RIGA – Like Father Time, Sandis Ozolins keeps marching on in a hockey world dominated by players little more than half his age.
Although the Dinamo Riga captain will turn 40 in August, he’s averaging 20 minutes a game in the KHL, which proclaims itself the world’s second best league.
Ozolins, who captained the Western Conference team in the recent KHL All-Star Game, had 9 goals and 18 points in 41 games when teams took their break for the dream game.
This season Dinamo Riga is again fighting for a playoff spot. The club just missed the jackpot, losing 3-2 to Davos of Switzerland in the Spengler Cup tournament final in December. Nevertheless, Ozolins made the all-star team on defence.
A native of Sigulda, Latvia, Ozolins made the decision six years ago to cease playing for Latvia’s national team and he says is not about to change his mind despite open doors for him.
“The national team is a good opportunity for younger guys to show their talents in the international arena,” he said. “They should have the opportunity to be noticed in these games, especially when so many scouts come to the World Championship.”
Ozolins has been playing in his native land on a series of one-year contracts since he left the NHL in 2008, following a career in which he scored 190 goals and 467 assists in 1,012 games, including playoffs. He says he’s undecided how long he’ll play in the KHL.
A key performer in the Colorado Avalanche’s Stanley Cup championship win in 1995-96, he produced 19 points in 22 playoff games. He was a first team NHL all-star in 1996-97, when he scored 23 goals and 68 points in 80 games with Colorado, and also was selected to play in seven NHL All-Star Games.
Along with Helmuts Balderis, Karlis Skrastins, Arturs Irbe, the late Sergejs Zoltoks and Olegs Znaroks, he’s considered one of the greatest players in Latvian history.
Life, however, hasn’t always been a bowl of cherries for Ozolins. While playing for Anaheim in the 2005-06 season, he voluntarily entered the NHL/NHL Players' Association's substance abuse and behavioral health program. He entered the program a second time in the spring of 2006 following a drunk driving charge.
But today he is grateful people were there to help him.
“Those were some tough times, back then,” he said. “But the program helped me out quite a bit, I’m enjoying life and I don’t drink anymore.”
In 2002, Ozolins opened the Ozo Golf Club, the first 18-hole course in Latvia. He didn’t play golf until visiting a driving range when he was playing for San Jose, but eventually played enough golf to carry a handicap of 10.
Ozolins fondly recalls a visit American pro golfer Fred Couples made to the team dressing room when he was playing for Colorado. On another occasion, pro Craig Stadler presented all players on the team with a new pair of golf shoes.
Dinamo Riga goalie Chris Holt, a native of Vancouver, plays the Ozo course often as does coach Pekka Rautakallio, a native of Finland, and Latvian national team players Lauris Darzins and Edgars Masalskis.
A prodigy in both figure skating and hockey as a boy, “Ozo” made his professional debut in 1990 with Dinamo Riga in the old Soviet league as an 18-year-old under head coach Pyotr Vorobyov.
He was a 1991 second-round draft pick of the San Jose Sharks. During his 16 NHL seasons, he played for San Jose, Colorado, Florida, Anaheim and the New York Rangers.
He played for Latvia in the 2002 and 2006 Olympics, but appeared in only two World Championships (2001 and 2002), mostly because he was almost always involved in the NHL playoffs late in the season.
Ozolins also played in two World Junior Championships, earning a silver medal with the Soviet Union in Canada in 1991 and a gold medal with the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) in Germany in 1992 when the Soviet Union split up. In fact, when the Soviets lost 3-2 to Canada in the gold medal matchup in 1991, both Soviet goals were scored by Latvians – Zoltoks and Ozolins.
Ozolins was GM for Latvia at the 2011 IIHF World Championship in Slovakia when the maroon-and-white placed 13th. But he was relieved of his duties after Latvia narrowly escaped relegation with a 4-1 win over Austria on the final day of the relegation round.
Ozolins has happy memories of the night in February of 2005 when Latvia faced Belarus in Riga to decide which team would qualify for the 2006 Olympics. Belarus led 4-2 with only six minutes left to play when the Latvians pulled their goalie Masalskis and scored a power-play goal to cut the lead to 4-3. The Latvians then scored two more goals at equal strength in a minute and 13 seconds to win 5-4 and punch their ticket to Turin.
At the Olympics, Ozolins helped knock the wind out of the sails of the American team driving for a gold medal, setting up two goals in a surprising 3-3 tie with the U.S.
Although Latvia has a population of only 2.2 million, he believes it could someday become one of the top-10 nations in world hockey. Latvia currently is 12th in the IIHF World Ranking.
Former NHL coach Ted Nolan has been hired as head coach to try to boost the Latvians up the ladder.
“It depends how well youth hockey develops in the country,” Ozolins said. “It’s an expensive sport, but we do have a very dedicated fan base.”