The Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) replaced the Russian Super League and launched its inaugural season in 2008 with 24 teams mostly from Russia, but Latvia, Kazakhstan and Belarus also have squads. Latvia is represented by Dinamo Riga (Rīgas Dinamo).
Latvian hockey fans may remember the original Dinamo Riga from Soviet days. It was founded in 1945 and survived until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Between 1949 and 1967 Dinamo was called Rīga Daugava. In 1987-1988, the team won second place in the top Soviet division and was led by Arturs Irbe, then a young and budding Latvian superstar.
Dinamo President Viesturs Koziols is a real estate development entrepreneur and adventurer. He is co-holder of the Latvian hot air balloon height and distance records and has been to the North Pole. Koziols is president of Avantis, a non-government youth organization that sponsored the film Atrasts Amerikā (Found in America). Koziols is part owner (12.18 percent) of Dinamo Riga.
Koziols responded to questions in a telephone interview while the team was visiting Helsinki, Finland.
Question: How did the Kontinental Hockey League arrive in Rīga?
Viesturs Koziols: The first time this question came up was about three years ago. I was part of idle chit-chat about how good it would be to have Dinamo Riga play again with top notch team from Russia, Sweden and other countries. Last year I tried to get Rīga 2000 into the Russia Premier League (one level below the Super League), but that didn’t work because the demands were too high. This year serious talks about establishing the Kontinental Hockey League and including a team from Latvia started around February or March. Former Prime Minister Aigars Kalvītis was in Moscow several times to meet with the league’s founders. He was instrumental in getting us in.
Q: Do you see the KHL as a challenge to the National Hockey League (NHL)?
VK: I think it’s too early to talk about that. This is the KHL’s first season, but last year the NHL celebrated its 90th anniversary. We can’t hope to compete with the NHL for a few years. But I look at things a bit differently. The KHL is the future of European hockey. The KHL can raise the level of hockey in Europe. And to the extent that I’ve talked with Swedes, Finns, Czechs and Germans, everyone is thrilled with the new league even though many have reservations about the ease of working with Russians. However, I can say that if the current atmosphere within the KHL prevails, then everything from a sports or hockey perspective will be fine. Things are a lot better than I had imagined. For example, the former executive director of the National Hockey League Players Association (NHLPA), Bob Goodenow, was hired by KHL head Alex Medvedev as a consultant. When I travelled to Moscow to discuss the possibility of joining the KHL, Goodenow was at the table. To me that said a lot. It’s clear that the KHL will have a Czech team next season. A memorandum of understanding has already been signed. There will also be teams from Sweden and Finland as well as Germany before too long.
Q: How do you respond to comments made by the former Latvian Minister of Foreign Affairs Artis Pabriks that the expansion of the KHL into Latvia and other former Soviet republics is politically motivated and an attempt to expand Russian influence?
VK: I would suggest to Mr. Pabriks that he not mix something delicious like cottage cheese with something that doesn’t taste well in the same bowl—to not mix politics with sports. Our goals are all about sports and it is difficult to imagine how the Russians could influence the Swedish, Finnish, German or Austrian governments through the KHL. That’s crazy. As far as I’m concerned, the more teams we’ll have from European countries, the better it will be for Latvia’s interests.
Q: What does Dinamo Riga do for Latvia’s image?
VK: Let me give you a few examples. When we played in Moscow, I wandered around the arena and local fans, strangers, congratulated Dinamo Riga on their play. They commented that hockey is more interesting with Dinamo Riga in the league. At another arena in Russia, I noticed that our souvenirs were on sale. On one hand I was angry that this was being done without our permission but on the other hand, I was happy that our souvenirs were selling. After Moscow Dinamo visited us, one of Russia’s leading sports newspapers devoted a whole page to Rīga. They lauded our great fans, our team, our city, our country. That’s something our politicians have not been able to do. However we do have to realize that in Russia there will be negative political attitudes towards Latvia. That’s politics. Let’s look at the two games we played in Helsinki. We didn’t do that just to spend money because it wasn’t cheap. We came to Helsinki to popularize Latvia, Rīga, Latvian hockey and Dinamo Riga. Finns came up to us, shook our hands and said they marveled at what we’ve been able to do. And that’s because we’re Latvian patriots, Rīga patriots. But there’s something else. The economic situation in Latvia is difficult. With hockey we’re able to give people in Latvia something to feel good about. Regardless of where I go in Latvia, people come up to me and the first question is always about hockey. They say Viestur, johaidi, what about Masalskis, or why didn’t Hossa score in the last game? Everyone is talking about hockey. I see the positive atmosphere and emotions that Dinamo Riga has created. That’s something that money can’t buy.
Q: What type of hockey does Dinamo Riga play?
VK: Our skills aren’t as good as many Russian teams and we need to be patient, be careful and play defensively. We’ve already shown that we can play in our zone and prevent the opponent from realizing their game plan. And if we’re able to do that and hang in for the first five or 10 minutes, then even though we only have three or four high-calibre forwards, they can take advantage of the situation and go on the counter-attack and score.
Q: How do you avoid complacency among Latvian players who may think they automatically have a place on your team?
VK: It doesn’t matter who the player is. Results are what are important. And if their play isn’t up to what is expected by Dinamo Riga then we’ll send them down to our Riga 2000 farm team.
Q: Did you go after any of the top Latvian pros who play in North America?
VK: Not really, but time will tell if any of them join us in the future.
Q: Tell us about your imports and what type of players you were looking for.
VK: General Manager Normunds Sējējs and I evaluated 200 imports and we chose six. We knew that we needed two strong defensemen. They were Duvie Westcott (201 NHL games) from Canada and Filip Novak (17 NHL games) from the Czech Republic. We knew we needed someone who could score and that was Marcel Hossa (237 NHL games) from Slovakia. We knew we needed someone who could put away rebounds and that was Mark Hartigan (102 NHL games) from Canada. And then there’s Matt Ellison (43 NHL games) from Canada. He’s someone who’ll be out there battling even if he’s exhausted. We needed Ronald Petrovicky (342 NHL games) from Slovakia. He’s someone who doesn’t make way for anyone on the ice. If he needs to fight, he’ll fight; if he needs to go after the puck, he’ll do that. Our imports are role models for local Latvian players who pick up tips from them. But at the same time our imports are also picking up things from the locals. It’s only natural that everyone is learning from each other. But, yes, at this point it is the local boys who are learning most from our imports. That’s the way it should be. The imports are imports. They have more experience and that’s why they’re paid more.
Q: What does the re-birth of Dinamo Riga mean for Latvian hockey?
VK: Dinamo Riga means one thing. Latvian hockey players are starting to gain confidence in their play. By winning against teams like Avangard Omsk, CSKA Moscow, Atlant or Moscow Dinamo the players are able to prove that they can play against and beat Russian teams that are among the best in the world. That hasn’t been the case with the national team which has gone to World Championships to beat Denmark, Norway or Italy and that’s it. But now the players are starting to believe that they can win against strong opponents. That’s the biggest gain for Latvian hockey. In addition, Dinamo Riga will help improve the level of play in Latvia. Young players will see that they don’t need to go to Canada, for example, to play hockey, because there’s top notch hockey in Latvia. There will be new stars and increased fan interest. Our games are broadcast on television and we haven’t had an audience less than 180,000. The best that basketball does is 80,000. Our biggest television audiences were 330,000 when we played CSKA and SKA St. Petersburg. That says a lot.
Q: Three teams in the KHL have the name Dinamo: Minsk, Moscow and Rīga. Why the name Dinamo for your team?
VK: We spent a lot of time discussing what name to choose for the team. Dinamo Riga won out because Dinamo’s successes represented the best era in Latvian hockey. It would be silly to forget or ignore that.
Q: What statement are you trying to make with the design of the Dinamo Riga jersey?
VK: The home jersey is maroon while the away jersey has maroon trim. We wanted to show that we’re patriots of our country, that with our play we respect and defend Latvia’s honour. The three stars on the top, they’re Latvia’s stars. The skyline around the bottom of the jersey is Riga’s and says that we’re from there. The shield represents strength. The two lions from Riga’s coat of arms show that we’re fierce and opponents need to be afraid of us. (The “D” on the jersey is from the Dinamo Riga of old—ed.)
Q: The Toronto Maple Leafs of the NHL pull in USD 1.5 million at the gate for each home game. European teams have to rely less on the gate and more on sponsorship. What can you tell us about the finances of Dinamo Riga?
VK: It’s not realistic to think that business will go very well during our first year. We can’t hope for the kind of crowds that NHL teams pull in or the prices they can charge for tickets. But at the same time Dinamo Riga attendance is very good and averaging 7,500 at Arena Riga home games. In three to four years we’re planning on building our own arena when I expect the economic situation to be better. But it’s clear that our first and second years will be difficult and we will need to leverage every advertising and sponsorship opportunity we can get. (SIA Itera Latvia owns 39.02 percent of Dinamo Riga and is its main sponsor. It is the Latvian subsidiary of a Russian company and is involved in natural and liquefied gas exports and imports, shipping and sales. Other owners include former Kalvītis and former Latvian President Guntis Ulmanis, each with a 9.76 percent share—ed.)
Q: How can you compete against teams like Avangard Omsk, which can spend millions on a player like Jaromir Jagr?
VK: Even though our budget is the third smallest in the league, we’ve proven that it’s not just about money. There are other factors such as teamwork, coaching, discipline, fans and patriotism. Putting them together, you can build a good team.
Q: What about the needs of your players?
VK: Players live on their own, but they get together when we have outings. And of course there are team meals both before and after games. We’ve taken a lot of care to ensure that the team has everything they need: equipment, facilities, computer technology, helping the imports get settled. The team also uses charter aircraft on road trips.
Q: How do you attract fans to fill the seats at your home games?
VK: We have various advertising campaigns and promotions. One of things we do is that we let young hockey players into Dinamo games for one lat if they’re wearing their team jerseys. When I’m at a game, I’m pleased that we have 300, 400 or even 500 young players in the stands from teams in Rīga and other parts of Latvia. We have special promotions for season ticket holders, we work with sponsors and we’re working hard to get our average attendance from 7,500 to 9,000.
Q: Dinamo Riga plays in a division with three teams from Siberia. Would it have not made more sense to align KHL teams geographically?
VK: It certainly would and we’ve been promised, in fact all teams have been told, that next year the divisions will be aligned geographically. That’s why it’s important for us to have new teams from Sweden, Finland, Germany and the Czech Republic because it’s much easier to fly an hour to Prague or Helsinki than it is to get to Habarovsk which is a 12 hour flight with stop-overs.
Q: What is the relationship of the Rīga 2000 team that plays in the Belarus and Latvian leagues to the Dinamo organization?
VK: RIga 2000 is our farm team. We only have one import player on Rīga 2000. The rest are local players because the main objective of Rīga 2000 is to develop young players for Dinamo Riga.
Q: How closely are you involved in player selection and the day-to-day operations of the team?
VK: So far I’m definitely a hands-on owner. In the last six months there hasn’t been a day when I haven’t spent at least a few hours on hockey. The day-to-day work has been intensive but I’m knowledgeable in the game and I need to be there.
Q: Few owners have laced up a pair of skates and played hockey. You have. What does hockey mean personally to Viesturs Koziols?
VK: I usually work 14-, 15- or even 16-hour days. If I didn’t play hockey then it would be much more difficult to handle the workload and stress. From an emotional point of view, like many Latvian hockey fans, hockey for me means great experiences, positive emotions and pride in a job well done. Positive emotions are important for anyone and that’s what hockey gives me.
Q: Do you have any words for Dinamo Riga fans abroad?
VK: We’ve certainly been thinking of our fans, even those far away. If anyone has any ideas or comments then send us a note at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org. At some point fans will also be able to sign-up for e=mail newsletters. That way they’ll be able to get the inside story.
Q: Dinamo Riga played two games in Helsinki. The NHL has played exhibition games in Europe. Any chance of seeing Dinamo Riga in Canada or the United States?
VK: I would be happy if the opportunity arose for us to play a few games in North America. The problem, however, is one of timing. Our training camp gets under way in July while NHL teams start in September when our season is already underway. But it would be easy for us to fly to Chicago, New York or Toronto when compared with our road trips to Siberia and the Russian Far East.
Q: The inaugural KHL season will be a success for Dinamo Riga if…
VK: …Dinamo Riga make the play-offs. But as I said earlier, this season has already been a success. The most important success has been the happy faces and positive emotions that I’ve seen at the arena. But yes, I’d be very happy if we made the play-offs, caught another team off-guard and had a good post-season run.
Canadian import Mark Hartigan celebrates a goal against Moscow Dinamo in front of a home crowd. The imports with NHL experience have accounted for more than half of Dinamo Riga’s scoring. (Photo courtesy of Dinamo Riga)
Team President Viesturs Koziols talks with a journalist during an interview in the Latvian Embassy in Helsinki. Riga Dinamo moved two home games to Helsinki because Arena Riga was not available on those dates. (Photo courtesy of Dinamo Riga)
Please contact us for editorial queries, or for permission to republish material. Disclaimer: The content of Web sites to which Latvians Online provides links does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Latvians Online, its staff or its sponsors.