Timely victories for Latvian hockey avoid championship relegation

With timely 6-3 and 4-1 victories in the relegation round against Belarus on May 7 and Austria on May 8, Latvia has salvaged a 13th place finish at this year’s IIHF World Hockey Championships held in Slovakia.

The victories allowed the team to avoid relegation, which would have been disastrous for Latvian hockey.

The year before in Germany, Latvia finished 11th and since being promoted to the elite level in 1997, Latvia has placed seventh three times, the last time in 2009.

This year’s tournament started well for Latvia, a respectable 2-4 loss to the Czech Republic followed by a 2-3 overtime shoot-out loss to Finland.

However, an unexpected 2-3 shoot-out loss to Denmark sent Latvia to the relegation rather than qualification round.

The team was deflated and lost the next game against Slovenia 2-5. Latvia had never lost to Slovenia and this set up Latvia in a must-win situation for the final two games. The team came through.
Veteran Captain Herberts Vasiljevs said on iihf.com that the difference was attitude: “When you go into a game thinking ‘don’t lose,’ then you’re going to lose. We came in with the thought we have to win it. That was the difference.”

This year’s ups and downs illustrate the challenge facing Latvia’s hockey: lack of depth. The team had to do without a number of experienced players and all of a sudden became very vulnerable. Veteran NHLer Kārlis Skrastiņš was unable to play. Oskārs Bārtulis, who saw limited action in the NHL this year, was injured. Kaspars Daugaviņš, an Ottawa Senators prospect, was not available due to play-off action with the farm team in North America. Rugged defenceman and Atlanta Thrashers prospect Arturs Kulda played but was suspended for three games after a hit against a Czech player. He returned in time for the game against Belarus and was pivotal logging lots of ice time in the last two games. Dinamo Rīga centre Jānis Sprukts, who has 13 NHL games to his credit, passed on the opportunity to play at this year’s championship airing a number of grievances against the Latvian Hockey Federation in a controversial and well publicized interview. Dinamo top-scorer Lauris Dārziņš and defenceman Krišjānis Redlihs were injured during the tournament.

This year a number of younger players were brought up to plug the gap and some fared quite well. Andris Džeriņš moved into a regular starting role and picked up five points. Kristaps Sotnieks had four while Gints Meija and Roberts Bukarts each had three. Other newcomers were Oskars Cibulskis, Sergejs Pečura and third goaltender Māris Jucers. Youthful exuberance aside, most however are not ready for prime time and still need time to mature before they can pose a serious threat when playing the big powers.

There has also been a debate in the Latvian media about the impact of the KHL’s Dinamo Rīga on the national squad. In past years, the World Hockey Championship was an opportunity for Latvian players to showcase their skills and snag a better team and contract the following year. But some have argued that those with Dinamo contracts have now peaked and as a result the motivation to perform at the World Championships has taken a hit. After all, most will not make the NHL and the KHL is arguably the second best hockey league in the world.

Nevertheless, a youth revolution is underway on the national team and, given that this year’s mix of players managed to keep Latvia in the running, bodes well for the future.  Latvia has somewhat of an enviable record: now 16 consecutive years at the elite level, while other so-called middle powers of hockey—Belarus, Germany, Switzerland, Norway, Denmark, Italy, Austria and Slovenia—have not been able to match Latvia’s run. Nevertheless, the playing field is becoming even. There are no easy games, even against countries that Latvia has owned in the past. Latvia will need to remember that at the 2012 championships being co-hosted in Sweden and Finland.

Meanwhile, Latvia’s U-20 and U-18 junior squads won their groups in IIHF Division I (second tier) tournaments and are returning to the elite level next year. Their stay will likely be short because unlike the senior men’s tournament where 16 countries compete and the bottom two get relegated, the junior tournaments only have 10 countries and the bottom two drop down. That doesn’t leave much room for countries like Latvia when the top positions are locked up by Canada, the United States, Russia, Sweden, Finland and the Czech Republic with Switzerland, Germany and Slovakia close behind.

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