Latvia lines up at its fourth consecutive Olympics as an outsider – but these underdogs will arrive in Sochi ready to do everything possible to score an upset.
The team booked its Olympic berth a year ago in dramatic circumstances: a third-period equalizer from Martins Karsums in the final game against France brought relief to a Riga crowd as the home team secured the point it needed to hold off the French and the Kazakhs in a tight battle. But simply being at the Games is not enough for head coach Ted Nolan. He’s making his own Olympic debut in Sochi and admits he feels “like a 10-year-old kid waiting for Christmas morning”.
“My hopes and expectations for team Latvia is greatness,” Nolan said. “This is where miracles happen!” With that ambition driving the team forward, nobody is content just to come along and be a part of the Olympic experience. “With Latvia being such a small country qualifying is quite the big accomplishment but no one relaxes when they get to the Olympics,” the coach added. “The Games bring out the best in all of us, and like everyone else we want to win. After all, the Olympics is where magical things happen.”
The rest of the country has similarly high hopes – Latvia’s overall winter sport record is modest, but the Baltic nation has a lasting love of hockey and an Olympic tradition which dates back to the 1930s, before it was absorbed into the USSR.
Against that background it’s not a big surprise to see veteran defenceman and national team captain Sandis Ozolins given the honour of carrying the Latvian flag at the opening ceremony. Ozolins, now 41, is heading to his third Olympics; his long and successful NHL career includes two Stanley Cup finals and a winning campaign with Colorado Avalanche in 1996, making him a true flag bearer for Latvian sport.
Ozolins is one of a strong Dinamo Riga contingent is on this roster – eight of the 23 ply their trade with Latvia’s representative in the KHL, and that’s another area where things have changed a lot in 12 months. This time last year Dinamo was struggling, and ultimately missed out on the play-offs.
The class of 2014, meanwhile, is riding high in the league with a play-off spot already secure. That gives extra confidence, something which Nolan is happy to exploit in Sochi.
“It helps a little when [the players] all play in the same league, and it certainly helps when players come from winning organizations because overall the atmosphere will be better,” he added.
But if Ozolins and his team-mates are well-known to the famously enthusiastic fans who flock to Arena Riga, Zemgus Girgensons is something of a mystery. The centre turned 20 at the start of January, and arrives in Sochi as Latvia’s only current NHL player – turning out under Nolan with Buffalo Sabres and enjoying his first season of top-level action this time out.
While the youngster is an unknown quantity for many, Nolan is very familiar with his talents, and gives him a glowing reference: “Zemgus is a great prospect and will bring to the Olympics what he brings to our team in Buffalo: energy, playmaking ability, determination, grit and all the qualities of a great player and a good leader. The people of Latvia will be very proud to watch him represent their country as the people of Buffalo watching him play for the Sabres.”
Alongside Girgensons, Latvia will look for goals from Lauris Darzins, a hugely experienced player in the KHL whose peak season in 2010/2011 saw him producing almost a point a game for Dinamo Riga. Since then he’s had injury-affected spells with Ak Bars Kazan and Traktor Chelyabinsk before returning to Dinamo recently to gain ice time ahead of the Olympics. He’s likely to reprise his goal-grabbing line with Janis Sprukts and Mikelis Redlihs (both now with Lokomotiv Yaroslavl). Young Miks Indrasis, who exploded onto the international scene in Stockholm in 2012, is another forward to watch out for.
At the back, meanwhile, Ozolins will look for support from his regular club partner Arvids Rekis while the impressive Georgijs Pujacs also has a big role to play. He’s running +17 for Dinamo this season, and returns for his third Olympic campaign to bring some much-needed experience into a youthful locker-room.
Latvia last won a game at the Olympics back in 2002, and has yet to better its ninth-place finish of that year. The Czechs and Swedes should have Group C sewn up, so the best chance of springing a surprise revolves around startling the Swiss in the opening game. With the traditional passionate Latvian support ready to get behind the team, any chance of success will be a cause for great celebrations, but realistically winning any of its games in Sochi will represent an achievement.
Sandis Ozolins: He’s been there, done it, and got the Stanley Cup ring to prove it. The 41-year-old defenceman re-emerged from international retirement last year to help secure qualification, and is now gearing up for his third Olympics, where his experience will be a huge boost for the team.
Miks Indrasis. One of many players in the roster who grew up within the Dinamo Riga organization, Indrasis, 23, is the leading Latvian goal scorer for the KHL team with 12+19=31 from 49 games. He made an explosive debut on the international stage at the 2012 Worlds, scoring the 1-0 goal on the all-conquering Russians on his debut and he remains a big performer for the big occasion.
Kristers Gudlevskis. Like any outsider, Latvia can expect to face plenty of shots on its goal – at last year’s Worlds, for example, gave up 205 in seven games. Gudlevskis faced 120 of those and posted a highly respectable 92.5% save ratio. A repeat of that kind of form from the Syracuse Crunch stopper is vital to Latvia’s hopes in Sochi.
Zemgus Girgensons. Since getting his first senior international call-up with Latvia at last year’s Worlds, 20-year-old centre Girgensons has gone on to play regularly in the NHL for the Sabres and is now getting ready to step onto the biggest stage of all. A talented prospect full of confidence, and ready to make his mark.