The IIHF World Hockey Championship kicks-off on May 3 and runs until May 19 with the gold medal game that will determine this year’s bragging rights among the sixteen qualifying countries. The Championships are being held jointly in Stockholm and Helsinki.
Latvia will be be playing in Helsinki during the preliminary round with games against Russia (May 4), the United States (May 5), Austria (May 7), Slovakia (May 9), Germany (May 11), France (May 13) and Finland (May 14).
Sweden, the Czech Republic, Canada, Norway, Switzerland, Denmark, Belarus and Slovenia will be squaring off in Stockholm. The top four teams from each group will move on to the play-offs while the bottom four will fight it out for final standings. The bottom two will be relegated. The likely candidates for relegation are among France, Austria and Slovenia however Latvia should not take any team for granted. Belarus would be in that group but as hosts of next year’s championship they automatically qualify.
Even though Latvia has played at the top tier since 1997, the hundreds of Latvian hockey fans who will be rocking the Hartwell Arena in Helsinki can be forgiven going in a bit nervous. This season has had its share of challenges for Latvian hockey. The national team is young and lacking experienced veterans. Most of the players are from with Dinamo Riga. A few others play on other teams in the KHL, Germany and Switzerland. Some toil in lower European leagues. Mārtiņš Karsums, Lauris Dārziņš, Jānis Sprukts and Mārtiņs Cipulis along with youngster Miks Indrasis will be expected to produce up front. Centre is a weak spot. Krišjānis Redlihs, Georgijs Pujacs and Arturs Kulda will anchor the defence. Goaltending will be shared by Kristers Gudļevskis and Māris Jucers. They lack experience although Jucers has stepped in as a back-up for both the national team and Dinamo Riga. Veteran goaltender Edgars Masalskis is coming off an injury and may not be ready for action. Defenceman Oskars Bārtulis and forward Mikelis Redlihs are also injured and will not play. Neither will ageing veteran Sandis Ozoliņš.
Head coach Canadian Ted Nolan is back for his second season and has his staff in place. Canadian Tom Coolen and legendary Latvian goaltender Arturs Irbe are assistant coaches. Karlis Zirnis, a former NCAA player and minor leaguer in the United is the video coach. During a series of exhibition games in April leading up to the World Championships, Latvia lost to the Czech Republic, Finland and France but split a two game series with Belarus. To be fair, Nolan did not field the expected final roster in any of the exhibition games but gave some less experienced players a closer look.
But the problem with Latvian hockey is lack of players in the depth chart. There is not a lot to choose from. Latvia has a total of 2,348 men, 1,515 juniors and youth as well as 116 women and girls who play hockey. That includes players of all ages including amateurs.
Despite the numbers, Latvia’s mens team continues to play at the top level and in February they won a qualifying tournament in Riga under Nolan’s leadership securing a spot at the Sochi Winter Olympic Games. Latvia’s other national teams weren’t as lucky. The Men’s Under 20 (U20) juniors placed 10th out of 10 teams at the championships held this past December in Ufa, Russia and were demoted from the top tier to Division 1 Group A next year. The Men’s Under 18 (U18) team suffered the same fate this April at the championships in Sochi. The same month the Women’s team finished last in a field of six in Norway and are heading down from Division 1 Group A to Group B. Latvia’s men are currently ranked 11th and women 13th in the world.
It was a rough year for Dinamo Riga in the KHL. As a low-budget team they were unable to acquire any star players from abroad and lost a number of top Latvian players to other teams in the KHL who could afford to pay more. Sandis Ozoliņš, Jānis Sprukts, Mikelis Redlihs and Lauris Dārziņš were those who went elsewhere. So too did Arturs Kulda and Oscars Bārtulis who returned from North America. Kaspars Daugaviņš from the Ottawa Senators did play with Dinamo during the NHL lock-out. Former NHLer Raitis Ivanans also joined Dinamo but played a limited role as the team’s enforcer. The end result was that Dinamo finished dead last in the Western Conference and did not make the play-offs. Instead the team competed among the KHL’s also rans for the Cup of Hope (some called it the Cup of Losers) and ended up winning. If anything, it extended the season for Latvian hockey fans and kept the players moving on to the national team in game form.
HK Riga is Dinamo’s junior team and they play in the Russian dominated VHL. The juniors fared better and made it to the play-offs before being bowing out in the quarter-finals. Locally, Liepajas Metalurgs played in the Belarus League while SMSCredit.lv won the semi-professional Latvian loop.
Unlike previous years, only one Latvian played in the NHL. Kaspars Daugaviņš saw limited action with the Ottawa Senators and late in the lock-out abbreviated season was traded to the Boston Bruins. Arturs Kulda had seen limited action with the Winnipeg Jets the previous season and opted to play this year with Novosibirsk Sibir in the KHL. When their play-off run ended he was signed by the Winnipeg Jets on a short-term contract. In the month that he was back before the Jets season ended, Kulda was a healthy scratch, no doubt acquired as insurance in case the Jets ran into injuries.
Zemgus Girgensons made the jump from junior ranks in the USHL to the American Hockey League (AHL) and the Rochester Americans, a farm team of the Buffalo Sabres. He recently turned 19 and was the youngest player on his team. He held his own and the Sabres opted to keep him in Rochester rather than send back to the juniors. Expect Girgensons to crack the NHL within a couple of years. Kristiāns Pelšs also made the jump from major junior hockey with the Edmonton Oil Kings to the Oklahoma City Barons, an AHL farm team of the Edmonton Oilers. He spent part of the season during the NHL lock-out in Stockton California one level lower in the ECHL but was called back up after the lock-out ended and room opened up on the team. He is a solid defensive forward who has a shot at the NHL. Both the Americans and Barons are in the AHL play-offs and unless their teams have a short run, Girgensons and Pelšs will not be available for the World Championships.
Four 18 year olds played in Canada’s major junior leagues. The most successful was Roberts Lipsbergs with the Seattle Thunderbirds of the Western Hockey League (WHL). He was the team’s top scorer and is ranked 85th in this summer’s NHL draft. Edgars Kulda, younger brother of Arturs Kulda, and Nikita Jevpalovs had solid seasons with the Edmonton Oil Kings of the WHL and Blainville-Boisbriand Armada of the Quebec League (QMJHL). All three will likely be back next year. Rinalds Rosinskis had a decent plus/minus figure for a defenseman on the weak Prince George Cougars (WHL) but it is not clear if he will be back. Edgars Kļaviņš, a junior from Latvia playing in Sweden, is ranked 63rd for the NHL draft.
Pittsburgh Penguins draft pick Teodors Blugers started his NCAA career with Minnesota State University (Mankato) and posted decent numbers. Another NCAA forward is Ralfs Freibergs, a freshman at Bowling Green. He saw limited action because he was suspended for 33 games having violated the NCAA amateur rule. As a junior Freibergs had played in Latvia on a team in Latvia’s semi-professional domestic loop. Latvia had no junior team at that point so the suspension seems somewhat unfair because he had no other option. But he returned to action and then with the school year over headed to the national team’s training camp. Meanwhile there are a number of junior and youth age players from Latvia playing in North America hoping to catch a break and get a shot at one of the top junior leagues in Canada and the United States or to pick up a scholarship with the NCAA.
Meanwhile back to Helsinki. Latvia should hang-on to a place in the top tier of men’s hockey. Although they no longer strong enough to take a game from the big powers, they are better than some of the lesser powers also competing. But don’t expect Latvian hockey fans to breathe easy until the final whistle.
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