Wednesday, December 2, 2009
Born on this date in 1972, Sergei Zholtok became the first Lativan to ever captain an NHL team when Minnesota Wild coach Jacques Lemaire named him captain for January, 2003 as part of his rotating monthly captaincy.
Irbe, Ozolinsh & Zholtok
The first Lativan to play in the NHL also played in Minnesota, but with the Minnesota North Stars. Helmut Balderis was a right winger who originally played with Dynamo Riga, then with the Soviet Red Army for three seasons before moving back to Dynamo Riga. Benefitting from the new freedom granted to Soviet players, Balderis, who retired after an 18 year career in 1985, signed to play with Minnesota in 1990 - after four and a half years out of the game! He would see action in 26 games, scoring three goals and six assists for 9 points. He would return to Latvia the following season and play four more seasons before retiring for good in 1996. While his NHL career won't be getting him into the Hall of Fame, his international resume is impressive, having played for the Soviet Union in the 1976 Canada Cup, the World Championships from 1976 through 1979 and again in 1983 and the Winter Olympics in Lake Placid in 1980, including skating in the "Miracle on Ice" game.
Next to make the move to North America was our personal favorite, Arturs Irbe, famous for his one set of pads that he would repair himself, he would make his NHL debut in 1991 with the San Jose Sharks and quickly became a fan favorite. The highlight of Irbe's career was making it to the Stanley Cup Finals with the Carolina Hurricanes in 2001 and becoming the first Lativan to play in the NHL All-Star Game in 1994. His 568 NHL games played ranks Irbe fourth among Latvians and one of only two Latvians to ever play goal in the NHL.
1992 would see the cream of the crop of Latvians enter the NHL. Grigori Panteleev signed with the Boston Bruins and saw action in 50 games in Boston in three seasons, followed by four with the New York Islanders in 1995-96. The remainder of his long career reads like a travelog, with stops in the IHL in the United States, Germany, Russia, Sweden, Switzerland, Finland and Italy before retiring in 2008. His 54 games ranks him 7th among games played by Lativans.
1992 also saw the debut of Sergei Zholtok, who also broke into the NHL with Boston, scoring his first NHL goal against friend and countryman Irbe! 25 games over two seasons with Boston would be followed by time spent with the Ottawa Senators (135 games over two seasons), the Montreal Canadiens (170 games over 2 1/2 seasons), the Edmonton Oilers (37 games in a half of a season), the Minnesota Wild (210 games over three seasons), where he would be named the first Lativan to captain an NHL team and set a career high with 42 points, and finally Nashville for 11 games to finish the 2003-04 season. Zholtok would die prematurely from heart failure while playing in Belarus during the NHL lockout in 2004. Zholtok's final NHL total of 588 games ranks him third all-time and his 258 points are good for second among Latvians in NHL history.
In terms of games played and points scored, the most accomplished Latvian in NHL history is without a doubt Sandis Ozolinsh, who, like Irbe, made his NHL debut with the Sharks. He quickly became an NHL regular, playing in 81 games in the 1993-94 season and join Irbe as the first Latvians to play in the NHL All-Star Game. He was dealt to the Colorado Avalanche in the 1995-96 season in time to win a Stanley Cup championship, the first Latvian to have his name engraved on the cup. After five seasons in Colorado, which included three All-Star Game appearances, Ozolinsh was dealt to the Carolina Hurricanes. Stops with the Florida Panthers, Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, the New York Rangers and a return to the San Jose Sharks would follow. His final NHL totals of 875 games, 167 goals and 397 assists for 564 points ranks first mong Lativans in games, goals, assists, points, All-Star Games (7) and his Stanley Cup stands as the only one won by a Latvian.
Alexander Kerch played 5 games with the Edmonton Oilers in 1993-94, while Harijs Vitolinsh saw action in 8 games with the Winnipeg Jets the same season for their only NHL experience.
It would not be until 1997 that Peter Skudra would become the second Latvian goaltender to join the NHL, when he began his NHL career first with the Pittsburgh Penguins for 74 games over three seasons, a single game with the Buffalo Sabres in 2000-01 followed by 26 games with the Bruins later that same season. Two seasons with the Vancouver Canucks saw Skudra get into 46 games in two seasons before finishing his career with four additional seasons in Russia. Skudra ranks 6th in games played for Latvians.
Several players made their debuts in the 1998-99 season with Victor Ignatjevs playing 11 games with the Penguins and Herbert Vasiljevs getting into 51 games with Florida, the Atlanta Thrashers and Vancouver from 1998-99 to 2001-02 before continuing his career in Germany, but the best known of the group would be Karlis Skrastins.
Skrastins, a 9th round draft pick, would spend time in Finland before coming to North America and playing for the Milwaukee Admirals of the IHL before making his NHL debut with the Nashville Predators for a pair of games in 1998-99. He would split time between Milwaukee and Nashville the next season before becoming an NHL regular in 2000-01 and play in all 82 games for three consecutive seasons. 2005-06 would see Skrastins join the Colorado Avalanche for two and a half seasons before a move to the Florida Panthers. He currently plays for the Dallas Stars and has surpassed his 700th NHL game played, currently ranking him second behind only Ozolinsh.
Kaspars Astashenko played 23 games with the Tampa Bay Lightning over the course of two seasons beginning in 1999-00 before a couple of seasons in the AHL prior to his return to Europe to continue his career.
2005 saw the debut of the rugged Raitis Ivanans, who patiently worked his way up through the minor league system, having played for 11 different teams in 4 different leagues, including the wonderfully named Macon Whoopee. His debut came with four games with Montreal, but he quickly became a regular with the Los Angeles Kings and is rapidly approaching 250 games played and is better known for his penalty minutes rather than points scored.
Janis Sprukts got into 14 NHL games with the Florida Panthers starting in 2006 and is currently playing in the KHL while Martins Karsums currently has 24 games to his credit with both Boston and Tampa Bay in 2008-09 and is currently playing in Norfolk of the AHL and hoping for a return to the NHL.
Finally, Oskars Bartulis became the 16th Latvian in NHL history when he made his NHL debut this season with the Philadelphia Flyers and has recently made it to double digits, with 10 games played this season.
While several of these players were unable to become NHL regulars, they have all achieved something to be proud of, joining a select group of Latvians to have played in the NHL, and despite some of their low NHL games played and point totals, many have gone onto lengthy careers in Europe and have been regulars on the Latvian National Team, having competed in the World Championships man times, where Latvia is famous for it's rabid fan support, traveling en masse regardless of the location to provide the loudest fan support possible.
Today's featured jersey is a 2002-03 Minnesota Wild Sergei Zholtok jersey. This jersey has the captain's "C", proudly worn by Zholtok in January of 2003. It also features one of our custom made Hockey Fights Cancer patches, worn by each team's captain for one game only, in this case Minnesota's game on January 10th vs. the Phoenix Coyotes, and then auctioned off for charity during the subsequent NHL All-Star Game weekend later that season.
Here is a look at the history of Latvian hockey throughout time including their always emotional upsets against the hockey powers of the world and footage of some recent Latvian NHLers and of course, their passionate fans.
Speaking of their passionate fans, here is the complete report from NBC News aired during the 2006 Winter Olympics in Torino, Italy.
Here is a compilation of goals by the Latvia National Team from various World Championships, showing the giant killers at their finest.