Latvia reinvents golden partnership
by Andy Potts|29 AUG 2021
Oleg Znarok and Harijs Vitolinsh together at the bench of the Latvian national team at the 2010 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship.
photo: Matthew Manor / HHOF-IIHF Images
Latvia’s head coach Harijs Vitolins has only been in his current job for one month – but his Olympic experience is already golden.

And the 53-year-old has one of the most titled helpers in world hockey as he looks to bring Latvia back to the Games after the country missed out in 2018. 

Vitolins worked for much of his coaching career as an assistant to Oleg Znarok, winning three Gagarin Cups, one World Championship and, finally, Olympic gold with team OAR in Korea three years ago. Today, though the roles are reversed, with Znarok offering his advice and experience to help his old colleague navigate qualification group E in Riga.

“We are always in contact,” Vitolins said after the win over Hungary. “Oleg sits up there in the tribune with a walkie-talkie and shares what he sees from above.”

That ‘eye in the sky’ gives the coaching staff a different perspective on events, plus the benefit of one of the most successful European coaches of recent years. It’s an arrangement that fulfils the expectations of Latvian Hockey Federation General Secretary Viesters Koziols, who suggested that even though the federation did not consider Znarok a candidate to replace Bob Hartley, he hoped that the former Latvian international would be willing to advise where needed.

“I know they [Vitolins and Znarok] are good friends and Oleg’s experience can help us even if he is not a member of the coaching staff,” Koziols told the LHF website when Vitolins’ appointment was announced. “As a patriot, and a friend of the Latvian national team, I don’t think he will refuse us and we will be happy for any help.”

The hockey partnership between the two goes way back. As players, they helped Latvia reach the top level of the World Championship back in the 1990s. Then, as coaches, they were part of the staff that worked with Leonids Bereznevs to guide the Baltic nation to the 2006 Olympics in Torino. The following season, Znarok took over as head coach and Vitolins stayed as his right-hand man. The journey took them to Vancouver with team Latvia, to the summit of the KHL with HC MVD, Dynamo Moscow and SKA St. Petersburg, then finally to that long-awaited Russian gold in PyeongChang in 2018.

At times, it could seem like a case of ‘opposites attract’. Those who played for him do not always agree, but Znarok’s snarling public persona and the siege mentality he cultivated around his teams often painted him as the ‘bad cop’ of the duo; Vitolins, happier to talk with the media, was often the ‘good cop’ encouraged to handle the press at Team Russia practice during major tournaments.

Now, that partnership is reinventing itself – and in a situation where Vitolins admits there’s little time to introduce innovations to the team he inherited from Bob Hartley.

When he took the job in July, Vitolins said: “I always dreamed of being Latvia’s head coach, and the fascinating thing about this job is you never know when you might get an offer. I planned to come back and spend my summer vacation in Latvia, then I got a pleasant surprise.

“When you get an offer like that, you just can’t refuse. It’s a big responsibility. As head coach, you’re the focus of everyone’s attention and nobody will forgive any mistake.

“My task here is to boost the players’ confidence. We so little time we can’t do much to change our tactics, so the team will play more or less the same way. We’re just looking for the right combinations and trying to instil a belief that these players can show us what they are capable of.”

If Latvia’s players can show that belief against France in Sunday’s Group E decider, Vitolins could add leading his country to the Games as head coach to a resume that already includes playing at the Olympics and twice working on the Latvian coaching staff at the pinnacle of the hockey world.