Latvia heads into 2005 hockey championship

Latvia faces heavily favoured Canada on the opening day of this year’s International Ice Hockey Federation World Championships scheduled in Vienna and Innsbruck, Austria. Big hockey, as they call it in Latvia, is back. Thousands of fans will be in attendance with many more tuned in back home.

Latvia is in Group B and will play its games in Innsbruck. In addition to facing Canada in the preliminary round, Latvia will play the United States on May 3 and Slovenia on May 5. The top three teams from each of four groups advance to the qualification round to battle for quarter-final spots. The last place teams in each group play in the relegation round with the bottom two demoted from the top division next year.

This year the pressure is off Latvia. Win or lose, as host nation to the 2006 World Hockey Championships, Latvia is automatically seeded in next year‘s round. All it has to do is finish building the new Multihalle in Rīga that will house 12,500 fans and reconfigure the existing Skonto Olympic Hall in Rīga for 6,500 hockey fans.

While Latvia has on occasion won against hockey’s superpowers, the game against Slovenia will probably be key. Slovenia is competing in the top tier for the first time and Latvia should not take the game lightly. In February, Slovenia gave Latvia a run for its money at the 2006 Olympic Qualifications in Rīga. Latvia was only able to post a 2-1 victory. If the Slovenes lose against Canada and the United States, then a Latvian victory against Slovenia will send Latvia to the qualification round and a guaranteed ninth to 12th place finish even if it loses against the two North American teams.

Latvia’s national team is anchored by National Hockey League players Arturs Irbe and Kārlis Skrastiņš. It also continues to rely on a core of aging veterans who play in various European leagues even though a generation of younger players like Jānis Sprukts, Armands Bērziņš, Agris Saviels, Edgars Masaļskis, Miķelis Rēdlihs, Mārtiņš Cipulis, Juris Ozols, Vents Feldmanis and Juris Štāls are making their mark. A number of newcomers are also fighting for spots in the lineup. They include 20-year-old goaltender Mārtiņš Raitums from Latvian league champions Rīga 2000, who had an excellent showing against the NHL Stars during their December swing through Rīga; Māris Ziediņš, a former college star now playing pro in South Carolina with the East Coast Hockey League’s Greenville Grrrowl, and teenager Guntis Galviņš, who also is from Rīga 2000. Edijs Brahmanis from the Latvian Army team ASK/Ogre did not make it and others will also be cut this week.

Leonīds Berešnevs is back as head coach in his first World Championship since 1999 taking over from Swede Kurt Lindstrom. He is assisted by Harijs Vitoliņš, a former national team captain who still plays with Thurgau in the Swiss B league and is the third generation from the Vītoliņš family dynasty to play hockey.

Goaltending is solid with Irbe and Masaļskis who now plays with Dukla in the Czech Republic. Either Raitums or Dimitrijs Žabotinskis from Liepājas Metalurgs will tag along as their understudy.

While its defense is experienced, the problem for the Latvian team is with the lack of scoring punch. Latvians tend to play a European style game working the puck around the outside looking for the picture perfect pass to set up a goal. The power play has been anemic.

So far results from exhibition games prior to Austria have been predictable. Latvia lost 2-4 and 0-3 in to the powerful Slovak team but picked up a 4-2 victory and 2-2 tie against Germany, which is seeded eighth in international rankings against Latvia’s 10th. Latvia on April 25 lost to Canada 1-3 in Rīga after Jānis Sprukts scored the opening goal. Latvia will play a final exhibition game in Finland on April 27.

In the cards for this year’s World Championship is a new look for the Latvian national team. The jerseys the team has worn for the last 10 years are being retired and the team will be suited in new home and away uniforms featuring Latvia’s coat of arms.

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