Small-town Canada man plays hockey in Latvia

Many young émigré Latvians in the West have made their way back to the home of their parents or grandparents. But 23-year-old Vilis Ābele from Perth, Ontario, went back as a professional athlete. He plays hockey on the Rīga 2000 team.

Ābele played junior hockey in his hometown, located about 80 kilometers (about 50 miles) southwest of the Canadian capital of Ottawa, then moved to New York to study and play college hockey. The 190-centimeter (about 6 feet, 2 inches) and 97-kilogram (about 213 pounds) player joined Rīga 2000 last year. He shoots left.

Rīga 2000 is acknowledged as one of the best—if not the best—hockey teams in Latvia. Six of its players are on the national Latvian team scheduled to play in the Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy.

How does a kid from small-town Ontario end up playing hockey in Latvia?

It’s a wonder I ended up here but it really was a goal for me. I wanted to play hockey in Europe and playing in Latvia and being able to speak the nation’s language is a huge bonus and experience. This has been the first year in my life I have been able to experience Latvia, which was something I always wanted to do while growing up learning about Latvian culture.

How did you make the move from Canadian junior hockey to college hockey in the United States?

I played junior hockey for three years in my hometown, Perth, while going to high school. During my first year I suffered my first shoulder dislocation, which was disappointing because it prevented me from stepping up to higher levels. After finishing high school I decided I needed a change and also finish my academics. The United States was a great option being able to play and finish university at the same time. I first went to a junior college in Canton, N.Y. I had a very good year and won the All-American award. With this successful season I had NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) teams interested in me and I decided to go to State University of New York at Potsdam. I played two years at Potsdam and graduated with a bachelor of science in business administration. It wasn’t the easiest being in three different schools in four years and still being able to get my degree.

Did your parents have any problems hauling you out of bed on those cold Saturday mornings before the crack of dawn to suit up for practices or games?

Being a young player it’s never a problem getting up to play hockey. I’m sure it was more a problem for my parents. I always had a skating rink in my backyard and usually had to be dragged off it at night for bed or before I froze my feet off. I remember being really happy when my father wired lights around the pond to be able to take advantage of the early winter nightfall. My father did most of the driving, but if my mother was able to come she was more than happy to. I also remember summers playing AAA hockey before junior. Every weekend there were tournaments and it was fun as a family to travel and stay in hotels and have a little vacation.

Tell us about your family.

I have a very supporting family. I am the youngest of the three kids. My parents are Baiba and Andris. I have two older sisters, Alīze and Indra. Indra is 25 and is newlywed and living in Mississauga, Ontario, and working as a nurse. Alīze is 27 and living in Brooklyn, N.Y., and working as a grade six teacher. My mother and father are still working hard but hopefully will relax more with their children all out of school and in the work world. All those times while playing, my family would make a great effort to come and watch, even if it required driving more than six hours just to be there. Without my parents and their support I probably wouldn’t be here right know still playing hockey.

How did you maintain your Latvian identity living in a small Ontario town?

There were no Latvians in Perth. We were one of a kind, with others not having any clue where Latvia even was. Growing up we always spoke Latvian at home, but as the years went on it was tougher. Every Saturday I was dragged to Latvian school in Ottawa with my mother. She was a teacher and I didn’t enjoy it very much. I didn’t like getting up early on Saturdays and driving just over an hour to go to school again. All this has seemed to work, living here in Latvia now and being able to speak and understand others around me. I also attended Tērvete, a Latvian summer camp in Québec, which was fun. Here we learned a lot about Latvian culture and folklore.

How difficult was it to crack the Rīga 2000 line-up?

After I arrived I had a week until my first game with Rīga 2000, which was an exhibition game against the Latvian national team. I was playing pretty well and riding on a high. They seemed very interested and wanted me to stay and play. Like all European teams they have an impression that any Canadian player must be good. I played around three games and then dislocated my right shoulder for the first time. Ironically I had dislocated my other shoulder over 20 times and had two surgeries on it. After my arm just about fell out during physiotherapy, I needed surgery on my right shoulder. I’m now playing again and need to prove to Rīga 2000 once again that I can crack the line-up of the first team.

Rīga 2000 has two teams. What is the difference?

One team plays in the Belarus league and one plays in the Latvian league. The first team, which is in the Belarus league, is very good. It has around nine players who play on the Latvian national team. Players that have come from the American pro leagues say that this league is better than the East Coast Hockey League, but below the American Hockey League. The second team competes with teams throughout Latvia. We call it the farm team. If you are playing well on the second team you could have the opportunity to play on the first team. Any player from the second team can be called up to the first team and vice versa.

What position do you play? How is the game in Latvia different from the one played in North America?

I play defense. I like to think that I’m an offensive defenseman like (Sandis) Ozoliņš and enjoy jumping into the rush. However, with my size, I’m more useful focusing on playing defensively. The game is totally different here than in North America. At home it was a much more physical game. Here you will be lucky to see five hits in a game. In the NCAA the two-man forecheck was used almost always, while here the forecheck trap is much more common. Over here it is a more “fancy-dancy” game, which unfortunately is not one of my strengths. I am more of a physical player. There is a lot of talent here in Latvia. A lot of young players have great potential to play professionally in North America.

Who was your hockey idol when you were growing up?

My idols were Artūrs Irbe and Sandis Ozoliņš, who then played on the San Jose Sharks. I still remember seeing Artūrs after an Ottawa Senators NHL game and getting an autograph. It was amazing to meet and train off ice with Artūrs this season when he was playing for Rīga 2000. It was a couple of weeks after my surgery when he arrived but before I was healthy he went off to play in Austria. It was great to work out with him while he was suffering from a groin injury. He was very nice and interesting. It was disappointing when he left because it would have been great to be able to play a game as a defenseman in front of him.

The Rīga 2000 teams have ethnic Latvians and Russians from Latvia as well as Estonian, Slovak, American, Canadian-Latvian and Canadian players. How do you communicate on the team?

Rīga’s coaching staff run their practices in Russian, everyone from Latvia seems to understand and were raised being coached in Russian. I don’t understand Russian and just ask the guy next to me what was just said or what is supposed to be done in the drill. I just look at the drawing board and figure it out most of the time. The head coach is Slovakian and doesn’t speak Latvian but speaks enough English for me to understand.

How often do you play and practice in Rīga? What do you do away from the rink?

We usually train, practice and play six days a week and have one free day to relax. It is a pretty busy schedule. Things are strict so I don’t have a lot of time to go crazy. I usually visit and relax with friends when I have the opportunity. I live in Jūrmala in a nice hotel right by the Baltic Sea and enjoy walking along the beach.

What are your future plans?

I’m not sure of my future plans. Hockey will probably not provide me with a long career. I’m fortunate to have a degree to fall back on. I would like to go home for the summer and spend time with my family and work back there. I’m fortunate for my present opportunities and only time and hard work will tell what is in store for me.

Vilis Ābele

Vilis Ābele, whose hockey career started in a small town in Canada, last year began playing for Rīga 2000. (Photo courtesy of Rīga 2000)

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