Whether Latvia’s hockey team gets to play in the 2006 Winter Olympic Games in Turin, Italy, is down to a crucial Feb. 13 game in Rīga. The game in the Rīga Sports Palace (Rīgas Sporta pils) will pit the national team against the rival squad from Belarus in a contest Latvia has to win to qualify for the Olympics.
Qualification is a complicated affair and based on International Ice Hockey Federation seedings, which are determined by rankings in the last Olympic games, and the last four World Hockey Championships. The top eight teams—including hockey superpowers Canada, the United States, Russia, Sweden, Finland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and wannabe Germany—get byes, while host nation Italy is also in, even though it is ranked 19th. Three spots are up for grabs, one from each of the qualification tournaments. Latvia is ranked 10th and is playing in Group B with 13th place Belarus, 16th place Slovenia and 20th place Poland.
The Group B tournament has been underway in Rīga. Group A has been playing in Switzerland and Group C in Austria.
Group B action got underway Feb. 10 with Belarus edging Poland, 3-2, and Latvia getting by Slovenia, 2-1. The next day Belarus easily handled Slovenia, 7-2. But it was only in the last minutes of their game that Latvia opened up a 3-1 lead over a surprisingly tough Polish squad.
With a three-goal lead over Latvia in goal differential, Belarus needs a tie or a win Feb. 13 to qualify. Latvia, on the other hand, must win.
The two countries been long-time hockey rivals. In 1996 Belarus blocked Latvia from the 1998 Olympic Games with a victory in the final game of the qualification tournament also held in Rīga. (Coincidentally, the Latvian head coach then was Leonīds Beresņevs, who returned as head coach this year. ) However, Latvia has fared better than Belarus in recent World Hockey Championships and finished 7th last year.
Latvia’s team has been slow off the mark and the victories against Slovenia and Poland were unexpectedly difficult. Starters Artūrs Irbe, Herberts Vasiļjevs and Aigars Cipruss have been injured and could not play. And Sergei Zholtok, who died in November after collapsing during a hockey game in Belarus, is sorely missed.
Also missing are several players not released from club play in North America’s minor pros, such Raitis Ivanāns and Krišjānis Rēdlihs.
However, National Hockey League players Kārlis Skrastiņš and Sandis Ozoliņš are suited up. Skrastiņš has been playing with Rīga 2000 during the NHL lockout, while Ozoliņš has been idling. They are joined by East Coast Hockey League players Armands Bērziņš and Juris Štāls, who are still pursuing their NHL dreams.
The bulk of the team consists of players based in Latvia and other European countries. They include five from Rīga 2000 and two from Liepājas Metalurgs. Veterans Aleksandrs Semjonovs, Atvars Tribuncovs, Aleksandrs Ņiživijs, Aleksandrs Macijevskis, Grigorijs Panteļejevs, Viktors Ignatjevs, Normunds Sējējs, Rodrigo Laviņš and Igors Bondarevs are playing alongside a younger group that includes Jānis Sprukts, Miķelis Rēdlihs, Mārtiņš Cipulis, Arvīds Reķis and Juris Ozols. Goaltending duties are being shared by Sergejs Naumovs and Edgars Masaļskis.
The Latvia-Belarus game is to be broadcast live over Latvian State Radio 1 (Latvijas Radio 1) beginning at 19:05 EET (17:05 GMT) on Feb. 13. The broadcast also may be heard live over the radio service’s Internet stream, which is available through its Web site, www.latvijasradio.lv. Live text updates of the game’s progress also will be available from the International Ice Hockey Federation’s Web site, www.iihf.com. —Viesturs Zariņš
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