CALGARY – For fans in Canada, the primary image of the Latvian U20 national team is the 16-0 drubbing it took from the hosts in Ottawa in 2009. Defenceman Nikita Kolesnikovs hopes to forge more positive memories at the World Juniors in Calgary this time.
“I think we just have to try to stay in the top group,” said Kolesnikovs of Latvia, which earned promotion to the 2012 IIHF Ice Hockey U20 World Championship with five straight wins in Division I action last season. “We’re not one of the most skilled teams. Other teams have more skill. But I think if we work hard and play hard, we have a good chance to stay in the top group.”
This will be Latvia’s fourth appearance in the elite World Junior division. The underdog Baltic country finished ninth in 2006 and 2010, peaking at eighth in 2009. Clearly there’s much work to be done at this tournament. The youngish, Eriks Miluns-coached squad can’t just rely on the likes of sophomore Western Hockey League (WHL) forward Kristians Pelss, who plays for the Edmonton Oil Kings and is the lone NHL draft pick on the roster (seventh round, 181st overall, Edmonton Oilers).
Kolesnikovs, 19, will be a key puck-moving presence on a Latvian blueline that boasts little star power. The Riga native, who models himself on Sweden’s Victor Hedman as well as Latvian stalwarts like Sandis Ozolins and Arturs Kulda, has already topped the 20-point plateau in his rookie season in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL).
“I watched all last year how Ozolins plays on the power play [with the KHL’s Dinamo Riga] and it’s amazing,” said Kolesnikovs of the 1996 Stanley Cup winner with Colorado. “If you watch him closely, you can pick up some tips. It’s good.”
It hasn’t all been smooth sailing in North America. Kolesnikov started the season with the Shawinigan Cataractes, but was traded to the Blainville-Boisbriand Armada on October 14 in a multi-player swap that sent nifty (if high-maintenance) Russian forward Kirill Kabanov the other way. The 196-cm, 100-kg rearguard was also suspended for two games for a hit from behind in late November.
Still, the Russian-speaking prospect has maintained a positive attitude.
“Maybe the first two weeks were hard, adjusting to a new country and new people,” Kolesnikovs said. “But in both Shawinigan and [my new team], the guys helped me, so everything’s been good since then.”
Now, the two-time member of the Latvia U18 squad is excited about the prospects of playing in front of capacity crowds at Calgary’s Saddledome, the home of the NHL Flames and the 1988 Olympic hockey venue.
“It’ll be great,” Kolesnikovs said. “When they hold the World Juniors in North America, it’s a lot of people. In Europe, there aren’t a lot of people that come out to junior games in, say, Latvia or Denmark. But in Canada, no matter which teams play, lots of people come out.”
And certain spectators are of particular interest to him.
“In Latvia, the head coach of the senior national team is now [former Buffalo Sabres and New York Islanders coach] Ted Nolan. I think he will come to Calgary to watch the games. I hope my parents will be able to come too. It’ll be great if they come to Calgary to watch some games.”