Can Latvia contend for a medal?
by Lucas Aykroyd|14 MAY 2021
Latvia, host of the 2021 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship, boasts arguably the world's most passionate fans, but has never won a medal.
photo: Andre Ringuette / HHOF-IIHF Images
Latvia has never finished higher than seventh at an IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship (1997, 2000, 2004). So if the 2021 host nation were ever to win a medal – of any shade, either this year or in the near future – its hockey-crazed population of 1.9 million would be in the seventh heaven.

Could the Latvian men win a quarter-final and give themselves a shot? Or is medaling something Latvian fans can only dream of?
Realistically, the answer lies somewhere in between. Latvia currently sits 10th in the IIHF Men’s World Ranking. Taking a closer look at how the Latvians performed at their last Worlds in 2019, they weren’t far from securing a quarter-final berth.

En route to a 10th-place finish in Bratislava, they beat all the teams they were supposed to beat: Austria (5-2), Italy (3-0), and Norway (4-1). Their downfall was failing to stage upsets against the bigger nations: Switzerland (3-1), Czech Republic (6-3), Russia (3-1).

However, coach Bob Hartley’s team was competitive in every game – even the loss to the Czechs, where they had a 2-0 lead more than 25 minutes in,and cut the deficit to 5-3 when Lauris Darzins scored his second of the night with 4:32 remaining.

Moreover, statistically, the Latvians punched slightly above their weight. They had the fourth-best power play (34.4 per cent), trailing only Canada, the U.S., and Slovakia. Their penalty kill ranked eighth (77.2 per cent), as did their goaltending (2.88 GAA, 89.8 save percentage).

Top goalie Elvis Merzlikins reaffirmed his ability to steal the show when he posted five shutouts in eight games as an NHL rookie with the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2019/20.

At the 2019 Worlds, though, the two-time Swiss NLA Goalie of the Year with HC Lugano wasn’t as on top of his game (2.78 GAA, 91.4 save percentage) as he was in 2018 when Latvia grabbed eighth place (1.50 GAA, 94.0 save percentage). A lights-out Elvis could have given Latvia its first back-to-back quarter-finals appearance in tournament history.

Objectively, a goaltending tour de force is what it’ll take to send Latvia to the final four. This Baltic nation simply does not have enough firepower to win a run-and-gun tilt with perennial medal contenders like Canada, the Czech Republic, Finland, Russia, Sweden, or the United States.
Rudolfs Balcers led Latvia in points in both 2018 (4+2=6) and 2019 (1+8=9). In 2019, Hartley described the Liepaja-born winger as “a magician with the puck.” Yet while Balcers may still be a couple of years away from peaking, the young San Jose Sharks forward has struggled to score consistently in his three NHL seasons.

Not to take anything away from Balcers’ accomplishments, but it’s a big ask for him and Dinamo Riga veterans Miks Indrasis and Lauris Darzins to keep pace with the likes of Connor McDavid, Sebastian Aho, or Nikita Kucherov.

Position by position, there are significant gaps, especially when you compare today’s situation to the heyday of Latvian hockey circa 2000.

Not only could the Latvians ice the great Sergejs Zoltoks at forward back then, but they had the double whammy of Sandis Ozolins’s offensive wizardry and Karlis Skrastins’s stoic, hard-nosed leadership on defence. Arturs Irbe – a two-time World Champion with the USSR before backstopping the Carolina Hurricanes to the 2002 Stanley Cup final – remains the gold standard for Latvian netminders.

In fact, prior to the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City, more hockey pundits would have picked Latvia to stage a major upset than Belarus. However, Latvia’s 4-1 loss to Germany doomed its hopes of advancing, while Belarus shocked Sweden 4-3 in the quarter-final on Vladimir Kopat’s goal from centre ice against netminder Tommy Salo.

Latvia still hasn’t springboarded from a major upset to a medal. Rewind to those three seventh-place finishes. In 1997, Latvia’s highlights included surprising ties with Canada (3-3) and Sweden (1-1). In 2004, the noteworthy ties were less dramatic, coming against Germany (1-1) and Switzerland (1-1). And in 2009, the Latvians shone brighter as Aleksandrs Nizivijs scored penalty-shootout winners against Sweden (3-2) and Switzerland (2-1). 

2018’s eighth-place finish – the only other time Latvia has made the quarter-finals – included unexpected points from overtime losses to the U.S. (3-2) and Canada (2-1).

Latvia’s two World Championship shockers over Russia in 2000 (3-2) and 2003 (2-1) rank among the country’s most cherished sporting memories. However, the quarter-final loss to Canada (2-1) in Sochi in 2014 was as close as the Latvians have come to their own Olympic “Miracle on Ice.”
Of course, the Sidney Crosby-captained Canadians – who never trailed in the tournament and set a modern-day defensive record with three goals allowed in six games – outplayed Latvia by a long stretch. Goalie Kristers Gudlevskis sparkled as shots favoured the eventual gold medalists 57-16. 

And yet, it was a one-goal game. If Shea Weber’s power play blast with under seven minutes left had not found the back of the net, who knows what could have happened in overtime or a shootout? Especially considering how Darzins undressed Carey Price on his first-period breakaway goal.

As noted before, when Latvia finally makes the final four, it’ll probably involve another scenario like Sochi, with an extra dose of good luck.

The most optimistic Latvian fans might argue: “Hey, in the last decade, we’ve seen an Olympic final with Germany (2018) and World Championship finals with Slovakia (2012) and Switzerland (2013, 2018). If they can beat the odds, what’s to stop us from medaling?”

The obvious answer is: “It’s a numbers game.” For instance, the Swiss have more than 20 elite pro teams and 30,655 registered players, plus financial advantages and other resources. There is no Latvian counterpart to Roman Josi or Nico Hischier.

Yet Latvian fans thirsting for a great home-ice performance in 2021 can take encouragement from their recent record. Their quarter-final hopes likely hinge on Group B wins over Germany and Norway. Notably, Latvia defeated Germany in their last Worlds meeting in 2018 (3-1) and recorded two straight wins over Norway in 2018 (3-2, OT) and 2019 (4-1).

Latvia is also scheduled to host Group E of the 2022 Olympic qualification (26-29 August 2021) in Riga. It will face France, Italy, and Hungary. Proud Latvian fans will be dreaming of big things to come in Beijing and beyond. Maybe even a medal someday.