Cukste embraces the change
by Andy Potts|19 MAY 2022
Latvia's Karlis Cukste battles for position with USA forward Adam Gaudette.
photo: Andre Ringuette / HHOF-IIHF Images
Latvian hockey is in for a change. Dinamo Riga’s withdrawal from the KHL means the end – at least in the short term – of a club that has served as the basis of the national program in recent years.

For Karlis Cukste, one of five players at the World Championship who were with Dinamo last season, that news is a disappointment.

“I’m sure that the team being taken away doesn’t help the growth of Latvian hockey,” he admitted. “But I hope they can resolve that in a short period of time – if not next season, maybe the season after – and they can have a pro team where Latvian players can develop and play at a high level.”

Dinamo’s importance in Latvian hockey is clear. Of the roster currently in Tampere, 16 players have spells with the KHL franchise on their CVs. Many also gained experience through the club’s junior team. Since 2008, when the Dinamo name was revived to join the inaugural KHL season, this has been a major production line for Latvian hockey talent.

But new challenges bring new opportunities. Recent seasons have seen some Latvian players explore different journeys to the top – most notably the likes of goalie Elvis Merzlikins, who got to the NHL via Switzerland, or forward Rudolfs Balcers who flourished in Norway’s junior leagues before he was drafted by the Sharks. 

Cukste, now 22, also left Latvia as a youngster. He crossed the Atlantic in 2015 for a season with Chicago Steel in the USHL. Four years in the NCAA with Quinnipiac University followed before the San Jose draft pick joined up with the Sharks organization in 2020. That season, of course, was pandemic affected; Cukste spent a spell on loan in the Latvian championship before playing seven AHL games with the San Jose Barracuda and 16 ECHL appearances with the Orlando Solar Bears.

As he makes his World Championship debut this month, he believes that his hockey travels help him grow as a player.

“I didn’t go back to Dinamo Riga just because I wanted to go home, but I understand how that might be the case for some other guys,” he said. “Travel is an opportunity to get outside your comfort zone and hopefully develop in the hockey aspect but also in the social aspect.

“The experience that you can get outside of Latvia also feeds into the national team. It’s something we talk about [on the national team], the different leagues that guys have played in, so when we all come here it’s another great learning experience.”

That hive mind of Latvian hockey experience influenced the next stop on Cukste’s itinerary. His season with Dinamo Riga ended early and he found a new club for the last few weeks. After ending the 2021/22 season in Finland with the Lahti Pelicans, he signed a one-year deal with Czech champion Ocelari Trinec.

“Pretty much all I know about Czechia comes from the Latvian players who have played over there,” Cukste added. “I’ve been there, but I haven’t played for an extensive period. I’ve seen some games and I’ve talked to my teammates. I’m expecting a technical league, lots of skilled players, pretty fast games. It should be fun.”

Roberts Bukarts is the Latvian player with the greatest Czech experience, including a stint at Ocelari in 2018/19. And he’s likely the source of the positive reviews of the Trinec organization, which is currently on a run of three successive Czech titles.

And the chance to join a winning team is a big attraction for Cukste as he continues to mature into an effective blue liner. “I heard a lot of great things about Trinec and it seems like a great step to develop my abilities,” he said. “The hockey should be fun and hopefully we can win a lot of games.”