Monday, April 30, 2012
Born on this date in 1968 in Riga, Latvia while it was a part of the Soviet Union, Harijs Vītoliņš worked his way up from the third division of the Soviet hockey ladder, eventually joining Riga's entry in the Soviet Hockey League, Dinamo Riga for two games of the 1986-87 season, where, in 17 games the center scored his first top level goal as well as an assist.
He played a further 30 games in 1987-88, upping his point totals to 3 goals and 3 assists. While not an offensive force, his steady and reliable style of play garnered him the right sort of attention, which earned him a place on the Soviet Union National Team at the 1988 World Junior Championships where he earned a silver medal. The exposure on the world stage led to Vītoliņš being drafted that spring by the Montreal Canadiens in the ninth round of the 1988 NHL Entry Draft despite Soviet players not being allowed to leave for the NHL at the time.
In 1988-89 he competed for Dinamo Riga in the Soviet League again, as well as making the trip to North America as part of Dinamo's part in the Super Series, where Soviet club teams played a series of exhibition games against NHL clubs. In the seven games of the 1989 Super Series, Dinamo tied the Calgary Flames, lost to the Edmonton Oilers and Vancouver Canucks before defeating the Los Angeles Kings. They then lost to both the Chicago Blackhawks and St. Louis Blues prior to downing the Minnesota North Stars to conclude their tour of North America.
Vītoliņš playing for Dinamo Riga against Minnesota
during their 1989 tour of North America
The next two seasons saw Vītoliņš set highs with first 45 and then 46 games played as well as raising his offensive contributions to 7 goals and 13 points in 1989-90 and then a leap up to 12 goals and 31 points as his role with the team evolved.
Changes in the political world saw the breakup of the Soviet Union in December of 1991, which sent ripples through the world of hockey, one of which resulted in the club changing their name to the Stars Riga for the 1991-92 campaign, during which he contributed another 12 goals.
With players now free to seek their own way, Vītoliņš had a hectic, unsettled season, playing for the Beast of New Haven in the American Hockey League, The Thunder Bay Thunder Hawks of the Colonial Hockey League, both in North America prior to joining EHC Chur of the Swiss National League A, all in 1992-93. In all, he totaled 24 goals in 32 games between the three clubs. More importantly, Latvia was now once again an independent country and their national had been reformed for the first time since 1939 when they became a part of the Soviet Union.
As one of the new member nations of the International Ice Hockey Federation, Latvia was placed in the third tier of the World Championship program in what was then known as the "C" Pool. The process of sorting out the many new member nations saw Latvia required to play a Qualifying Round against neighbors Estonia and Lithuania, who they easily defeated 6-3 and 13-2 to qualify for the main "C" Pool tournament.
In March of 1993 they travelled to Bled, Slovenia for Group 1 play where they annihilated Belgium 26-3, shut out North Korea 4-0, embarrassed Israel 32-0, tied Ukraine 5-5 and hammered South Korea 27-0. Those dominant wins resulted in both Latvia and Ukraine advancing to the "C" Pool semifinals where they would face Slovenia from Group 2, who they defeated easily 5-1, setting up a rematch with Ukraine, who had eliminated Kazakhstan 3-2.
The deciding game of the "C" Pool was played on March 21, 1993 which saw Latvia achieve their goal with a 2-0 win, earning immediate promotion to the "B" Pool in their first try, setting off celebrations among their rabid fans.
Vītoliņš was once again selected in the NHL draft, this time by the Winnipeg Jets, who assigned him to the Moncton Hawks of the AHL, where he set new career highs with 28 goals and 62 points. His play earned him a call up to the NHL with the Jets, with whom he played 8 games, although he did not register a point.
He returned to Switzerland for the 1994-95 season with SC Rapperswil-Jona as well as skating for Lativa once more at the 1994 World Championships in the "B" Pool, where they made a strong showing with a 18-1 win over Romania, 6-1 over the Netherlands, 9-2 over Denmark, a vital 4-3 loss to Slovakia followed by wins over Poland 6-2, Japan 15-2 and Great Britain 8-4. Their loss to Slovakia forced them to remain in the "B" Pool for yet another year following coming up a goal short against Switzerland on the final day of the 1994 championships while Vītoliņš was away in North America.
For 1995-96 it was off to Sweden, where Vītoliņš joined Rögle BK for the Swedish domestic season in advance of the 1996 World Championships. They opened their schedule with a narrow 6-5 win over Great Britain, and then got on a roll with a 6-1 victory over Japan, took care of business 5-3 over Denmark, took an important step with a 4-1 against Belarus, got past Poland 4-2, hammered the Netherlands 15-3, which set up a critical final game against Switzerland, who put themselves in a hole with an opening day loss to Belarus. Leading in the standings by two points, Latvia got their desired result with a 1-1 tie, securing first place in the "B" Pool, which earned them a promotion to the "A" Pool, joining the world's elite in only their fourth year after the reformation of their national team after over 50 years, once again triggering euphoria among their reknowned fan base.
Vītoliņš played the next five seasons with EHC Chur, the first four of which were in the second division National League B before earning promotion to the National League A. His offensive game flourished with Chur, averaging 24 goals a year with a high of 30 in 1997-98 as well as a career best 83 points in 1996-97 from just 36 games played.
He also played annually for Latvia at the World Championships each spring, having risen to the role of national team captain and helping Latvia defend it's place in the Top Division each time, with a best of 7th place in 1997, which remains the highest placing in the history of Latvia, which they equalled in 2004 and 2009.
Vītoliņš during the 1998 World Championships
The highlight for Latvia during this time period was undoubtedly their emotional victory over Russia at the 2000 World Championships, defeating Russia on an even playing field for the first time.
Vītoliņš celebrates with the late Karlis Skrastins
The 2001-02 season saw Vītoliņš join HC Thurgau in the National League B for four seasons, which included tying his career best with 30 goals in 2003-04.
He concluded his international career in fine style, first at the 2002 Olympics, where he was awarded the honor of being the flag bearer for Latvia in the opening ceremonies. In Salt Lake City, Vītoliņš would score 2 goals and 4 points in 4 games, but Latvia failed to advance past the Preliminary Round, as they were lacking their better players, who were not available due to still being obligated to their NHL teams at the time. The NHL did not begin it's Olympic break until the start of the First Round, which resulted in changes to the schedule for subsequent games.
Latvia team captain Vītoliņš
Vītoliņš' final participation for Latvia came later in the spring of 2002, when he skated in his ninth World Championships, which included scoring his 19th goal for the National Team.
His career would wind down in the 2004-05 season after 18 games for Thurgau in the NLB and one each for Langnau and Ambri-Piotta of the NLA.
Vītoliņš would continue to remain active in hockey, becoming an assistant coach for Latvia at the 2005 World Championships and has remained so every year since. He was also part of Latvia's efforts at the 2006 and 2010 Olympics and most recently was a part of Dynamo Moscow's staff during their KHL Gagarin Cup championship in 2012.
Today's featured jersey is a 1999 Latvia National Team HarijsVītoliņš jersey. Latvia joined the ranks of international hockey in 1993 with blue jerseys with red and white trim for three years before completely revamping their jerseys with the arrival of Nike as the jersey supplier to the IIHF in 1996.
The new jerseys were maroon, which reflected the main color of the flag of Latvia, with black and white striping. The cresting was a simple "LATVIJA" in a stylized font and remained essentially unchanged until a new design arrived in time for the 2005 World Championships when all the teams jerseys were revisited.
Today's video section begins with Vītoliņš scoring in the 2000 World Championships in a 2-1 Lativan win over Ukraine.
Next, highlights of the Latvia National Hockey Team, including footage from their dramatic win over Russia at the 2000 World Championships, the highlight of the program, as well as a glimpse of their loyal fans.