Revanche and national pride major ingredients for Latvian success in Torino
The 2006 Winter Olympic Games are around the corner. Eurohockey.net provides a preview of all 12 participating teams. In our article, we look into Lativa. The internationally rather unknown Latvians are known for their big hearts during international tournaments.
Latvia will participate at the Olympics for just the third time in their history. In 1936 in Garmish-Patenkirchen, Latvia made their debute but after that, 50 years of occupation by the Soviet Union, the next possible appearance was at nineties. Entering as a ‘new’ team, Latvia had to build up its team and face Olympic qualification series.
Latvia’s experienced players finally get through qualification at the 2002 Olympics. Latvia did great against Slovakia (from 3-6 to 6-6) but in a "must win" game lost to Germany. Latvia finished 9th place by defeating Ukraine; 9-2.
One of the brightest pages in Latvia ice hockey history was written at the 13th of February 2005. Playing in the Olympic qualification tournament, Latvia needed to win their final game against Belarus, the team that did so surprisingly well at the 2002 Olympics eliminating Sweden and finishing fourth.
Belarus dominated the game till the 55th minute and was ahead by 4-2 but Latvia performend a miracle and managed to score 3 unanswered goals to qualify for Torino 2006.
The euphory after the win came 3 months after one of the darkest pages in Latvian ice hockey history. One of the best Latvian forwards Sergejs Zoltoks, who has been instrumental in Latvia’s efforts to return to the elite level, suddenly passed away due to a heart ailment in November, 2004. The incident happened during a league game and shocked the complete ice hockey world.
In the minds of the Latvian players they'd like to dedicate a 2006 Olympic success to Zoltoks.
Leonids Beresnevs will make his Olympic debut as head coach of Latvia. He is experienced in working with the Latvian team. Beresnevs is a very conservative coach and doesn't like to experiment with national team players. In important tournaments he prefers to rely on his experienced players. During the 2002 Olympics the Latvian team was coached by Swede Curt Lindstrom.
Beresnevs will be assisted by Olegs Znaroks and Harijs Vitolins. The first one coached the Latvia U20 team at the World championships at Canada. He is known for his role in the teambuilding process.
One of Latvia’s safehouses is their goaltending. No doubt for who the number one in net should be. The best ever Latvia goalkeeper Arturs Irbe will take this spot for granted. Despite his age, 39 years, he is still able to perform at the top level. Contract issues saw him return from the NHL. Back home in Latvia, he prepared for the Olympics. He helped Latvian champions Riga 2000 to qualify for Continental Cup Superfinal and played for Salzburg, Austria afterwards.
Behind Irbe, Sergejs Naumovs and Edgars Masalskis will divide the backup roles amongst them. Both have several years of international experience on their resume.
Two of Latvians best known defensemen are Sandis Ozolins (Anahaim) and Karlis Skrastins (Colorado). It is still not sure whether Ozolins will be eligible for the Olympics because he recently entered the NHL substance abuse program. Head coach Beresnevs said he will play at Torino though.
There is no doubt about the participation of Karlis Skrastins. The defenseman is know as the Iron man since he has yet to miss a single NHL game in five straight seasons. He is known for his solid defensive game.
The other defensemen on the roster are less known but hold a wealth of experience. Rodrigo Lavins and Atvars Tribuncovs currently play in Sweden. Arvids Rekis, who could be Skrastins linemate, plays in Germany for Augsburg.
In case Sandis Ozolins will not be playing for Latvia, Albany River Rats defenseman Krisjanis Redlihs will replace him.
Offense has been Latvia’s main problem during the most recent international tournaments. Latvia lacks world class forwards since the death of Sergejs Zoltoks.
Janis Sprukts has been improving this year and is amongst the top scorers of the Finnish SM-liiga. Sorry thing for Latvia that the forward got injured and can not participate in Torino.
Lacking a true number one forward means that the Latvian forwards will need to have a chemistry going on and make the team effort result in something special.
Herbert Vasiljevs who plays for Krefeld this season has got NHL experience. Girts Ankipans was top scorer for the team at the last World Championships.
Overall the team has got fast skaters which are skilled like most former players from the Soviet-Union
Beresnevs didn’t select forward Aleksejs Sirokovs after a disappointing performance earlier on with the national team. NHL rookie Raitis Ivanans was not selected either. The physical forward is a rather unknown to coach Beresnevs and was never considered for a roster spot.
Goaltender Arturs Irbe will carry the Latvian Olympic team flag at the opening ceremony.
No less than 17 players on the team were also selected in the 2005 World Championships roster. For 10 on the team the Olympic games will mark their debut at this stage.
Latvia won't be amongst the top teams in Torino. They realize that and therefore set other targets. A quarter final spot looks like the best possible for the team.
Latvia is pleased it has been drawn into a group with Russia. In recent international games Latvia has proven to be a giant killer when facing Russia. Playing against the big brother brings out the best in the players.
The Latvian coaching staff will also call on history for the game against Team USA.
Their last encounters where unsuccessful for Latvia. Other then that the team saw two goals disallowed for wrong reasons according to the Latvians. An Olympic revenge will taste sweet for them.
The match up against Kazakhstan is a must-win game for the team if it wants to reach the quarter finals.
Latvia could be one of the surprises in Group B. Therefore the team will need a top performance from its forwards though. In order to reach the quarter finals the team needs to get a result against one of the top four teams: Sweden, Slovakia, USA and Russia.
This is not unlikely as the team is known for its upsets, one should only think of the final qualification game against Belarus. Furthermore the players always bring out the best of them when playing for national pride.
However, we predict Latvia to barely miss out on qualifying for a quarter final spot. The team will get some points from the games against the top 4, but in the end they will just barely miss the fourth spot. The lack of offensive strength will hurt them as goals scored for could be a tie breaker in this group.
Team Latvia roster for the 2006 Olympic Games.
Group B schedule for the 2006 Olympic Games.
Story added on 10th February 2006 at 02:44 GMT
Story submitted by: Joeri Loonen.