Latvia looks to build
by Andy Potts|30 JAN 2023
The Latvian U18 women’s national team players sing the national anthem after a win at the 2023 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 Women’s World Championship Division II Group A.
photo: Karl Denham
Women’s hockey in Latvia is showing encouraging signs of progress. Last week’s U18 World Championship action saw the Latvian girls win silver in the Division IIA. Collecting hardware in only the second tournament in the team’s history is a big boost to a fledgling junior women’s program.

It’s tempting to see this as an overnight success. In reality, though, it’s a medal four years in the making. The groundwork for a U18 women’s national team began back  in 2019. Then Covid struck the world, and everything was put on hold. An anticipated competition debut in 2021 was cancelled; the 2022 championship was delayed and the team finally took to the ice last summer in Istanbul, placing a respectable fifth out of nine teams in Division II and earn a spot in IIA for the 2023 campaign.

Establishing a team means challenging some old-fashioned parts of the Latvian sporting mentality, where hockey has long been regarded very much as a man’s game.

“It’s tough. I’m not gonna lie,” said Miks Golubovics, head coach of the U18 women’s team. “In Latvia, with hockey in general there are some very big stereotypes about that and it’s not easy to break them.”

Latvia’s hockey federation is trying to change attitudes, in particular by promoting the women’s national teams with the hockey community and also to the media. While cautious of over-promising, Golubovics is seeing progress at grassroots level.

“I think the future is OK,” he said. “I can see changes in people’s attitudes and I see a lot of young girls starting to play in the different clubs. But we always have room to improve.”

Progress is already striking. In 2019, it wasn’t even certain that Latvia had enough teenage girls to form a U18 roster.

“In hockey, you need at least 15 skaters and two goalies, that’s actually the biggest issue for us right now,” Golubovics added. “We always knew we had some girls playing, skating on the boys’ teams, but there weren’t enough.

“Back in 2019, in the spring, there was a big local youth tournament. I started to look through the rosters of all the teams and just counted up all the girls there. Then I saw we could get a team together and we started to do camps once or twice a year.”

There is talent on that team. Team captain and forward Linda Rulle finished as top scorer in both the IIHF tournaments Latvia’s U18s have contested. In Division IIA play in Dumfries, she had 10 (8+2) points in five games and showed enough to suggest that she could build herself a career at a higher level. Linemate Hannah Strause and Sarlote Stale also demonstrated that attacking spark that grabs attention when they are on the ice. 

Rulle is already playing outside of Latvia, with Lulea in Sweden. Goalie Jelizaveta Stadnika, whose calm presence between the piping was vital in tight victories over the Netherlands and Great Britain, is another who has found opportunities abroad after joining Herning in Denmark. The coaching staff hopes that they can be trail-blazers for more promising Latvian youngsters to develop their game in some of the stronger women’s leagues in Europe or North America.

Rulle turned 18 during the tournament in Dumfries, and Stadnika will, likewise, be unavailable at this level next season. However, Strause and Stale are eligible for more seasons in U18 hockey and are set to lead a cohort of players returning from Dumfries and Istanbul with valuable experience of tournament play. The coaching staff, too, has greater insight into what is needed to bring home hardware from these tournaments. In turn, that could see Latvia’s young women moving up to a level more in keeping with Latvia’s historic hockey traditions.

Those traditions in the men’s game mean it’s something of a surprise to see Latvia facing off against its peers from Mexico, Türkiye or Australia in competition play. The Baltic nation’s proud hockey heritage has earned it a great reputation at the top table of the men’s game and the sport is undoubtedly the most popular in the country. Now, the hope is that fans who thrill to their country’s exploits in Olympic and World Championship action might help to form the next generation of female players.

“We have a great hockey tradition and we can use that to our advantage,” Golubovics said. “Our fans are the greatest, and now I see how this is helping some women’s teams to develop and get more players.

“A lot of them start by cheering for the [men’s] national team, then maybe thinking they can try to play themselves. And the more we can encourage that, the more it benefits the women’s national team because we can see girls who start as fans and grow up to become players.”

And seeing the U18s come home with medals is the greatest motivation of all. “Maybe when you’re young and you just start to play hockey, you don’t think about all that,” Golubovics concluded. “But when you grow up, you want to feel that it’s not all for nothing. We want to show that there’s a real hockey journey for these girls, the same as with the boys.”