Tuesday, February 9, 2010
The fourth seeded team in Group B at the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Men's Ice Hockey Tournament is Latvia.
The Latvia National Ice Hockey Team is currently ranked 10th in the IIHF World Rankings and a team you take lightly at your own peril.
Based on their status outside the top nine ranked countries, Latvia was obligated to participate in the Olympic Qualification process, a series of tournaments that date back to September of 2008. The host Latvians were able to advance to the main tournament in Vancouver by going undefeated in their group thanks to a critical 4-2 over Ukraine in a group which also consisted of Italy and Hungary.
The Latvians have participated in Olympic ice hockey first in 1936 and then, after gaining their independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, again in 2002, with a best finish of 9th, and 2006. They also failed to qualify in 1994 and 1998.
Prior to 1940, Latvia competed in the World Championships in 1933, 1935, 1938 and 1939. Since regaining their independence, Latvia has been a regular participant in the World Championships, first being assigned to Pool C as a new country, the lowest rung of the ladder system. Right off the bat, the Lativans won Pool C, earning promotion to Pool B. Following a pair of second place finishes in 1994 and 1995, they won Pool B in 1996, earning promotion to the Top Division for 1997, where they have remained since, recording a best finish of 7th on three occasions and averaging a 10th place finish, generally avoiding the relegation round. When faced with competing in the relegation round, they have survived easily.
Perhaps the finest moment in Latvian hockey history came with the 3-2 defeat of the Russians at the 2000 World Championships held in Russia, which had great emotional significance for the Latvians given their past political history with Russia.
If that moment does not rank as the top moment, then the amazing comeback in the final game of Final Olympic Qualifying for the 2006 Olympics in Torino, Italy ranks surely must be. With both Latvia and Belarus off to 2-0 records, they were to meet in the final winner-take-all game of their group.
Another notable moment for Latvia was a 3-3 tie against the United States in the 2006 Olympics.
Belarus opened the scoring of the deciding game at 5:16 of the first and stretched their lead to two at 12:06 before Latvia answered at 18:33. The second period was played even, with each team scoring one with Belarus going back up by two at 1:49 before former Boston Bruin Grigori Panteleev scored 18 seconds later to return the margin to one in favor of Belarus.
Belarus put themselves in a good position with a goal at 9:11 of the third to make the score 4-2 for Belarus.
Now in desperation mode, Latvia pulled goalie Edgars Masalskis during a Latvian powerplay at the with just six minutes remaining in the game and down by two. The gamble paid off as Latvia scored at the 15:11 mark to reduce the margin again to one.
1:47 later the Latvians thrilled the home crowd by getting the equalizer at even strength, leaving just three minutes to decide who would claim the final remaining spot in the Olympics. Alexsandrs Semjonovs sent the home fans into rapture by finishing the comeback and punching Latvia's ticket to Italy just 33 seconds later to complete the three goal outburst in two minutes and twenty seconds in what would become known as "The Miracle in Riga".
Latvia enters the 2010 Olympics as a team in transition, with just two NHLers on it's roster, Karlis Skrastins of the Dallas Stars and Oskars Bartulis of the Philadelphia Flyers. A number of the previous generation of regulars on the Latvian National Team, such as Arturs Irbe, Sandis Ozolinsh, Grigori Panteleev and Aleksandrs Semjonovs, who were young enough to have been trained in the waning days of the Soviet hockey system, are no longer on the team and a number of their older players are clearly playing in their final Olympics. Still, 13 players return from the 2006 Olympic team this time out.
Outside the two NHLers, the remainder of the Latvian roster draws primarily from Dinamo Riga of the Kontinental Hockey Legaue (KHL), with 15 members of that club on the roster, which will hopefully give the Latvians a cohesiveness and familiarity with each other right from the start that most countries will be only hoping to find. Of the remaining six players, one comes from the IHL, two play in the German DEL and two others are with other clubs in the KHL. Also on the roster is the 40-year-old goaltender Sergei Naumovs, a veteran of a dozen World Championships.
With the format for this year's Olympics calling for the top four teams after the Preliminary Round to receive byes into the quarterfinals, the key for Latvia will be gaining as many points as possible against a tough group that contains Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Russia. The best case scenario for Latvia would include beating Slovakia, ranked only one place ahead of them in the IIHF World Rankings and hoping for a tie against the Czech Republic. Realistically however, Latvia will be trying to score as many goals as possible while playing a tight defense in order to give themselves the most favorable goal differential compared to the other lower ranked teams in order to gain the most favorable matchup on February 23rd in the Secondary Round to determine who will advance to the quarterfinals should they go winless in their group.
Today's featured jersey is a Nike 2004 Latvia National Team Sergei Zholtok jersey as worn during the 2004 World Championships. "Zholtok" is the North Americanized spelling of Sergei's last name, as found on his NHL jerseys, while it is spelled "ZOLTOKS" when he plays for his national team, with the "S" on the end indicating a masculine last name.
Zholtok was a regular member of the Lativa National Team whenever his NHL commitments would allow, and he competed in six World Championships prior to his premature death from a heart aliment while playing for HK Riga 2000 during the NHL lockout season.
Here is a look at the jerseys that Latvia will be wearing in the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver. The Latvians will be decked out in some of the nicest jerseys in the tournament. The timeless look of the two color jersey and the small version of the Latvian Coat of Arms creates a striking jersey made unique with Lativa's maroon coloring.
Today's video highlights begin with the stunning comeback by Latvia in the last four minutes of the deciding game of the Final Olympic Qualifying for the 2006 Olympics that would become known as "The Miracle in Riga".
While Latvia certainly faces and uphill task in Vancouver, no one, and we mean no one, has a better time at the games than the fans from Latvia, often drowning out crowds that number thousands more than them while playing on the road. If you are looking for an underdog to support in the upcoming Olympics, get on the Latvian bandwagon. Win or lose, it's always a fun ride.