The Latvian U20 national team players sing their anthem after their historic win over Czechia at the 2022 IIHF World Junior Championship.
photo: Andre Ringuette / HHOF-IIHF Images
Yesterday’s massive 5-2 Latvia win over Czechia was monumental. It gave the Latvians one of the coveted eight spots in Wednesday’s quarter-finals, and it did so in a year the team hadn’t even qualified to play at the top level of the World Juniors. Indeed, they weren’t even the first qualified nation to be promoted after Russian teams were suspended from participation. That nation was Belarus in Division IA, but they, too, have been suspended from participation.
But Latvia didn’t come to Edmonton grateful and suppliant, happy to play four games and then fly home. They did have a tough start, though, having to face the best teams in Group A first, losing to Finland 6-1 and Canada, 5-2. In their third game, they fought Slovakia to the shootout before losing, 3-2, and yesterday they put up a W the players will remember for a long time.
Latvia's Legacy - 2022 IIHF World Junior Championship
Martins Lavins and Darels Dukarts have grown up knowing what it means to compete at the top level; but what their famous fathers have taught them goes far beyond the ice.
In World Junior play, Latvia is participating in only its seventh tournament, and big wins have been few and far between. Indeed, it has now played 40 games at top level U20 and won only five, this most recent its biggest. The team’s best placing came in 2009 when it finished 8th. Not surprisingly, they won two games that year, the only time they have won as many, but both came in a four-team relegation round.
In short, yesterday’s win over Czechia was hands down their biggest in U20 history.
At the Olympics, Latvia’s biggest win was surely 18 February 2014, in Sochi. They had lost all three preliminary round games, including 4-2 to Switzerland, the team they faced again in the Qualification playoff. Win, or go home. But two goals from Lauris Darzins gave them a 3-1 victory and a place in the quarter-finals. They lost to Canada by the narrowest of margins, 2-1, in a game that was tied 1-1 after the first and second periods. In the end, Latvia finished 8th, their best ever placing at the Games.
Lauris Darzins was Latvia’s hero in the 4-2 win against Switzerland that led the team to the quarter-finals where it almost upset a star-studded Canadian team.
photo: Jeff Vinnick / HHOF-IIHF Images
Latvia has finished as high as 7th at the World Championship three times – 1997, 2004, 2009. In ’97, that placing was the result of winning four games in a large relegation round pool. In 2004, they tied Switzerland and beat Austria to advance to the quarter-finals, losing to Finland, 4-1. And most recently, they made it to the quarters and lost to Canada, 4-1.
But placings don’t tell the whole story. There have been moments of glory irrespective of the standings and placings. Just last year, on 21 May 2021, Latvia beat Canada, 2-0, at the World Championship, the first ever win against Canada at any level. Miks Indrasis and Oskars Batna got the goals, and Matiss Kivlenieks was sensational, stopping 38 shots for the shutout victory.
Latvia had its historic first win against Canada in ice hockey on home ice at the 2021 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship in Riga.
photo: Andre Ringuette / HHOF-IIHF Images
But that was simply a game pitting a massive underdog against one of the giants of the game. Add politics to the mix and you get arguably their greatest win. That came on 5 May 2000, 3-2 over Russia, in St. Petersburg during the World Championship. The Russians had a stacked line-up but were not playing well, and on the first day of the Qualifying Round Latvia handed them another humiliating loss. To this day, ask Arturs Irbe what his greatest win was, and he’ll point out his 37-save victory on this day as his answer.
Aleksandrs Semjonovs celebrates his goal in Latvia’s historic 3-2 win against host Russia at the 2000 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship in St. Petersburg.
On 10 May 2014, Latvia beat Finland for the first time, 3-2, but that came during the preliminary round and didn’t help them advance to the playoffs. Five days later, they beat the U.S., 6-5, in a wild and crazy game that wasn’t decided until a late goal from Herberts Vasiljevs. Again, big, but not historic.
In truth, some of Latvia’s biggest wins have not been in final competition but in qualifying, specifically for the Olympics. In 2014, Riga hosted the final tournament for four teams, the winner alone going to Sochi. They beat their nearest rivals, Kazakhstan, 3-2, but it was the final game against France that was the nailbiter. Latvia needed one point to advance, so a win of any sort or a loss in OT/PSS would suffice. But France led 2-0 after the first and 2-1 after 40 minutes. Martins Karsums tied the game 12 seconds into the final period, and when the buzzer went at the end of the third to signal overtime, the Arena Riga erupted into pandemonium.
Ditto in 2010, though less dramatic. When Latvia beat Ukraine, 4-2, on the second day, it had created enough space in the standings that the final game was irrelevant, except for a massive celebration across Latvia. The team had qualified for Vancouver!
Latvia had many Final Olympic Qualification battles on home ice to qualify for the Olympics including a dramatic 5-4 win over Belarus at the old sports palace Rigas Sporta Pils in 2005 to qualify for Turin 2006.
photo: IIHF Archive
But when you think of Olympic qualification, nothing – nothing – tops what Latvia did in 2005 on home ice at their old arena. They were in a dog fight with Belarus as the final day came around, but Belarus started strong and took an early 2-0 lead. Latvia fought back, Belarus pulled ahead and was leading 4-2 with six minutes left in the game. A spot in the Olympics was on the line, and Latvia looked to be on the outside.
But then Armands Berzins, Janis Sprukts, and Aleksandrs Semjonovs scored in the dying minutes, and the game was called the Miracle in Riga as soon as the game ended. Latvia was off to Turin, and Belarus was not.
Okay, yesterday’s win wasn’t quite so dramatic, but at the U20 level it has no compare for Latvia. And who knows, they might not be done just yet.