Monday, May 4, 2015

Latvia Restoration of Independence Day

Today, May 4th, is Restoration of Independence Day in Latvia. On November of 1918, Latvia declared its independence, which was internationally recognized.

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This lasted until August of 1939, when the Soviet Union and Germany signed a pact, which included a secret protocol dividing Eastern Europe into "spheres of influence", which assigned Latvia to the Soviet Union. On October 5, 1939 the two countries signed a mutual assistance pact, but later in June of 1940, the Soviet Union issued an ultimatum to Latvia, accusing it of not living up to the agreements of the treaty, namely forming a military alliance against the USSR with the two other Baltic nations, Lithuania and Estonia.

The three Baltic nations had formed an agreement to support each other in international affairs back in 1934 and tried to remain neutral, but the massive armies of Germany to the west and the Soviets bordering them to the east made that an impossibility. The Soviets requested a new government be formed and to guarantee the Soviet military free entrance into Latvia. The government gave in to the ultimatum and on June 17, 1940, Soviet forced entered Latvia. By July 21st, a new Soviet controlled parliament was elected and declared its consent for Latvia to become a part of the Soviet Union.

Fast forward to 1990, and Latvia, emboldened by recent developments in the Soviet Union under the leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev and his policies of giving the republics of the Soviet Union more control over their own affairs, Latvia issued a declaration for the Restoration of Independence on May 4th following massive public demonstrations.

The Soviet government declared the declaration void because it violated the Constitution of the Soviet Union as well as the Constitution of Latvia (which had been put in place by the pro-Soviet government). Latvia's response was to point out that it was annexed by the Soviet Union without holding a public referendum and it was not seceding from the Soviet Union, but restoring it's independence. Negotiations failed to resolve the issue and on January 7, 1991, Soviet military troops moved into the capital of Riga. 700,000 Latvians gathered on January 13th and began to erect barricades to protect likely targets for the Soviets in response to the increasing Soviet military presence in the city and an attack on a TV tower which killed 13 in neighboring Lithuania by the Soviets intending to prevent Lithuania's similar attempts to withdraw from the Soviet Union.

The barricades were manned by the citizens of Latvia, including Latvian goaltender Arturs Irbe, who left the Soviet Union National Team to join his fellow countrymen who took to the streets in protest, erecting barricades in front of government buildings and media outlets. Red Army hockey officials warned Irbe that if he did not return to the team, he would never play for it again.

Irbe did not return.

Death, or a one way trip to Siberia, was a very real possibility for Irbe who could have simply kept quiet and enjoyed life at the pinnacle of the Soviet hockey world.

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A barricade in Riga

The first attacks happened the following day with the first casualty, Roberts Mûrnieks, occurring on the 16th. His funeral on the 19th resulted in a demonstration which led to more arrests and beatings.

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Citizen defenders at the barricades

The danger of being in Riga at the time was very real, as 100 of the Black Berets of the Soviet Interior Ministry seized Latvia's Interior Ministry building, killing five people on January 21, 1991. They had already sized the main press building, attacked the police academy and shot out tires of vehicles at the barricades.

The Latvian government then took control of the barricades on the 24th and most of the citizen defenders were gone by the next day.

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Soviet military in Riga

On August 21, 1991, hard-line party members attempted to take control of the Soviet Union from Gorbachev and his government, which ultimately failed. The following day Latvia, and Estonia, both declared their full independence, which was recognized by the Soviet Union on September 6th.

The day is celebrated annually in Latvia with special exhibitions, church services and an official state flag raising ceremony at Riga Castle. Award ceremonies, concerts, dances and other events, such as a solemn flower-laying ceremony at the Freedom Monument, parades and fireworks all take place.

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The flower laying at the Freedom Monument

The Latvia National Hockey Team is currently ranked 9th in the IIHF World Rankings. They first competed in the World Championships in 1933 and then again in 1935, 1938 and 1939 and also participated in the 1936 Olympics.

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Since regaining their independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, they returned to the Olympics in 2002 and again in 2006 and 2010 followed by a best finish of 8th in 2014 thanks to a Quarterfinal upset of Switzerland.

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. Under the previous format, they generally avoided the relegation round. but have survived easily on the occasions they had to defend their place in the top division.

The finest moment in Latvian hockey history came with the 3-2 defeat of Russia at the 2000 World Championships held in Saint Petersburg, Russia, which had great emotional significance for the Latvians given their past political history with the Russians.

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.

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".

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Another notable moment for Latvia was a 3-3 tie against the United States during the 2006 Olympics in Torino, Italy.

The glory days of Latvian hockey was the early 2000's when they were battling Switzerland for the "best of the rest" when they boasted NHL players such as Sandis Ozolinsh, Irbe and Sergei Zholtok on a regular basis. Their national team suffered a blow when veteran Karlis Skrastins was killed in the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl air disaster in 2011.

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Sandis Ozolinsh

For this past season, two Latvians played in the NHL, Zemgus Girgensons of the Buffalo Sabres and Ronalds Kenins of the Vancouver Canucks.

In addition to their national team, their main club team Dinamo Riga boasts a roster of 75% Latvians and competes in the KHL. Those players also make up the bulk of the current national team in addition to those Latvians playing in other various European and North American leagues.

Regardless of whether the team wins or loses, the Latvian fans are recognized at the loudest and most passionate in the world, regularly traveling en masse to tournaments both near and far.

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Today's featured jersey is a 2000 Latvia National Team Arturs Irbe jersey as worn during the 2000 World Championships when Latvia defeated Russia in an emotional 3-2 in Russia.

Irbe was a regular member of the Lativa National Team whenever his NHL commitments would allow, and he competed in nine World Championships and two Olympic Games for Latvia following their gaining their independence from the Soviet Union, with whom he also competed in two additional World Championships, winning gold medals in both 1989 and 1990.

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Bonus jersey: Todays bonus jersey is a 2002 Latvia National Team Sergei Zholtok jersey. After initially competing in blue jerseys with red trim in 1993 after regaining their independence from the Soviet Union, Latvia changed to their now customary maroon and white jerseys in 1996, an obvious choice with those being the colors of the Latvian flag.

Their jerseys would only undergo minor detail changes while remaining in use through 2004, such as collar style and sleeve number placement, and see Latvia through some of their finest moments, such as their emotionally charged 3-2 defeat of Russia at the 2000 World Championships in Russia, and defeating the Russians again 2-1 in 2003.

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2002 Latvia B jersey photo Latvia2002WCB.jpg

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 when it comes to winning gold medals, 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, get on the Latvian bandwagon. Win or lose, it's always a fun ride.

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