Coach revolution in Latvia?

Keenan candidate in Latvia; Belarus in search for coach, too

28.07.2011
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Latvia didn't prolong the contract with Olegs Znaroks and might announce a North American coach soon. Znaroks himself was a candidate to take over the Belarusian team, but he will focus on Dynamo Moscow. Photo: Matthew Manor / HHOF-IIHF Images

MINSK/RIGA – The 2011 IIHF World Championship in Bratislava and Kosice was a great event for the fans, especially the Finnish ones, who could celebrate the second world title of their team.

For some teams, however, their performances ended in frustration and coach firings back home.

Belarus and Latvia, which barely avoided relegation, will soon present their coaches for the upcoming season after Russia (Zinetula Bilyaletdinov) and Germany (Jakob Kölliker) had already announced changes.

There were rumours that Latvia’s mustachioed former national team coach Olegs Znaroks will switch sides and land behind the Belarusian bench when Yevgeni Vorsin, the President of the Belarusian Ice Hockey Association, confirmed the interest from Minsk, but Znaroks’ club Dynamo Moscow wants his full focus on the KHL team.

Belarus might well have to find a new coach while the Latvians don’t seem have this problem anymore. Kirovs Lipmans, the President of the Latvian Hockey Federation, recently returned from the United States where he negotiated with the potential future national team coach. Two candidates seem to be on the shortlist.

Who will it be? This surprise might be unveiled in August, but Lipmans said a deal is 90 per cent done in an interview with telegraf.lv.

Some days later Lipmans revealed the name of one candidate in the Diena newspaper. It’s nobody else than Mike Keenan, who has been an NHL coach for 20 seasons and led the New York Rangers to the 1994 Stanley Cup.

Internationally, the 61-year-old led Canada to two Canada Cups (1987, 1991) and also coached Canada in the 1993 IIHF World Championship and in the 1980 IIHF World U20 Championship.

During his NHL career Keenan was working with two Latvians, Arturs Irbe and Sandis Ozolins.

The other candidate, Lipmans said, is also a Canadian with NHL experience.

The new coach, whoever it will be, will follow after five years with Znaroks behind the bench. Compared to his predecessor, he will spend more time with the federation as he’s supposed to take over the coaching position with the U20 national team, which was promoted to the Top Division in Calgary and Edmonton, as well.

According to Lipmans, he will be assisted by Latvian coaches.

For the Baltic nation it will be a little ice hockey revolution. Since restoring independence in 1991, the national team coaches have been either Latvians or Russians with the exception of Swede Curt Lidström (2002-2004).

While some other former Eastern Bloc nations such as Belarus, Hungary, Slovakia or Ukraine have hired and fired North American coaches in the ‘90s and 2000s, Russian has been the main language in coaching the Latvian national team for the past seven years.

The new candidate would be Latvia’s first North American national team coach since Larry Marsh from Canada at the 1939 World Championship.

Whoever will be presented in Minsk and Riga, the new coaches will be taking over the national teams of smaller, but passionate hockey nations.

After underperformances at the last two World Championships and the Olympics in Vancouver, Latvia and its thousands of fans expected to travel to Stockholm for the 2012 Worlds will want better results.

The same can be said for Belarus, whose last quarter-final appearance was in 2009 as well. With the preparation for the 2014 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship in Minsk and lots of money invested for the construction of ice rinks throughout the country, there will be pressure to prove that the 14th-place finish was nothing more than a one-off.

MARTIN MERK

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