VILNIUS - Dubbed as the biggest event of the year in the country's sporting calendar, the 2014 IIHF World Championship Division I Group B starts in Lithuania's capital Vilnius today, with the hometown heroes eager to put the game on people's lips.
One of the players looking to get his country on the hockey map is Lithuania's rising star in net, Mantas Armalis.
There has been a fervent buzz across Lithuania following last week's announcement that NHLer Dainius Zubrus would be joining the Lithuanian cause at the World Championships on home ice. Over half of the available tickets for the 15 games played at the 8750-seater Siemens Arena have already been snapped up.
While most eyes will be set on the 1,169 NHL-game veteran Zubrus making his first appearance for Lithuania since 2005, 21-year old netminder Armalis is getting ready to step out in the spotlight and play a key role in Lithuanian’s campaign.
Fresh from having penned a deal with Swedish club team Djurgården, Armalis returns to the country of his birth with a growing reputation as ice hockey is making headlines in the build up for the Division IB World Championships.
"The attention and media coverage the sport has been getting in Lithuania has been different than before, especially since it was announced that Zubrus would be coming home," Armalis said. "So there is a big difference to what it was like last time the World Championships were held in Lithuania."
Five years ago, when Lithuania and the Siemens Arena last hosted the Division IB Worlds, the host nation averaged an impressive 7,040 fans in their five games and finished fourth. Back then Zubrus was kept busy playing for the New Jersey Devils across the Atlantic, a 16-year-old Armalis was included in the entry list for the Lithuanian roster, but missed out making the final cut. Having made his World Championship debut two years later, against Poland during a 1-5 reverse at the 2011 World Championship Division 1 group B in Kiev, Armalis now enters his fourth World Championship with a growing reputation, but also with a point to prove.
"My performances at the World Championships have been up and down," Armalis said. "I have played well for the most part, but there has always been that one poor game, where I have made a costly mistake."
One such blooper dates back two years, during the 2012 World Championship Division 1B in Krynica, Poland, where Armalis and Lithuania looked to be heading for a fairly comfortable win against Romania, before three quick goals conceded at the end of the game turned the game into Romania's favour. Romania's equalising goal was especially a sore one to concede, as a looping wristshot from well beyond the blueline by Romania's Istvan Nagy sneaked in via Armalis' glove, being one goal he quickly had to try to expunge from his memory.
Highly self-critical and with an unrelentless attitude to develop his game, Armalis picked up the game in Haninge in the greater Stockholm area. Born in the small Lithuanian town of Plunge, he was only four months old when his parents moved to Sweden for the hope of a better life and for their love of orienteering. Following a short spell at Djurgården's juniors, he uprooted from the Swedish capital to continue his hockey education in small-town Mora.
His chiselled looks which has seen him catwalk at fashion shows in Milan kept him in the headlines in Sweden, until the 2013/14 season when his undoubted first love ice hockey got more of the attention. After diligently working hard in the doldrums, Armalis made the first choice goalie berth at Mora his own this season, enjoying a stellar season for the Swedish second-tier outfit, playing 40 games and recording a fine GAA 92.60% in a team which finished mid-table team and helped him seal a high-profile return back to Stockholm.
Despite having spent almost his entire life across on Baltic Sea and calling Stockholm his home, Armalis does not need to think twice when Lithuania when comes calling.
"When I am in Sweden I am Lithuanian, when I am in Lithuania I feel Swedish, but I am proud of where I come from and my parents are also very proud of me representing the country they are from," he said as he and his teammates are now hoping to showcase hockey in Lithuania over the next week and improve on the consecutive fifth place finishes Lithuania has enjoyed the last four seasons at the World Championships.
"The attention and the focus ice hockey is getting now is very positive," he said. "Also within the team the feeling is completely different to what we have had in the past, and we are also having a stronger roster this season, so we definitely have a chance for a medal," said a hopeful Armalis.
The 2014 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group B is played at the Siemens Arena in Vilnius, Lithuania, between, 20-26 April. Participating teams are Croatia, Great Britain, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Poland and Romania.