Latvia is a small country with only two million people, but it has so many successful sportsman in various sports fields. While Latvians were the first European basketball champions and Latvian football team has once participated in European Final, undoubtedly the Latvian Ice Hockey team has made the most effort in Latvian team sports. Although no medals has yet not been won, Latvia has been member of Hockey world Elite for past 10 years. There was great victories and great defeats, but hockey has always been the most popular sports event in Latvia. Every May when Hockey championship starts thousands of Latvian hockey fans travel to see the games and even more are counting on victory at home.
Latvia had its own hockey team before the WWII. The scores were average – 6 victories, 16 losses and 4 draws. 37 goals and 93 allowed goals. With fifteen years of participation Latvia entered 19th place in world rating. After the soviet occupation and the war, the new emerging soviet hockey entered Latvia. Because of great achievements of Soviet hockey team hockey became popular in local level. Hockey schools and ice skate rigs were built. Riga entered the Soviet hockey map when Riga Dimano hockey team entered the main soviet hockey league in 1946. A hockey arena Sports Palace (Sporta pils) became the center of Latvian hockey team. Many Latvian hockey stars like Helmūts Balderis, Vitalijs Samoilovs, Arturs Irbe and others played there and entered the Soviet hockey team. However, because of lack of Latvian local players large influx of Russia born players were sent to Riga. One of them was Olegs Znaroks, the future team captain and coach.
Latvia returned to the worldwide hockey arena in 1992. when Soviet Union collapsed. Until then local hockey industry relayed on Moscow support, now they up to themselves. Riga Dinamo was disbanded because its former owner the Soviet Ministry of Interior was no longer in power. New club Pārdaugava was formed, also the Latvian Hockey Federation was made to bring Latvia back to hockey. On 7, May 1992. Latvia joined the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF). As the borders were open many local players moved to play in foreign clubs.
The first coach of the Latvian national hockey team was Helmūts Balderis a veteran hockey star, that even played in NHL Minnesota North Stars and won many gold medals under the Red banner. To enter the hockey elite Latvia had to play from the start. First games were against Estonia and Lithuania. They had to be won so Latvia could participate in C pool tournament. With Helmūts Balderis as the coach and the player on ice Latvia won both games. With the look to the future Latvia team went to Finland for friendly much against the silver medal winners. First game was lost 3:6 but then to the surprise to Finland and Latvians themselves Latvia won 6:3.
In 1993. Latvia head to Bleda, Slovenia to win C tournament and enter the B pool. Along with Latvia, new hockey teams like Kazakhstan, Ukraine and Slovenia also played for complete victory. Belgium, Israel, North Korea and South Korea were crushed in two digit scores (Israel was beaten 32:2). Then the toughest fight came with Ukraine 5:5. Latvia then met Slovenia in semi final. The Latvian won 5:1 was met with outrage of Slovenian fans, who started to riot and trowed things at the ice field. Now in Final Latvia again met Ukraine and won 2:0 and entered B pool.
Next objective was to qualify to Lillehammer Olympic games. Latvia went to Sheffield. The main rival was Slovakia. Latvia was ready to win and so they too. First steps were grand the crushing victory over Poland, UK and then crushing defeat against Slovakia 1:7. The Olympic dream was lost. This was the debut tournament for goalie Arturs Irbe who could not stop the Slovakian machine.
After that in 1994. Latvia went to Copenhagen to won the B pool tournament. Again the same scenario superb victories over Romania, China, Japan, Poland and Netherlands. The final rival the – Switzerland. Latvia had to stay in B pool for one more year because the Swiss won 2:1. Helmūts Balderis resigned from coach office as he already got involved in conflicts with other hockey specialists.
In 1995. Latvia went to Bratislava, Slovakia. Slovaks were the main rivals. Latvia got new coach Evalds Grabovskis, Polish national experienced hockey specialist. The team was formed from former Riga Dinamo stars, in all past tournaments the leader of the team was Olegs Znaroks. Rough and often rude fighter along with Fanduls, Belavskis and Maticins. Latvia team was pretty Russian in the first years. Latvia won all games and in Easter faced Slovakia. In games filled with blood on ice Latvia lost 3:4.
The third attempt to enter the elite was in 1996. Eindhoven, Netherlands. The Latvian Hockey Federation leadership was unsatisfied with Evalds Grabovskis and appointed Leonids Berensevs as the new coach. This time main rivals were Belarus and Switzerland. First games were edgy with unstable goalies but were won, then Arturs Irbe came from NHL and Latvia won Belarus 4:2. But everything was decided with Switzerland. Since Swiss lost to Belarus, Latvia needed just draw to enter the elite. However until third halftime Latvia lost 0:1. Motivated by Olegs Znaroks rude ranting Latvian players went out on the final fight and in 48. minute Znaroks pushed the puck in Swiss net. Game ended in 1:1 but it was enough to finally enter the elite.
After the stunning victory another defeat came. Latvia again fought for the entry in Nagano Olympics. This time in Riga. After many crushing victories, Latvia lost to Belarus 1:4. It was despite the formation of the best players including NHL Stanley Cup winner Sandis Ozolins.
In 1997, Turku Finland was the Latvian debut in elite. The question was if the Latvia plays a good game and stay there of falls back to B pool. The rivals were Canada, Sweden, USA, Finland no longer some weaker second-hand teams. First game against USA 4:5 although Latvia had every chance to win. Then the same loss to Italy 4:5. After that Latvia almost won Canada by leading 3:1 but Canadians managed to get draw in the end. Then another draw with Sweden 1:1. Finally the first victory was scored over Norway 6:3. After that Latvia moved to Tampere to fight for 7th place. Germany was crushed 8:0, France 6:2 and Slovakia 5:4. Latvia returned home at 7th place.
Hockey suddenly became so popular the team at the Riga airport was greeted by thousands of fans. 1998. championship took place in Switzerland. At historical date 4th May Latvia for the first time met Russia in hard fight Latvia lost 5:7 only after Arturs Irbe was replaced by sixth player. Before that Latvia lost to Finland 0:6 The question of staying in elite was settled with Kazakhstan and Latvia won 7:2. Then the first victory over USA 3:2 and the Americans were sent to B pool.
Copenhagen 1999. was the worst championship in Latvian hockey team history. In even games Latvia lost to Switzerland and Sweden but won France. Then the game for 9th place and crushing loss came to Austria 2:5. After the loss to Belarus Latvia dropped out from elite.
The crisis made Leonids Beresnevs resign. New coach Haralds Vasiļevs made significant changes. Old time leader Olegs Znaroks was ejected from the team. The old guard from Riga Dinamo days proved to lived out their days. The change of generation begun among Latvian players. Latvia had a chance to go back to elite by wining qualifying games in Sheffield. Kazakhstan was won by 6:3 and then two 0:0 games with UK and Ukraine but it was enough to go back to elite.
The 2000. championship took place in Russia, St. Petersburg. Latvia lost to Sweden 1:3. Then won Belarus 6:3 and Ukraine 2:1. After this in second round Latvia met Russia. Before the championship Russians already felt the golden medals in their pockets. The ultrapatriotic an chauvinist talking about “dream team” went to dead end after Russia lost to USA and Switzerland. Now Russian fans demanded crushing victory over much disliked Latvian neighbors. But the match ended with Latvian victory 3:2 and Russia felt like they just lost the Great Patriotic War. But for Latvia it was the greatest victory in hockey yet. Large crowds celebrated in streets of Riga. After that more trouble came to Russians as they lost both to Belarus and Sweden. Latvia made to its firs quarter-final and lost to Czech Republic. It was 8th place in the end.
2001. was in Nuremberg and Cologne. Latvia lost to Sweden 2:5, but then won USA 2:0. However Ukraine gained victory over Latvia 4:2 and Latvia had to play for staying in elite. Latvia had hard knock with Belarus 2:2, but overwhelming victory over Japan 8:2, and 3:0 against Norway. Latvia stayed in elite, but felt disappointment so Latvian Hockey Federation fired coach Haralds Vasiļevs, blaming him for the poor performance.
Ongoing president of Latvian Hockey Federation Kirovs Lipmans decided to bring some foreign perspective into team and hired Swedish coach Curt Lidstrom. In past he coached the Finland team and won golden medal in 1995. By his lead the rebuilding of Latvian hockey team begun as the old stars retired. His first debut was qualifying for Salt Lake City Olympics. Latvia won Austria and Denmark and for the second time made it to Olympics. First time was in 1936.
At Olympic games 2002. Latvia won 9th place by wining Austria, 6:6 with Slovakia, wining Ukraine but loss to Germany.
In spring at Sweden 2002. world championship Latvia met Canada, Italy and USA. By loosing both to Canada and US Latvia defeated Italy and made it to next round. Latvia was defeated by Czech Republic, Germany, Switzerland and finished 11th. It was one of the first nothing special championship were Latvia lost two opening games, won the third and then took all the chances to get to quarter-final.
2003. championship was held in Finland. Latvia had to face Canada, Sweden and Belarus. After losing the first two Latvia won Belarus 4:0. Then in second round at 4th May the Independence declaration day Latvia defeated Russia 2:1. However after that Latvia lost to Denmark 2:4. This was the last time when Latvia had chance to defeat Russia, after Russia acquired large funds from oil money, its hockey industry begun to move and Russia finally got a strong hockey team. Latvia finished at 9th place.
In 2004. things were taking place in Czech Republic. Latvia met the home team and lost, then played a draw with Germany 1:1, after that win over Kazakhstan. In second round Latvia lost to Canada, but achieved draw with Switzerland. Then Latvia won Austria. Latvia made it to quarterfinal and played the game with Sweden and lost 1:4. Latvia again achieved 7th place.
Most people thought that Curt Lidstrom was doing good job, but the federation decided to not prolong agreement with him. Instead Leonids Beresnevs was back as the coach. It proved to be an ill fated choice. In 2005. in Austria Latvia lost to Canada, USA, but won Slovenia and made to second round. Latvia won Ukraine, played 0:0 with Finland, but lost 1:9 to Sweden. In so Latvia made it 9th
Nobody was expecting the trouble, but the qualifying for Turin Olympics was one of the most traumatic ever. The match in Riga with Belarus will go down in history. The crucial loss in first two periods by 2:4. Things seemed hopeless until in third period Latvia achieved 4:4. In last minutes nerve breaking rush and removal of the goalie for the six player nearly brought defeat as the Belorussian puck missed one inch of the Latvian empty net. Then in last final attack the miracle goal was scored and Latvia won 5:4. But the Olympic nightmare was far from over. In Vancouver Latvia lost every game, excluding USA by who she played a draw 3:3. But the loss to Kazakhstan 2:5 made Latvia last place in Olympics.
Leonids Berensnevs resigned leaving Latvia without a coach just few months before hockey championship in home Riga, Latvia. Impeding crisis made the federation to do unusual solution a Russian coach Pjotr Vorobjov was assigned for one championship to rescue the team for failing in its own home. Vorobjov was a former Riga Dinamo player.
The 2006. championship in Latvia was one of the best. The Riga Hockey Arena was built in time to welcome the top teams. Latvia in its first game played draw with Czech Republic, lost to Finland but won Slovenia. The second round started with most crushing defeat against Canada 0:11. The blame lays partially to US referee Rick Looker who gave constant penalties to Latvian team for every minor offense. It caused large outrage by Latvian fans who stopped the game by trowing everything against the referee and Canadians. Even a shoe was dropped on ice. People suspected that the American referee was payed to help Canada win. Then Latvia lost to US but won Norway. Czech Republic won gold medals in Riga, but home team Latvia finished at 10th place.
Pjotr Vorobjov reused to continue to work as coach for Latvia. So now the turn came to Olegs Znaroks. When he was asked to leave Latvian hockey team in 2000, he met this with great anger and resentment. He refused from Latvian citizenship and became a German citizen. He spent last seasons in German hockey league. Then after leaving active sports he took the ambition of becoming a coach and started to work for Latvian junior team. But his goal was to take over Latvian national hockey team and now his dream came true.
His debut in Moscow however was far from outstanding. Losses to Sweden, Switzerland and finally in overtime to Italy made Latvia to fight for staying in elite. Latvia however won Ukraine, Austria and Norway and safely stayed at 13th place.
2008. championship was held in Halifax, Canada. Latvia lost to home team and USA but won Slovenia. In second round Latvia won Norway, but lost to Germany. Latvia stayed 11th.
In 2009. Latvia qualified for Vancouver Olympics. Latvia won all games against Hungary, Ukraine and Italy. In Vancouver Latvia lost to Russia, Slovakia and Czech Republic and finished at 12th place.
The 2009. in Switzerland was the latest best tournament for Latvian team. Latvia lost US, but did remarkable job defeating Sweden in penalty shootout gaining 3:2. After that Austria was won by 2:0. In second round a another great victory over Switzerland 2:1, but with world champions Russia 1:6. It was however enough to make to quarterfinal and meat with Canada. Canada won 4:2 and Latvia for the third time achieved 7th place.
The 201o. hockey championship took place in Germany. Latvia lost to Canada and Switzerland. However Italy was won in a revenge for defeat in 2007. In second round Latvia lost to Sweden and Czech Republic but won Norway. By that Latvia finished at 11th.
Latvian hockey was stagnating in last five years. Teams like Norway, Denmark, Slovenia became stronger and started to achieve high scores. Latvia was no longer the strongest of the medium level teams. At Slovakia 2011. Latvia lost to Czech Republic and Finland but lost to Denmark in penalty shootout 2:3. After that in relegation round more trouble came as Latvia lost to Slovenia 2:5. But Latvia won Austria and Belarus and stayed in elite.
Olegs Znaroks was controversial for his erratic behavior and zero skills in Latvian language and this time previously friendly federation fired Znaroks. He however went to work in Continental Hockey Language to lead Moscow Dinamo and won the Gagarin Cup in 2012.
Latvian hockey federation again decided to go for foreign coach. This time it was Canadian Ted Nolan. In his past he was successful player and coach in NHL. As the coach of Latvian hockey team he made many changes in team line up, tactics and psychology. A high expectations were awaited from him as everyone was amazed of his Canadian style management and fact that he was a Native Indian. Latvia went to Sweden with many new players, many past leaders were unable play because of injuries. Also Nolan had its own thoughts of liability of some players who were in past considered as the best. Instead he introduced many new players and it proved to be a good move.
2012. championship in Sweden and Finland brought new round scheme. Teams were divided in two groups. The four teams makes to quarter final, the last team in group falls out of elite. Latvia lost to Russia, the future champions but were in lead at the first period. Then in rough game Germany was defeated by 3:2. Italy was won by 5:0. So far things were looking good, but then the troubles begun. Latvia lost to Czech Republic in even match but failed miserably with Norway 0:3. Then with Denmark 0:2. Ted Nolan was talking much about psychology and team spirit, but apparently the team spirit and psychology went loose after game with Norway. The last game with Sweden ended 0:4. Latvia was unable to score goals for three games. So the latest championship ended with 1oth place.
Its a question if Ted Noland continues to lead Latvia the decision is up to Kirovs Lipmans and he will make his decision in Summer. For the best cause Nolan should stay since he made good contributions to hockey team, introduced many new players. He needs more time to understand the settings of Latvian Hockey.
The future of Latvian hockey team is not brightest but also not the darkest. The lack of funding to hockey industry and lack of new stars may endanger the results of Latvian hockey team. The new Riga Dinamo hockey club that plays in Russian Continental Hockey League makes good and bad contribution for local hockey industry. But, its doubtful that Latvia has the possibility of falling out of the elite, because many games can still be won and many players are willing to play for Latvia.
This was the long story of 20 years of Latvian hockey. Latvia has been member of the ice hockey elite for more than ten years and its unlikely to leave it. Victories and defeats will come along and hockey in Latvia will always be popular.