm team and played the season at home with ASK/Ogre. Locally based players Sergejs Durdins, Aleksandrs Jerofejevs, Mārtiņš Cipulis and Juris Ozols were invited to training camp, as was Lauris Dārziņš, a promising junior who plays in Finland. Of those, Durdins might make it this year.

They will be supplemented by the “Americans,” Latvians who play in the NHL and minor pro leagues in North America. Star defenseman Sandis Ozoliņš of the Anaheim Mighty Ducks is coming off an injury but will play. Sergejs Žoltoks and his Nashville Predators will probably be eliminated in first round playoff action and has agreed to play if that is the case. He will add much needed offence. Kārlis Skrastiņš and the Colorado Avalanche are probably set for a long playoff run and he likely will not make it. Last year he was a dominant force on the blue line for the Latvian team. His booming slapshot and rugged play will be missed. Also, “Europeans” Herberts Vasiļjevs and Kaspars Astašenko are still in their 20s and have played in the NHL.

A number of American Hockey League players—one level below the NHL—are competing for positions. Krišjānis Rēdlihs and his Albany River Rats have missed the playoffs. Although he played on the Latvian team last year, he did not impress in this year’s AHL campaign. Defenseman Agris Saviels, a Colorado prospect with the Hershey Bears, is also available but has found the transition from juniors difficult.

Of the players lower down in North America’s minor pro leagues, Armands Bērziņš, a Minnesota draft pick who played well with the ECHL’s Louisiana Ice Gators, probably has the best chance. He missed tryouts for the Latvian team last year due to an injury.

In the past, the management of the Latvian hockey team has tended to discount those in the lower North American minor pro leagues. Last year, defenseman Arvīds Rēkis proved them wrong. Ignored when he toiled four seasons with the Preoria Rivermen in the ECHL after playing junior in Canada, he was given the chance to play at the championships and impressed. He will be back after moving this past season to Augsburg in the German Bundesliga.

In the World Championship, Latvia initially will compete in Group A against the Czech Republic, Germany and Kazakhstan. Latvia faces the Czech Republic on April 24, Germany on April 26 and Kazakhstan on April 27.

How will Latvia fare? Goaltender Irbe was asked that question in one interview. He answered that if the team can pull an upset—and they did beat Russia last year—and win the games they should, a Top 8 finish is possible. If not, they will probably be edged the improving Germans, Danes or Swiss and have to settle for a ninth to 12th place finish.

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