RIGA - After weeks of rumors, it's now official. At a July 1 meeting of the Belarusian Hockey Federation, it was decided by a unanimous vote that the Latvian hockey teams Riga-2000 and Liepajas Metalurgs would be able to compete in Belarusian hockey as of next season.
It was previously expected that the two top Latvian clubs would only be able to compete in the first four rounds of the regular Belarusian Federation League and not be eligible for the play-offs. But following additional interest from the Ukrainians, the Belarusian Federation will set up an international tournament that will consist of nine Belarusian teams, two Latvian teams, and one Ukrainian team.
The tournament will consist of four rounds and a play-off round that will be scheduled in such a way to allow both Latvian clubs to also participate in the regular Latvian Federation season. The tournament still has no name, but will be a league that is sponsored by the BHF. That basically means that the games will be held in BHF arenas, and the administration of the BHF will also be in charge of the league
Both Latvian teams requested to play in the Belarusian league because of the uncertain future of the Eastern European League. Several teams have quit the EEL citing its low skill level as the reason, although the hockey federations of Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Ukraine and Poland are still in talks to try and salvage the league for next season.
Both Latvian team managers and coaches see the BHF as a step up in the quality of play. It was originally thought that a third team would also be part of the Latvian contingent, but there has been no word on the status of ASK/Ogre's bid to join the federation.
This past season Riga-2000 beat Liepajas Metalurgs in the Latvian Federation finals to regain the title after Liepajas Metalurgs had won it the year before. Between them, the two teams have dominated the league for several years.
The BHF tournament will start on Sep. 8 and ends right before the Latvian hockey play-offs in March. Meanwhile the regular season in Latvia is scheduled to start on Sept. 21. All the teams that want to participate in the LHF 2004/2005 season have to be registered by July 16 but so far only six teams have signaled their readiness to participate in it.
LHF officials have expressed their concern over the decision by Liepajas Metalurgs and Riga-2000 to play in Belarus, saying that it could aversely affect the LHF. It certainly seems that by choosing to simultaneously play in two countries, both teams will experience a severe strain on not only their players, but also their limited financial resources.