We continue PensBurgh's Olympic preview series with a look at Latvia. If you'd like to check out the previous articles in the series, here they are:
As I set upon writing this article on Thursday, tragic news reached us of a supermarket roof collapse that killed 54 people in Latvian capital, Riga. This sadly dampened my excitement of sharing Latvian hockey highlights with you and reinforced the notion that although we take it very seriously, hockey is but a game. Our thoughts are with the families of the victims and survivors of this tragic event.
Latvia is one of three Baltic nations that originally formed as an independent country in 1934, was occupied by Soviets in 1940, Nazis in 1941, retaken by Soviets in 1944, and finally attained full independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. You can read a brief synopsis of Latvian history here. Latvia is the only one of 12 Sochi hockey countries I've never visited, but my husband has been there several times while growing up in the former Soviet Union. He said that he found Latvian coast the most beautiful he's ever seen, and Latvian people self-reliant and fiercely proud of their heritage in the best of ways, although not too friendly toward Russians (understandably so). Someday we as a family plan to visit and explore this pearl of the Baltic. For now, let's meet their hockey team, currently ranked #11 in IIHF world rankings.
During its brief period of initial independence before WWII, Latvia participated in the 1936 Olympics in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, finishing 13th. Following a 66-year drought, Latvia went back to the Olympics in 2002 in Salt Lake city, finishing 9th. Sochi is going to be their fourth straight Olympics. Latvia was one of three teams that had to qualify for the Sochi Olympic tournament. This is what the celebrations inside Riga Arena were like.
PRELIMINARY OLYMPIC ROSTER
Team Latvia head coach Ted Nolan announced the extended Latvian roster for the 2014 Olympics in late August. In total, 53 players were on the list of candidates to make the final roster by the time Sochi rolls around. It's pretty much the entire roster of Dinamo Riga with a few NHL and other North American and European league players sprinkled in.
Defensemen: Georgijs Pujacs, Oskars Bartulis, Krisjanis Redlihs, Arturs Kulda, Arvids Rekis, Maris Jass, Kristaps Sotnieks, Oskars Cibulskis, Jekabs Redlihs, Janis Andersons, Guntis Galvins, Rodrigo Lavins, Martins Porejs, Alekandrs Jerofejevs, Ralfs Freibergs, Agris Saviels, Martins Jakovlevs, Sandis Ozolinsh
Forwards: Mikelis Redlihs, Janis Sprukts, Lauris Darzins, Kaspars Daugavins, Zemgus Girgensons, Martins Karsums, Roberts Jekimovs, Vitalijs Pavlovs, Ronalds Kenins, Martins Cipulis, Armands Berzins, Juris Stals, Miks Indrasis, Aleksejs Sirokovs, Andris Dzerins, Gints Meija, Aleksandrs Nizivijs, Maris Bicevskis, Raitis Ivanans, Roberts Bukarts, Gunars Skvorcovs, Elvijs Biezais, Kaspars Saulietis, Koba Jass, Juris Upitis, Lauris Bajaruns, Toms Hartmanis, Eriks Ozollapa, Arturs Kuzmenkovs
PROJECTED FINAL ROSTER
Goalies: Edgars Masalkis, Kristers Gudlevskis, Maris Jucers
Masalkis is the unquestioned starter for this team given he's the only experienced goalie on this roster, which is not saying much. Masalkis plays for HC Ugra, one of the newer and weaker clubs in the KHL, where he's posting respectable numbers, but his international tournament numbers aren't pretty. This is more the result of the Latvians being overmatched rather than Masalkis being a bad goalie.
Defensemen: Oskars Bartulis, Arturs Kulda, Arvids Rekis, Krisjanis Redlihs, Kristaps Sotnieks, Alekandrs Jerofejevs, Ralfs Freibergs, Sandis Ozolinsh
Notable players in this group include the former Philadelphia Flyer Oskars Bartulis, now with Donbass Donetsk, and the Latvian hockey legend and captain of Dinamo Riga Sandis Ozolinsh. Ozolinsh, who played 875 career NHL games for San Jose, Colorado, Florida, Anaheim and New York Rangers, is a seven-time NHL All-Star, Stanley Cup champion, and Norris Trophy finalist. He is also the all-time leader for goals, assists, points and games played by a Latvian in the NHL and holds several Colorado and San Jose franchise records. Watch him net a hat trick for Colorado in December 1999 against Vancouver. Yes, that was 14 years ago, but Ozolinsh is still 7th in scoring among KHL defensemen this season, with 16 points in 28 games, and these guys will need every point they can get, not to even mention his outstanding experience and leadership.
The strength of the Latvian defensive corps is skating, speed and puck movement, but this team gave up 25 goals in 7 games at this year's WC. They are going to face an enormous challenge in trying to stop the ultra-skilled Swedish and Czech forwards from filling the net behind Masalkis. Notable omission is that of Georgijs Pujacs, who's not having a good season so far in Riga, but given his experience and long tenure with the national team might still be given a spot.
Forwards: Zemgus Girgensons, Lauris Darzins, Kaspars Daugavins, Roberts Jekimovs, Martins Karsums, Martins Cipulis, Armands Berzins, Miks Indrasis, Andris Dzerins, Gints Meija, Aleksandrs Nizivijs, Kaspars Saulietis, Koba Jass, Janis Sprukts
The forward group is highlighted by talented Sabres center Zemgus Girgensons, as #14 pick in 2012 the highest-drafted Latvian player ever, and Dinamo Moscow's Martins Karsums, the 4th-leading goal scorer in the KHL. If you've followed the Latvian team over the years you'll notice the omissions of Aleksejs Sirokovs and Juris Stals, who've been regulars on the national team for years but have produced little but minus ratings, so I've cut them in favor of talented young players coming up who could use the experience.
MEET THE COACHES
The Latvian team is coached by former Pittsburgh Penguins winger Ted Nolan. Nolan coached the Buffalo Sabres for two seasons in the 1990s, winning the Jack Adams award in 1997, which didn't save him from being run out of town by Dominik Hasek. He later coached the Islanders from 2006-2008, and since 2011 has been coaching the Latvian national team. Earlier this month Nolan was re-hired by the Buffalo Sabres, succeeding ineffective Ron Rolston, but has announced he would still coach the Latvian team at the Sochi Olympics.
STRENGTHS AND WEAKNESSES
Strength: Youth and speed. Latvia has a number of speedsters and puck movers. If they can stay out of the penalty box with any consistency and play an aggressive, fast-moving game over 60 minutes, can they pull off an epic upset?
Weakness: Lack of depth, inexperience. The best Latvian players are young and inexperienced. They will certainly leave their hearts on the ice, but they don't have the depth to match the teams they will face in the group stage.
Latvia has been drawn in Group C with Sweden, Czech Republic and Switzerland. I don't think they can beat any of those teams. They will be ranked 9-12 coming out of group play, and will be eliminated battling for a quarterfinal spot. While I am rooting for them, Latvia is the weakest of 12 teams going to Sochi.
I'll leave you with the greatest Latvian hockey victory ever. On May 5, 2000, nine years to the day from declaring independence from the Soviet Union, with legendary Arturs Irbe in goal, Latvian David beat Russian Goliath 3-2 at the World Championships in St. Petersburg of all places (the video's old and resolution is a bit grainy but that's Ilya Bryzgalov in goal for Russia). Latvia would go on to beat Russia once more, in 2003, but the happiness of this win would never be surpassed. SARAUJ, LATVIJA!