Skip the Song Festival and go watch hockey

In the end it came down to an aging team and lack of depth. The offensive spark that Sandis Ozoliņš had provided in the upset against Slovakia was missing. Latvia went down 1-4 against Germany. The dream of moving in among the final eight Olympic hockey contenders died Feb. 12. Latvia had to settle for ninth place after beating Ukraine 9-2 two days later.

But in the preceding days Latvia’s hockey team captured the hearts of Latvians around the world, including many newfound fans in North America. Finally it was our turn to get pumped up and wave the flag in homes and bars around the continent, to experience the hockey fever that in recent years has swept Latvia.

Thanks to the inanities of the National Hockey League’s deal with the International Olympic Committee that saw only some players released for the preliminary round, Latvia’s team—particularly star goaltender Artūrs Irbe—were front and centre in sympathetic North American media. NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, in a tense exchange with Irbe, threatened to impose fines and suspensions if he dared play against the Slovaks even though the Carolina Hurricanes had given their permission.

Ozoliņš and Kārlis Skrastiņš, Latvia’s two NHL blueliners, were forced to return after the tie with Slovakia and ironically, play against each other in a meaningless NHL game between two teams out of the play-off race. That same night, Latvia was being shut down by Germany. They were sorely missed.

Anyone in Canada or the United States who follows hockey now knows about the Latvian hockey team. A high-priced PR team couldn’t have done better, although the doping scandal surrounding Latvian bobsleigher Sandis Prūsis threatens to undo the gains.

The Olympics are over for Latvia’s hockey players, but what now? Hockey in Latvia collapsed with the Soviet Union and lost several years. As a result, there are few new faces on the Latvian squad, whose average age is 30. New rinks are sprouting in Latvia, minor hockey is taking off and half a dozen top juniors are playing at the highest level in Canada and the United States, but there is a lot of catching up to do. The national team will be hard-pressed to replace veterans who will retire over the next few years. At the same time, veterans have to step aside to give younger players experience—even if there aren’t many of them and even if some want to keep soldiering on. The trick will be to keep Latvia in the A pool at the international level until a new generation of hockey players grows up and matures.

Latvia’s goaltending situation is critical. Irbe, who has done much to gain recognition for Latvian hockey, only has a few years left in his career. In any case, the team has become too reliant on his annual dashes across the Atlantic from the NHL play-offs to the World Championships. Vancouver Canucks NHL goaltender Pēteris Skudra hasn’t been on speaking terms with the Latvian Hockey Federation and media since the Worlds in Norway. There is patching up to do. Sergejs Naumovs, who now plays in the Swedish Elite League and has played in Long Beach and San Diego in the minor pros, is better than the shaky start against the Slovaks would attest, but he’s no NHLer. He needs more ice time with the national team in key games. Coach Curt Lindstrom’s decision to do just that and start Naumovs against the Ukrainians created more off-ice drama with an angry Irbe being benched. But given Carolina’s play this year, it’s very likely that Irbe won’t be available in this year’s World Championships in Sweden and Naumovs will have to start.

Even though hockey fever has gripped Latvia since 1997 when Latvia made it to the top international tier, many Latvians abroad have been ambivalent. Some complain that there are too many Russian surnames on the team, although most of the players can speak Latvian and some are in fact at least part Latvian or descend from pre-War Russian families who lived in Latvia. Others say the sport is too rough, or it’s not part of our heritage, or it’s not cultural. Why, one writer in the Latvian newspaper Laiks a year or so ago even claimed hockey in Latvia is a Russian plot because only the Russians can afford to buy equipment for their kids. As a result, Latvians were supposedly being pushed out of the sports scene.

Nonsense! Hockey is part of a Latvia that is real, a Latvia that exists today in the year 2002, a Latvia that can hold its own against the world’s hockey superpowers.

When Latvia plays hockey the country comes to a standstill. Bars are packed, Parliament goes into recess, everyone is glued to their television set. While older generation Latvians abroad bemoan the lack of national pride in Latvia, they ignore the thousands of fans from Latvia who, decked out in face paint, flags and team jerseys, descend on European cities to cheer their team and belt out the national anthem after victories. Is this not national pride? In different eras, the same fans would have sailed on marauding kurši Viking ships, battled against German crusaders, marched in Czarist armies, fought for Latvian independence or battled on the Eastern front. Today it’s hockey.

And I for one say we skip the next Song Festival and instead head over to the World Hockey Championships and go crazy. Let(t)‘s go!

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