Latvia’s hockey history spans a century

The hockey world is coming to Latvia this May for the International Ice Hockey Federation’s (IIHF) 2006 World Championships. The event is sure to be a highlight of Latvia’s nearly 100-year history with the game of hockey.

The first recorded game in Latvia occurred Feb.15, 1909, between the Union and Strēlnieka Dārzs teams, according to histories of Latvian hockey. However, “Canadian hockey,” as it was called, did not take root until the 1930s when it nudged out bandy, a sport similar to field hockey but played on ice with a ball. Bandy is still played today in Scandinavia and a few places like Minnesota in the United States.

In 1929, Rīgas Strādnieku Sports un Sargs, or Rīga SSS, a sports club affiliated with Latvian Social Democratic Labor Party, switched from playing bandy to hockey. The first official ice hockey game was played on Feb. 15, 1930, between the Rīga Centre and Konigsberg chapters. The Rīga squad included Bruno Kalniņš, a member of Latvia’s parliament and in later years a venerable Latvian political exile in Sweden.

The Latvian Winter Sports Federation threw its support behind hockey in 1930 and Latvia was admitted to the IIHF in 1931. Local hockey teams included Universitas Sports, Wanderer, Union, Armijas Sporta Klubs from Riga and Olimpiade from Liepåja. The Social Democrats played separately until they were shut down by the regime of Kārlis Ulmanis. Rather than set league play, teams competed in shorter tournaments.

Latvia participated in the European Championships for the first time in 1932 and a year later made its debut at the World Championships in Prague. At the 1935 championships in Davos, Switzerland, Latvia met Canada, losing 0-14. The teams met again at the 1936 Winter Olympics in Garmisch-Partenkirchen with Latvia losing 0-11. Latvia played the United States in 1938 and lost by a respectable 0-1. Exhibition games were played in various countries often on stopovers to and from the World Championships. All players were amateurs. Professionals were unable to compete until 1976.

Hockey in Latvia was played on flooded outdoor surfaces and occasionally on lakes. Both were dependent on the weather, which could quickly swing from a deep freeze to a thaw. More than a few games were played in slushy conditions or had to be canceled. In those days there were no sideboards, which were introduced only after players got tired of searching for the puck in snow banks. Artificial lighting, which allowed night games, was added by the Army club at its rink in 1934. The first permanent outdoor ice rink was constructed in Latvia at the Daugava stadium in Rīga in 1950. The facility had stands for 4,500 spectators. Artificial ice was installed in 1960. Even though indoor rinks were already being built in Canada in the latter part of the 19th century, Latvia’s first indoor rink, the Rīga Sports Palace, only opened its doors in 1970.

In 1939, Latvia hired Canadian hockey player and physical education graduate Larry Marsh to coach its players for a month. Marsh at that time played in Budapest, Hungary.

The outbreak of World War II did not shut down hockey. The Soviets disbanded existing teams but formed new one,s including Rīga Dinamo. The old teams were re-established with the arrival of the Germans but new teams with distinctive Latvian names also sprung up: Ledus Lāči, Daugavieši, Skrejošais Holandietis and Ledus Simfonija. They continued as best as they could in war-time conditions.

No hockey was played from 1944-45. A year later, a Soviet Latvian all-star team visited Lithuania flying down to Kaunas in a rickety Douglas bomber. The return trip by land was no less eventful as the team was jailed for three hours in a small Lithuanian town.

Next season Rīga Dinamo started in the Soviet league and, on the strength of its pre-war Latvian players, continued to play in the top tier until the 1958-59 season. In 1948 Harijs Mellups was the best goaltender in the Soviet Union and was on the national team. RVR (Rīgas Vagonu Rūpniecība), Spartaks, VEF and Latvijas Berzs were some of the other junior and senior teams that played either locally or regionally during the Soviet era.

Prior to the war, bandy rather than ice hockey was played in the Soviet Union. After the war, Soviet authorities decided to switch to hockey, which unlike bandy was a recognized Olympic sport. A fact-finding trip to Rīga was organized for an official. He returned with Canadian ice hockey rules translated for him into Russian and written out by hand. There is some truth to claims that Latvia introduced hockey to Russia.

Other pre-war players ended up in Germany. Between 1946 and 1949 up to eight played on the Augsburg team nick-named “Letten Mannschaft” (Latvian Crew). They led the team winning the Southern German championships in 1948 before the players dispersed. Rūdolfs Veide went on to have a long and successful career as a player and coach in West Germany, even playing on the national team in 1953-54. His son, Ēriks, repeated 20 years later.

Hockey in Latvia languished in the late 1950s and 1960s. The top team, Riga Dinamo, renamed Daugava between 1949 and 1967, was unable to escape the second-tier Soviet league. Along the way there were exhibition games in Eastern Europe and visits from the Finnish workers all-star team, Duklu and Kladno from Czechoslovakia, the Eastern Hockey League all-stars from the United States in 1964 and a later visit to Canada in 1978-79 to play top junior teams. Of note are 1967 outdoor games in Novosibirsk and Ustjkamenogorsk played in termperatures of -37 degrees and -40 degrees Celsius, respectively.

Things changed with the arrival in 1968-69 of Soviet coach Viktor Tikhonov, then at the start of his legendary coaching career. A disciplinarian to some and tyrant to others, he was an innovator and strong on physical conditioning. By 1973-74 Rīga Dinamo was back in the top tier.

RVR opened a hockey school in 1967 and one of its students, Helmuts Balderis, emerged as a superstar. He was nick-named the Electric Train and played for Dinamo. He was moved to Moscow’s Central Red Army team along with Tikhonov in 1977. Balderis starred for the Soviets, playing in the 1976 Canada Cup, five World Championships and winning an Olympic silver medal at Lake Placid. He won the Soviet scoring championship twice.

Balderis rebelled against Tikhonov’s authoritarian regime and constant abuse. In 1975 he stormed off the bench after telling Tikhonov to get stuffed. There were later incidents. Tikhonov retaliated by making sure Balderis did not get named to the 1976 and 1984 Soviet Olympic squad,s depriving Balderis of gold medals at Innsbruck and Sarajevo. Balderis was allowed to coach in Japan between 1986 and 1989. At the age of 37 he was drafted by the National Hockey League’s Minnesota North Stars, but it was too late in his career. He played only 26 games with the team during the 1989-90 season. Balderis played on Latvia’s national team in 1994 and is currently the vice president of the Latvian Hockey Federation.

Rīga Dinamo remained in the top tier until the collapse of the Soviet Union. In the 1970s and 1980s, the ethnic composition of the team changed and local Russians and imports came to outnumber Latvians. Artūrs Irbe made his debut as a promising young goaltender in 1986-87. The following season, Dinamo won silver in the Soviet Championships, its highest ever standing. During the 1988-89 season, Irbe made the Soviet national team and led Dinamo on a seven-game swing through North America against National Hockey League teams.

By the winter of 1990-9,1 the Soviet Union was unraveling and Latvia was driving hard for independence. Already a hero, Irbe further endeared himself to Latvians by manning the barricades in Rīga against possible Soviet attack. Afterwards he refused to play on the Soviet national team and in the fall of 1991 was in North America. He was the first Latvian to establish himself in the NHL and played there for 13 years. 

Hockey in Latvia collapsed and players scattered. Sandis Ozoliņš was spotted playing on the Soviet junior team in the fall of 1991 and soon joined Irbe in North America. In the spring of 1992 the Edmonton Oilers and Boston Bruins held a scouting camp in Rīga. Sergejs Žoltoks and Grigorijs Panteļejevs got their chance. Throughout the 1990s a string of players from Latvia headed overseas. Crashing in the homes of others who had preceded them, they took anything they could get. Most languished in the minors, jumping from one team to another, enduring road trips on long bus rides and often playing for a pittance in the hope that they would make the big time. Some even played roller hockey during summers. Most eventually headed back to Europe. A few made it to the NHL, some only for a handful of games. NHLers included Harijs Vītoliņš, Viktors Ignatjevs, Kaspars Astašenko, Kārlis Skrastiņš, Raitis Ivanāns, Herberts Vasiljevs and Panteļejevs. Only Irbe, Ozoliņš, Žoltoks and Skrastiņš established solid NHL careers.

Several Latvians from North America also played professional hockey. Harolds Šnepsts, born in Edmonton in 1954, holds the record for Latvian NHLers. He played 1,033 games in over 17 seasons, easily eclipsing runner-up Sandis Ozoliņš, who has just topped 800. Juris Kudrašovs from Toronto played in the International Hockey League in the 1970s. Āris Brīmanis and Jarrod Skalde both have more than 100 games in the NHL but spent much of the last decade playing one level lower. They now play in Europe. Mike Knuble was born in Toronto but moved to Grand Rapids. Mich., as an infant. His mother was Latvian. Knuble is a solid NHLer currently with the Philadelphia Flyers. Ironically, he has played on the U.S. national team against Latvia.

Back home in Latvia, funding evaporated and hockey struggled to survive during the first years of independence. Players bolted from their teams at a moment’s notice for any opportunity abroad. Teams were here one day and gone the next. Teams were often named after their sponsors, such Essamika and Laterna. Rīga Dinamo was renamed Hockey Club Riga, then became the Riga-Stars after its sponsor A/S Stars and finally Pārdaugava, another sponsor. The team first played in the Russian Interstate League and then in the Eastern European Hockey League before going bankrupt in 1995 and being replaced by the Riga Juniors. And throughout most of the 1990s, Latvia was down to just one rink, the venerable Riga Sports Palace.

Faced with a host of new nations following the break-up of the Soviet Union, the IIHF held qualification tournaments for the World Championships. Latvia won its games in 1992 against Estonia and Lithuania. A year later in Slovenia, Latvia took the C pool title, narrowly beating Ukraine but posted huge lopsided victories against Belgium 26-3, Israel 32-0 and South Korea 27-0.  After three years Latvia won the B pool in 1996 in Eindhoven, Holland, and made its debut at the elite level in 1997. The national team surprised the competition, finishing seventh. Latvia has been in the top tier ever since and has posted a number of upsets, including huge emotional wins in 2000 against Russia in St. Petersburg and then in 2003 in Finland on May 4, the anniversary of the restoration of Latvia’s independence.

With the success of the national team, hockey rebounded in Latvia. By 2006 there were 15 hockey rinks and arenas. For some players, competing at home with Rīga 2000 and Liepājas Metalurgs, which field teams in both the Latvian and Belarus Leagues, has become a viable option. Youth programs have popped up throughout the country. The national team has successfully weathered a partial changing of the guard with younger post-Soviet players breaking through. The ethnic composition has changed and Latvians are again in the majority on both the senior and junior national teams. Latvia played in both the 2002 and 2006 Winter Olympic games and the juniors made it, if only for a year, to the elite level at the World Junior Championships in British Columbia in 2006. On top of that, Latvia in April fought its way to the top of its group in IIHF U18 Division I play, meaning the team has been promoted to the 2007 IIHF World U18 Championship.

Meanwhile, hordes of Latvian hockey fans accompanying their teams are a legend throughout Europe and have even received media attention in North America.

Sponsorship and depth are continuing challenges, but on the eve of the World Hockey Championships in Rīga, a proud tradition spanning a century continues in Latvia.

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