Fast forward eight months, though, and a combination of Covid postponements and the invasion of Ukraine have given the Latvians a chance to play in this month’s top division tournament. And they are not just looking forward to playing, but planning to ruffle some feathers among the junior elite. Up against host nation Canada, Finland, Slovakia and Czechia in Edmonton, this team is aiming high.
“We are here to play,” announced goalie Bruno Bruveris. “There’s nothing that can stop us. What’s going to be is what’s going to be, but we will all try our best.
“Our goal is to make the quarter-final, that’s not a secret and we’re going for it.”
A second chanceAs one of the 20-year-olds in the Latvian party, Bruveris is looking forward to an unexpected last hurrah in junior hockey. And he’s delighted to claw back some of the tournament experience that was lost to many players in his year group due to the pandemic. The netminder made his debut in IIHF play in 2019/20, taking over for the third period of a 9-1 blow-out against Slovenia in U20 World Championship Division IA action. He was all set for a big role at that season’s U18 Worlds, only for the pandemic to intervene.
“We were due to go to the USA for the U18 World Championship,” he recalled. “We were really well prepared for it, but about a month before the tournament they called it off.
“It was kinda tough, a big disappointment. We were working towards it all season, right from our summer camps. We didn’t get a chance to show what we could do against the best in the world, so having that chance now is going to be really great.”
With no U20 international action 2020/21, this season gave Bruveris – and many of his team-mates – a chance to catch up on the international experience they had missed. Back in December, Bruno starred in goal for Latvia at the Division IA tournament in Denmark. He topped the charts for saves (93.88%) and GAA (1.38). However, a 1-2 loss against Belarus pushed the Baltic nation into second place. With the 2022 World U20s set to begin a week later, that seemed to be the end of international junior play for the goalie and many of his team-mates.
Then the fates intervened. First, a Covid outbreak halted the top division tournament in Alberta, forcing it to be rescheduled for this month. Russia was suspended from international play, creating a vacancy in the top division. With Division IA gold medallist Belarus also banned, Latvia got an unexpected invite to the top table for the first time since relegation in 2017.
“It’s an opportunity that came like a miracle for us,” Bruveris said. “We didn’t expect this at all. We understand the situation in the world right now, we know how it is and there’s nothing we can do about that.
“But we are very happy that we can participate with the top junior players in the world.”
December’s tournament experience also adds to the team’s confidence. Although forward Raivis Ansons, Latvia’s top scorer in Denmark, is unavailable this time, Bruveris believes that overall the roster is stronger.
“Back in December we didn’t have a few good players because they had injuries or they couldn’t come for whatever reason,” he said. “Now they are back on our roster this year. Raivis is the only player we are missing right now.
“Last time, there was a lot of responsibility for the older players on the team and in the end we were really happy with what we achieved. Now we’re thrilled to have another opportunity and the whole team is so pumped up. It’s been something like five years when we only played in Division One. Now we are back to the best in the world, and it’s going to be awesome.”
New faces on this month’s roster include defencemen Gustavs Ozolins, who also played in the USHL last season, and rising star Peteris Bulans who played much of last season in Latvia’s adult league. Among the forwards, Rainers Darzins makes the step up from U18 play while Klavs Veinbergs, 19, brings a touch of senior World Championship experience after playing three games in Tampere back in May.
A stand-out seasonPlaying in Edmonton this month crowns a great season for Bruveris. Apart from an eye-catching performance in Division IA, the Riga native left his hometown to join the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders in the USHL. International team-mate Martins Lavins, whose father Rodrigo enjoyed a distinguished international career, was on the same roster in Iowa. Early in the season, Bruno spoke of it as fulfilling a lifelong dream and now he speaks enthusiastically about the whole experience.
“It was my best year in hockey so far,” he said. “There was so much going on, a lot of new things. Playing junior hockey in the U.S. is just crazy, we all get pumped up and it’s a lot of fun.”
And it wasn’t just about having fun. Helping the RoughRiders make the playoffs taught Bruveris plenty about his game...
“I think I developed a lot in the past year,” he added. “Some of the coaches were talking about things that we don’t talk about here [in Latvia] and it really helped me a lot.
“It was about those small details that help me to be more consistent. I worked so hard in the past season. We had a great run, I played a lot of games and it was really good.”
Now it’s time to test those details at the highest level as Latvia looks to make the most of its chance in Edmonton.