The three R’s of Latvia
by Andrew Podnieks|28 APR 2022
photo: Matt Zambonin / HHOF-IIHF Images
There have been plenty of brother combinations in hockey’s long history, several sets of twins, and many dozens of father-brother combinations. No triplets have ever played at a high level, and surely no three brothers so far apart in age as the Bukarts boys from Latvia.

(The three Stastnys were six years apart, and even the six Sutter brothers were all born within seven years. Perhaps the only biggest age difference among siblings was Henri Richard, who was 15 years younger than Maurice.)

Roberts Bukarts was the first to make his way into IIHF competition. Born in 1990, he played at the 2007 U18. Five years later, 1995-born Rihards also played at the U18, in 2012, and now in 2022, the 2004-born baby of the bunch, Rodzers, is here in Germany representing his country.

Rodzers has a ways to go before gaining the same experience as his brothers, though. Roberts later played two World Junior tournaments and eight World Championships, while Rihards played at the 2013 U20 and then has played the last four Worlds with his brother (2017-19, 2021).

“When I was young my dad owned an ice rink,” Rodzers began, “and my brothers were playing there. So, when I was old enough, I also started playing. I really liked it; it was a family thing for us.”

The older he got, the better he got, so when Rodzers was 14 he moved to Switzerland to train and play at a higher level. He nearly made Latvia’s U18 team last year but fell just short. Not so this year.

“Last year I was at the training camp for the U18s. I didn’t make the team, but they kind of told me I’d play next year, so I spent this past season training and getting ready for this. Swiss hockey is a really good level, fast, challenging. This tournament is a great opportunity to show what I can do. I’m really glad I’m here, and hopefully I can help the team win a medal.”

Although Rodzers follows the NHL and like many loves how Connor McDavid plays, his inspiration is much closer to home.

“To be honest, I think the players who most inspire me are my brothers because I’m always watching their games and always nervous for them. Did they play well? Did they win or lose? They inspire me. In the off season we always train together. I wish they could come here and watch my games, but they’re training with the national team getting ready for the World Championship.”

Interestingly, despite—or perhaps because of—their age gap, each Bukarts is a different kind of player. 

“Most people thing I’m in between my brothers,” Rodzers said, comparing styles. “My oldest brother, Roberts, is more a scorer. He has a really good shot. And the middle brother, Rihards, is really fast. I think I’m more a playmaker than a scorer.”

Rodzers is at that age where every day, week, and month is important. He made the team this year not because he was promised a spot last year but because he worked hard and developed every facet of his game and body. 

“I’m playing more with the puck this year,” he explained. “I’m stickhandling the puck more. Last year I was much more of a passer, but now if I’m in a good position with the puck, I won’t automatically pass first. But still, I think the most rewarding thing on ice is to make a great pass. Overall, I think the biggest lesson I’ve learned from my dad and brothers is that hard works pays off sooner or later. It’s just a matter of time.”

Bukarts hopes to be part of a burgeoning Latvian program. After re-joining the IIHF as an independent nation in 1992, it didn’t qualify for the Olympics until a decade later. But then the Latvians played four in a row before failing to qualify for PyeongChang in 2018. They made it back to Beijing this past February, finishing 11th of 12 teams (Rihards played in the tournament, but Roberts did not). In World Championship play, they have been in the top pool every year since 1997, but at the junior levels they have struggled to stay up. They have played only six World Junior Championships since 2006 and nine U18s since 2007. 

“Qualifying for the Olympics was really important for Latvian hockey,” Rodzers continued. “The last time we played was 2014, so it was tough the last eight years, but now we are back playing with the best teams in the world. That’s important for us. For me, the biggest dream would be to play with my brothers at the World Championship or on the national team at some time. One line, the three of us together!”

For now, that is still a dream. Latvia has their hands full Thursday night when they play the United States. But Rodzers has been doing his part. He leads the team in scoring with three points, all assists, and if they are to pull an upset in Landshut tomorrow, he will need to be a contributing factor.

“Off ice, we’re a funny team,” he added. “We’re laughing all the time. But during games, we’re concentrating 100 per cent on the game and being ready to play hard on every shift.”