It is no secret that one of the most popular sports in Latvia is ice hockey and NHL super stars, Colorado Avalanche defenseman Sandis Ozolinsh and Carolina Hurricane goalie Arturs Irbe (also known as "The Wall"), are highly regarded Latvian athletes. Even Riga's mayor Andris Berzins has said "If an important hockey game is happening, especially if it includes Latvian hockey players, Riga's streets are empty, because everyone is sitting by the television," reported Emilija Kozule from LETA.
Both the Women's and the Under-18 teams played to establish the 2000 ice hockey season ranking, which is used to determine which pool they will play in at the 2001 World Championship. Martins Pagotkins, spokesman for the Latvian Hockey Federation, said "Pool A includes the 16 best teams, Pool B is the next eight teams. Ever year, the 16th ranked team is placed into Pool B and the 17th ranked team into Pool A." The games were played at the Riga Sports Palace and Liepaja's Ice Hall.
The IIHF World Women's Championship Pool B included teams from Kazakhstan, Switzerland, Norway, Denmark, France, Latvia, Czech Republic and Italy. Each team played five games. Out of the eight teams, the Latvian women ended in sixth place, ahead of the Czech Republic and Italy. Beating Italy (2-0), they tied the Czech Republic (2-2) and France (3-3), while losing to Kazakhstan (0-3) and Switzerland (0-5).
Head Coach Vjaceslavs Nazarovs said "I am quite pleased with the result [of tournament]. I was happy with the player's eagerness and their hard-working ethic."
The Women's Latvian National Team had the opportunity of ending up fourth or fifth, but unfortunately during the match against France they scored on themselves.
"We are possibly a stronger team technically, but the luck was with the French that day," said Nazarovs.
The Women's National team is composed of 24 members, 20 of whom participated in this tournament. The team included four newcomers who had never played in an international tournament before. The team practices two to three times a week and in preparation for the world championship began intensive training sessions three weeks before their first game.
Right wing forward Inese Geca-Miljone ranked fourth in scoring leaders with five goals (a total of seven were scored by the Latvian women during the tournament) and two assists. Left wing forward Iveta Koka lead in assists with five, along with one goal, ranked her sixth in scoring leaders. Coach Nazarovs also mentioned center Adrija Radzina as a vital component to their success.
"I consider these three forwards as the most valuable players on the team. It is these three women I would like to praise and give credit to in how well we did." As far as up and coming stars, Nazarovs points to 18 year old forward Iveta Koka.
Nazarovs hopes for more ice time throughout the whole year. There are 15 prospective players who he sees can develop into successful athletes, but they need more practice time. "Not 2-3 times per week, but at least 4-5 to help them prepare for important international tournaments." Additionally, he would like the women's national team to participate in more international competitions. Ultimately, this relies on increased funding. They were invited to a tournament in France, but were unable to attend due to financial hardship.
In the IIHF World Junior Under-18 Championship Pool B, the Latvian boy's team rallied it out with Norway for first place in the Pool. However, they lost by a score of 5-2. Due to the results of the final game between Austria and Japan (5-2), the Latvian Under-18 team finished ranked third, behind Norway and Austria, but ahead of Japan, Denmark, Italy, Poland and France.
Head Coach Gints Bisenieks believes that some of the games involved favoritism. "We played five games in which three were refereed by a Swede. In these three games, including the last against Norway, he did not count four goals, two of which were in the match against Norway," he said.
Latvia's U-18 team comprised of 21 members, all born in Latvia in 1982 or later. Two of the players are members of junior leagues in Finland and Canada. The most influential player for the Latvian team was right defenseman Andris Kozlovskis. He lead the defenseman scoring leaders with four goals, a total of 19 were scored by the Latvian U-18 team, and three assists.
The Senior Latvian National Men's Team will face the national teams of Russia (April 13), Finland (April 15 &16) and France (April 24&25). The games will take place at Riga's Sports Palace. These friendly face-offs will provide some game experience for the national team before they head to the IIHF Men's World Ice Hockey Championship Pool A in St. Petersburg from April 29-May 5.
The Senior Latvian National Men's Team is composed of members playing in Latvia's hockey league as well as those who are playing professionally abroad. Latvian hockey players playing in Sweden, Germany and Finland have already agreed to participate in the tournament. At press time Arturs Irbe and Sergejs Zoltoks, center for the Montreal Canadians, had not officially announced whether they were going to play for the Latvian national team.
Martins Pagotkins said "In Feburary, they verbally promised head coach Haralds Vasiljevs that they will play." Both these players' NHL teams have not qualified for the Stanley Cup tournament and thus are free to play if they wish to do so. Sandis Ozolinsh's team has qualified for the Stanley Cup Tournament, which will be taking place at the same time as the World Championship.
At the World Championship, it will also be decided who will host the 2003 IIHF Men's World Championship. Latvia's Hockey Federation has put in a bid to have it hosted in Riga.