Latvia’s hockey juniors make their mark in Canada

Last summer a record number of six hockey players from Latvia were drafted by Canadian Hockey League major junior teams in the European Entry draft. Approaching the end of the season, five of the six are still playing in Canada and continue to draw the support of Latvian-Canadian fans.

Forward Kaspars Daugaviņš, who had celebrated his 18th birthday in his debut with Latvia’s senior men’s team at the World Championships in Rīga and had earlier been drafted by the Ottawa Senators in the third round of the National Hockey League’s entry draft, was picked up by the Ontario Hockey League’s Toronto St. Michael’s Majors. He was joined on the Majors by then 17-year-old defenseman Krišs Grundmanis.

Seventh-round Atlanta Thrashers draft pick defenseman Arturs Kulda joined the OHL’s Peterborough Petes. Forward Kaspars Saulietis went to the Kelowna Rockets of the Western Hockey League. Incumbent defenseman Oskars Bārtulis, a Philadelphia Flyers draft pick, was traded from the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League’s Moncton Wildcats to the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles, who play out of Sydney, Nova Scotia.

Arturs Ozoliņš was picked up by the OHL’s Guelph Storm, but was released in October. Although he is a good skater and has “light” hands, he struggled to adapt to the North American game and failed to register a single point during exhibition and regular season play. He returned to Latvia and now plays with Rīga 20, his old team in the Latvian Samsung league.

Daugaviņš has impressed observers, playing with both flair and grittiness. A skilled play-maker, he is one of the Majors’ top forwards. His determined play along the boards is second to none. Early in the season Daugaviņš was among the Top 20 point getters in the OHL but he has now dropped further down the pack. Part of the issue has been a weak supporting cast. The Majors are last in their division and will not make the playoffs.

Six-foot-four (1.93 metres) Grundmanis has steadily improved his game and is now playing with confidence on a regular shift as well as going out on the power play and penalty kill. His rock solid hits have brought Majors fans to their feet on more than one occasion. No one expected Grundmanis to be drafted by the CHL and he could be a sleeper and go far.

In Peterborough, Kulda is evolving into a solid defenseman. He fought Daugaviņš in a game on Feb. 11. After the game the two embraced and jokingly compared the damage each had done.

Out west Saulietis had a slow start with the Rockets and his position was shaky until he picked up his game and started scoring to become one of the team’s top scorers. He was traded Dec. 8 as part of a blockbuster deal with the WHL’s Regina Pats. Meanwhile, Bārtulis is one of the Quebec league’s top defensemen and was voted October player of the month. Bārtulis will likely graduate to the pros next year while Saulietis, Daugaviņš and Kulda will have at least another year in the juniors. Grundmanis, the youngest of the group, will be back for two.

A fan club is born

The arrival of Daugaviņš and Grundmanis in Toronto triggered the founding of the Latvian Hockey Fan Club in Canada by Viesturs Zariņš (author of this article) and Vilnis Blūms. A hard core group of up to a dozen fans nicknamed the “Latvian Embassy” has been going to most Majors games. Others, often in Latvian hockey jerseys, have joined them. With their chants, horns and waves, they have kept games lively even on nights when the Majors have been outplayed. The Latvian presence has not gone unnoticed by the Majors, who have been stocking Aldaris Zelta beer in their lounge since the start of the season.

On Oct. 17 the fan club organized an event at the Latvian Canadian Cultural Centre in Toronto featuring Colorado Avalanche defenseman Kārlis Skrastiņš, as well as juniors Daugaviņš, Grundmanis and Ozoliņš. The evening was attended by about 100 Latvian fans of all ages and featured door prizes, a hockey trivia quiz and Latvian food. The players answered questions from the public and were kept busy all night signing autographs and posing for photographs. A few months later on Feb. 8, Skrastiņš broke the all-time record for NHL defensemen with 487 consecutive games, eclipsing Canada’s iconic Tim Horton in a run set 40 years earlier.

The next outing was on Dec. 3 when more than 75 Latvian fans descended on a Majors game against the rival Barrie Colts in a fundraiser for Latvian youth with the Majors selling tickets at a discount for resale by the Latvian National Youth Association of Canada (LNJAK) and the Toronto Latvian School Valodiņa. Following the game the fans assembled in the rink’s lounge to give Daugaviņš and Grundmanis a rousing send-off to the World Junior Under-20 (U-20) Division I championships held in Odense, Denmark, from Dec. 11-17. The two players were presented with a huge best wishes card with player caricatures that was signed by those in attendance.

(Latvia’s U-20 juniors were attempting to get promoted back to the elite level after being relegated in their debut last winter in British Columbia. They beat Estonia 6-0, Poland 7-2 and Slovenia 7:2, only to stumble and lose to Ukraine 4-5 in an undisciplined game. It came down to a final game on Dec. 17 against Denmark. Even though Latvia beat Denmark 5-4 with late game goals by Saulietis and Ozoliņš, it was not enough. Denmark, Latvia and Ukraine were tied with 12 points and Denmark went ahead on goals differential. Latvia missed getting promoted by one goal. Daugaviņš was the leading point getter at the tournament followed by teammates Gatis Gricirskis and Andris Dzēriņš. Bārtulis was the top defenseman. The U-20 juniors will have another shot next winter. Meanwhile Latvia’s U-18 team will be making its elite level debut in Sweden in April. Grundmanis is the only junior playing in Canada young enough to qualify. Daugaviņš will likely be heading back to the senior men’s team at this year’s World Championship in Moscow.)

In recognition of the support provided by Latvians fans this season, the Majors hosted Latvia Day on Jan. 28. The event was attended by more than boisterous 100 Latvians in a sellout crowd of 1,400. Young Latvian women served pīrāgi and apple bread while the newly formed LNJAK men’s choir sang the Canadian and American national anthems for the game against the Plymouth Whalers from Michigan. The game sheet included facts on Latvia and Latvian hockey. Raffle tickets to a Maple Leafs Game were provided by Latvia’s honorary consul in Toronto. After the game Daugaviņš and Grundmanis signed autographs.

More Latvians could head to NHL

Despite inroads made by colleges in the United States and European imports, the three leagues that comprise the CHL still produce about half of the NHL’s players. It is probable that within a few years, at least one or two of the Latvian juniors now playing in Canada will make it to the “Big Show.” Daugaviņš and Bārtulis are the favourites but one or two of the others could surprise observers.

Oskars Bārtulis

Defenseman Oskars Bārtulis of the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles looks for an opening during a Nov. 15 game against the Moncton Wildcats. (Photo courtesy of Mike Sullivan, Quality Cameras & Computers)

Hockey fans at Toronto Majors game

Latvian fans make some noise during a Toronto St. Michael’s Majors hockey game. (Photo by Raimonds Sultmanis)

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