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U20 Preview: Team Latvia

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I've made no bones about it in the past, I have a special place in my heart for Latvian hockey.  A tiny country with a population equivalent to metro Vancouver, their undisputed top sport is hockey.  There are probably literally only a handful of countries where that can be claimed:  Canada, Finland, Latvia, and possibly Slovakia and Belarus.  And as an exceptionally small community on the international stage, Latvians really take their passion seriously.  At the IIHF Men's World Championships, their fans always show up and out-party everyone else.  If you ever plan on going to a World Championships, make sure you go to the venues where the Latvians will be.  At least that's my plan.

Seeing their national U20 team through numerous downs and a couple of small highs at last year's tournament in Saskatoon, you couldn't help but pull for the team.  Here's a story I did on them for Puck Daddy before their first game.  After being slaughtered by Canada in the opener, the crowd got fully behind the Latvians.  They scored their first goal against Slovakia and the crowd erupted for the team, who had battled back after another terrible start.  Soon the team had three goals.  While the crowds cheered loudest for Jordan Eberle's heroics, whenever Latvia scored was a not terribly distant second in terms of fan reaction.  A heartbreaking third period saw Latvia fall to Switzerland 7-5, and their fate for relegation was pretty much sealed, though they did post one win against Austria (6-4), which the faithful who had bought Latvia jerseys certainly appreciated. 

Latvia's tale this year is a familiar one for the country:  just not quite good enough to stick permanently with the championship group, but too good for the vast majority of the Division 1 Group.  In a promotion/relegation system, there are bound to be a few 'tweener' teams, and Latvia is one.  They boast a couple of interesting players, but most of their team plays for HK Riga, who are currently leading their division in Russia's new U22 league, the Minor Hockey League (MHL).  HK Riga acts as a feeder team for Dinamo Riga of the KHL, who currently employ last year's U20 captain, Roberts Bukarts, on their roster. 

I decided to contact Didzis Rudmanis of the Latvian Hockey Report to ask some questions about the team.  He's quite thorough in his passion for Latvian players, so be sure to check out his site for any specifics.

Half the preliminary roster is made up of players from HK Riga, Latvia's lone team in the newly formed MHL out of Russia.  How does the level of competition compare for them compared to the old national junior league?  Is having a MHL team seen as a big step for the development of Latvian talent?

Didzis Rudmanis: Similarly like it was with the Latvian national team before the establishment of Dinamo Riga, also formerly a notable part of the Latvian U20 team played abroad. MHL is without a doubt more competetive than any of the Latvian junior leagues has ever been, however, as MHL is basically an U22 league, there are some discussions, whether the older players shouldn't already try to start their professional careers, minding that they are not that likely to make the Dinamo Riga roster straight away. On average, Russian MHL teams are slightly younger. MHL is not really seen as a big step for the development of Latvian hockey. Still, it is certainly valuable to have a Latvian team in the top junior league of Russia.

I count 4 forwards, 4 defensemen, and 1 goalie as returning from last year's team that placed 9th in Saskatoon.  That's quite a lot for a junior tournament.  Is it safe to say Latvia expects nothing less than to earn promotion with this team?

DR:  Latvian team has indeed only one aim - to return to the Elite division. However, the team will still have to face the Belarussians, who will definitely try to make use of the home ice advantage. Belarussian team consists of many already professional players, of whom many play in the Belarussian Extraleague, which is a decent second-tier European league. So, basically, if there are no huge upsets, it is either the Latvian or the Belarussian team getting promoted.

NOTE:  Potential returning forward Rolands Vigners was injured in training camp and will not participate.  He was a very key player for the team last year, and will definitely be missed.  For the full roster, visit LHR. 

The most familiar players to North Americans are Kristians Pelss, a WHL winger who was drafted by the Edmonton Oilers, and Zegmus Girgensons, a 16 year old USHL rookie who has first round draft potential in 2012.  Are either of these players going to be looked at to play a key role for the team this year?

DR:  As Kristians Pelss is arguably the most talented 1992-born Latvian player out there, he is certainly expected to play a major role on the team. On the contrary, no one really knows what to expect out of Girgensons on the U20 scale. He is after all three years younger than the core of the team and the camp currently held in Jelgava is the first time ever when Girgensons is with the U20 team. I mean, despite the future predictions and the tremendous season he is currently having with the Dubuque Fighting Saints, it is not even guaranteed that he will make the roster. (Ed. Note:  Girgensons indeed made the team). 

What is the feeling amongst Latvian fans and officials in regards to these players going to North America to play junior?

DR:  There are dozens of young Latvian players across the whole world - North America, Sweden, Finland, etc. It has not ever been viewed as something bad, as, with the limited resources of such a small country as Latvia, it's junior leagues won't ever be competitive enough to raise a future NHL or even top-European league players. Although with the recent establishment of HK Riga the situation has now slightly changed, playing abroad is not viewed as anything disrespectful.

Latvia was in the top division the past two years, and were in Division 1, just outside the top division the previous two years.  Does the current tournament format work well for Latvia?  It seems like it's either losing big at the top level with one or two competitive games, or winning big at the lower level with one or two competitive games. 

DR:  Yes, it is currently that way, but, well, first of all, no matter on what format IIHF decides, there would always be countries harming from it and, secondly, those are only literally a few games a year, who doesn't affect much, regarding the development of those younger players - either you win those games and get promoted or you lose them, and stay where you are for another year. To some extent, it is all about one or two games for majority of countries - I believe, also, for example, Sweden isn't too motivated, when playing against the likes of Latvia, Denmark on the junior level, where the level of play differs way more than, for example, at the Olympics.

Latvia's Key Players:  Kristians Pelss, F ('92); Juris Upitis, F ('91); Ralfs Freibergs, D ('91); Martins Jakovlevs, D ('92); Zegmus Girgensons, F ('94).