Lithuanians ready for history
by Martin Merk|07 MAY 2022
Captain Nerijus Alisauskas on the ice with Lithuania.
photo: Martin Metelko
Lithuania is one step away from medalling at the 2022 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group A. It would be one of the biggest successes for the Baltic nation in IIHF play.

If the Lithuanians beat Romania in regulation time they will have secured third place (and also second place and promotion for Hungary) and bronze medals. They would rank 19th place overall in the 2022 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship program.

The men’s national team has reached such heights only once before when they played second in the old-style Division I with two horizontal groups and missed promotion to the top division by one spot finishing second after a 5-3 loss to Austria after having led 3-2 until late in the second period. This year’s accomplishment would be at a similar level with already a 5-3 win over Korea on their account but losses in hard-fought games against favoured Slovenia (4-2) and Hungary (2-1).

16 years forward this is an entirely different team with a new generation of players. With more players and leagues in Lithuania and players trying their luck abroad. 14 players from the national team are registered with foreign clubs. Among them are also players who compete in top European leagues including goalkeeper Mantas Armalis, who plays for Djurgarden Stockholm and also grew up in Sweden as son of Lithuanian immigrants, forward Emilijus Krakauskas at Lausanne HC in Switzerland and defenceman Nerijus Alisauskas, who spent most of the past five years with Latvian KHL club Dinamo Riga.

“We’re excited to be here. We’re trying to do our best,” Alisauskas said. “The games against Korea and Romania are the most important games to still fight for a medal and we want to win and get the bronze medal.”

The time for Dinamo Riga in the Russian-based KHL has come to an end with Russia’s war in Ukraine. Also Jokerit Helsinki left the league and withdrew from the playoffs. To continue the season after the early end of the season in Riga, Alisauskas moved in February to Swedish second-tier team Vita Hasten from Norrkoping. Earlier in his career he spent six years of junior and senior hockey in Latvia with Metalurgs Liepaja as well as pro years in Germany, Kazakhstan and Slovakia.

At Dinamo Riga he was fifth in ice time among defencemen but third in the number of hits.

“Dinamo Riga was the highest level I’ve played and I speak Latvian because I played many years in Latvia so I felt like home and my home country is nearby, it was good for me and my family,” said Alisauskas, who will be looking for a new contract for the upcoming season. “Probably somewhere in Europe. I just want to sign with a good team in a good league.”

This week he’s focusing on the national team and happy to be back with his fellow countrymen for his tenth IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I tournament with the men’s senior national team.

“Things have changed in these years but what doesn’t change is our group of friends. We feel good together and we’re always happy when we come together for these weeks,” the 30-year-old team captain said.

“We have also good young upcoming players. That’s maybe a difference compared to when I started. That there are more young players who can make the team.”

Alisauskas has worked his way up from the small Lithuanian hockey town of Elektrenai, which also former NHLers Dainius Zubrus and Darius Kasparaitis call their hometown, to Latvia, the third-tier German league up to top-level hockey in the KHL – and to a role model for the upcoming generations of Lithuanian hockey. He went a path that he recommends any junior player with ambitions in professional hockey.

“There are a lot of good hockey countries. I think they need to go where hockey is a number-one sport and where they develop young players very well,” he said. “It’s the only way if you want to become a professional player. You need to get out of your comfort zone.”

Sports like hockey or even football are sometimes in the shadow of Lithuania’s national sport. It’s in basketball where Lithuania produces Olympic medals, three European championships and several NBA first-round draft picks. Top-level league ice hockey on the other side is usually played in front of a few hundreds of fans at ice rinks in Elektrenai, Kaunas, Klaipeda and Vilnius, sometimes in the playoffs also more. But interest has been growing in the past few years and that’s also thanks to hosting the Division I in those big multifunctional arenas where usually top basketball events take place.

In 2009 up to 8,700 spectators filled Siemens Arena in the capital of Vilnius for the Division I games and the success story was repeated when the event came back to the same arena in 2014. In 2018 the Lithuanians chose the second-largest city of Kaunas with the largest indoor sports venue of the Baltic countries. Up to 10,170 fans came to watch Lithuania’s games at Zalgiris Arena and their team earning promotion to the Division IA with the county’s two former NHL players Zubrus and Kasparaitis on the ice. That doesn’t go unnoticed in the media and the population and such tournaments helped to raise the profile of Lithuanian ice hockey.

“When we have World Championships in Lithuania everyone is interested in hockey and the population notices us. It was good every time it was in Lithuania and we want to do it again,” Alisauskas said.

“We also have more hockey academies, more arenas. And we need even more so that more kids can come to the ice and fall in love in this games.”

With wins here in Ljubljana and bringing home bronze medals the Lithuanian players can add to the success story of the recent years and to help grow hockey.