Riga ready for 2013 repeat
by Andy Potts|28 AUG 2021
Latvia came back from a two-goal deficit to beat France 3-2 for an Olympic berth. Martins Karsums scored the game-tying goal.
photo: Martins Aise
We’ve been here before. In 2013, Riga was the venue as Latvia played France for a place at the Winter Olympics in Sochi.

On that occasion, the equation was complicated by Team Kazakhstan, which defeated France in the opening game before falling to Latvia. The final reckoning had three teams with a chance of qualifying: a point against the French would be enough for Latvia, a two-goal win would send France to Sochi. A one-goal French victory, though, would give Kazakhstan an Olympic place.

A capacity crowd packed into Arena Riga, most of them hoping to see Latvia qualify for the Games for the fourth time in a row. France, bidding for a first Olympics since 2002, had other ideas. Damien Fleury, back here in 2021 as captain of Les Bleus, opened the scoring on a third-minute power play; Laurent Meunier extended the lead late in the first period. Suddenly, with a two-goal advantage, the French had one foot on the plane to Sochi and Latvia was facing Madame Guillotine.

That passionate home crowd was anxious. Their heroes had chances, but twice failed to beat Cristobal Huet on the power play and the French defence remained strong throughout the second period. But, with the pressure building on the home team, a moment of magic from Lauris Darzins changed everything. At the time, he was a 28-year-old star of the KHL and he finished this tournament as Latvia’s leading scorer. But the individual effort he produced five minutes before the end of the second period was his biggest moment, collecting the puck in his own zone and streaking off to the races before faking a shot and beating Huet – at last – with a wrister. Latvia’s ebullient head coach Ted Nolan described it as “an NHL goal” in the post-game press conference.

The 2-1 scoreline was welcomed in Kazakhstan, but no good to either team on the ice. Then the first shift of the third period gave Latvia what it needed. Darzins was involved again, firing in a shot that Huet blocked only for Martins Karsums to put away the rebound.

Then it was game management time. France needed two goals; Latvia allowed just six shots at Edgars Masalskis. An overtime winner for Pierre-Eduard Bellemare was scant consolation for the French as the home crowd celebrated a defeat that felt like a victory.

Eight years on ...

Since that day in February 2013, both nations have undergone a change of generations. However, for the French, the memory of simultaneously winning and losing still stings. Sacha Treille played in that game, and he’s ready to do everything to rewrite the script this time around.

“It’s a different scenario from last time,” he said after his goals saw Les Bleus to a 2-0 win over Italy. “We know that a win, even in overtime, will be enough.

“We’ll go into this game as if it was our last. There’s an enormous hunger. We know the arena will be full, but that just motivates us even more. We have to cut out any errors, everyone has to play his best hockey. Then we have a chance.”

French head coach Philippe Bozon is also looking forward to the challenge of taking his country to its first Games since 2002, when he was on the team in Salt Lake City.

“Everyone’s well motivated,” he said after that 2-0 win over Italy. “We knew what the challenge was going to be, we wanted to be in this position on Sunday and we’re right there. We are 60, maybe 65 minutes away from what we want.”

Latvia’s proud run of Olympic appearances was halted four years ago when Germany got the verdict in the final qualification round in Riga. Since then, a new generation has emerged to lead the national team – and they are desperate to make it to Beijing.

“This is huge,” said Rudolfs Balcers, who was a 15-year-old playing junior hockey in Norway when Latvia got past France in 2013. “There’s one mission for us. We’re playing at home and we have a goal to win and go to the Olympics.

“We’re trying to get better here every day and it’s going to be a huge one against France.”

Latvian head coach Harijs Vitolins has plenty of Olympic history: in 2018 he was an assistant coach on the golden OAR roster, having earlier served a similar role on Latvia’s 2006 and 2010 teams. Unexpectedly catapulted into the hot seat a month before this tournament, he believes France poses the biggest threat to a side that has yet to allow a goal in Riga this week.

“The pick of the French team is its NHL trio, plus they also have players from Switzerland’s top league,” Vitolins said. “They themselves say that this is the last chance for their strongest roster [to go to the Olympics].

“We’ve seen that they have a good power play, so we need to play with the same discipline we showed [against Hungary], where we never had to use our penalty kill.

“We’ll spend Saturday looking at the details that need some attention. We have a bit of time to look at everything and decide on our tactics against France.”