Ice hockey as a way of life

  • 2008-05-14
  • By Yury Sogis

WINNERS: They have a relatively strong team, but Latvia missed out on the big one in the world championships.

Now that Latvia has been ousted from the World Ice Hockey Championships in Halifax, Canada, (see story Page 3) sports announcers and barroom pundits are settling in for the long task of analyzing every pass, shot and deke that Latvia meted out during the games.
Latvians are so passionate about hockey that their love of the game is regularly compared to a religion. Ex-pats living in the country may at first be a bit overwhelmed by the vast amount of hockey lore that the average Latvian is able to draw on, but never fear, The Baltic Times is here to help fill in some of the gaps about hockey history and the current state of the game.
TBT sat down with Latvian hockey legend Evalds Grabovskis to get the low down on the Latvian hockey scene, past and present. Grabovskis, who can boast more than 50 years of on-the-ice experience, is currently the general secretary of the Latvian Ice Hockey Federation. Here's a taste of what he had to say.

TBT: How did it all start?
EG: I was lucky to start my professional career in ice hockey back in 1973 when Riga "Dinamo" was headed by Viktor Tikhonov. Tikhonov's personality had a strong impact on everybody around, including me. Jurzinov was the second guy down the line, and he was also quite a personality...
Then Tikhonov was transferred to Moscow to head the Central Soviet Army Club and the Soviet National Team. After Latvia became independent, our ways in ice hockey, and in life, in general sort of parted. But that's life, I guess. Time flies.

TBT: What are some of your career highlights?
EG: With Riga "Dinamo" I started as the third coach in 1975. In 1977 I was promoted to be the head coach and stayed in that job for four years. Then, between 1987 and 1990, I was the "Dinamo" head coach again. I also coached the national teams of Bulgaria from 1980-1982 and Poland from 1993-1995. I brought the Bulgarian team to play in China back in 1980. I also had several contract assignments with private clubs in Germany, Poland, and Switzerland.

TBT: What do you think of the so called "super-club" that is being organized in Latvia?
EG: It's a commercial enterprise. Several serious people who are well known in Latvian politics are behind this. I know that [Former Prime Minister Aigars] Kalvitis, [LIHF President Kirovs] Lipman, [Itera Latvija CEO Juris] Savickis, [Riga 2000 Hockey Club President Viesturs] Koziols, and even ex-President [Guntis] Ulmanis are working on this project, and I wish them well. They know a lot about economic mechanisms and how to coordinate things, so this project has strong chances. We at the Ice Hockey Federation are out of politics. For us, sports are sports and politics are politics. I only wish that the new club becomes just as prominent as Riga "Dinamo" was in the 1970s and 1980s.

TBT: How does professional ice hockey in Latvia look now?
EG: The supreme league includes four professional ice hockey teams from Latvia, plus one Estonian and one Lithuanian team that play in our championship. We plan to have one more Latvian professional team in the supreme league. The first league 's which is ironically the second best 's has only four teams, but we want to bring [the league] up to eight. Our teams also normally play in the open championship in Belarus, but not this year.
Professionals get paid for their work, that's why they are called professionals. I must say, however, that compensation in Latvia is much smaller than in professional clubs in Western Europe.

TBT: How important are foreign players for the Latvian professional clubs?
EG: There's a lot of "inter-drain" here, so to speak. It means that many young players from Latvia study abroad and play there. To fill the gap, we bring foreign profiles with some experience and they sort of fill the gap. Then again, when a talented Latvian player achieves a certain level of class, often times he wants to get an overseas contract. Again there is a gap, and the club owners have to bring somebody in from abroad.
All in all, Latvian professional clubs have 27 foreign players at the moment. Most [of them] come from Russia and Lithuania. We are looking at 150 professional players in Latvia now, about one third are young. By "young" I mean they are 20 years of age or even younger.

TBT: How is ice hockey financed in Latvia?
EG: It's a mixed deal. The LIHF is a non-profit organization. The national team has a budget financed by the state. Clubs also receive a certain amount of support from the state, but [it is] very small. Then private sponsors chip in, they support the national team as well as the ice hockey federation.
I would think it is worth mentioning that LMT, Hansabanka, Aldaris are the most important sponsors. The rest are getting there. Clubs also work with local municipalities to get support at the local level.

TBT: What's the background of Latvian professional clubs?
EG: Riga 2000 is the city of Riga club, as you may guess. It is supported by the Ministry of Education and the Riga City Council. They train at the Latvian Sports Academy base. You see, the professional league was formed in Latvia in 2000, hence the name for the leading club. And it's a truly Latvian team with only 4 foreign players on its roster.
ASK Ogre is an army club, so it's on the Ministry of Defense budget. But you don't have to disclose this info to your readers, it's a NATO secret. My Czech colleague Zdenek Vojta coaches them. The Ogre guys for a number of years have been after silver medals 's that's what they seem to like 's but maybe it'll change.
The Liepaja club, Liepajas Metalurgs is owned by the steel mill and supported by the city council. It is fairly international with 9 foreign players.
And then there's a club in Daugavpils called DHK Latgale. They have many foreigners playing 's about 14 or so.

TBT: Can you tell me a little bit about youth hockey?
EG: In the regions of Latvia there are 10 ice halls 's in Liepaja, Daugavpils, Ogre, Valmiera, Jelgava, Tukums, Aizkraukle, Talsi, Broceni and Ventspils. In Riga, there are several facilities 's Arena Riga, the Latvian Sports Academy, "Volvo" Hall and "Daugava" stadium. In Riga, there must be several more facilities to meet the public needs. Now, as you know, the old national ice hockey hall on Barona Street has been demolished...
Keep in mind, that today most endeavors in Latvian ice hockey are one way or another of a commercial nature. Somebody has to pay for the ice time, maintenance etc. There has to be a state program to support ice hockey in Latvia, especially for the kids. The first steps are being made, but frankly it's going slowly. We have 1,367 kids aged nine to 19 playing at 20 youth ice hockey clubs in Latvia this season [as of] May 2008. But without state support, this number will go down. Talking about amateurs, we also have close to one hundred adult teams, or rather ice hockey amateur groups playing ice hockey once in a while. Adults simply buy ice time and play for pleasure, but this is not a competitive sport, of course.

TBT: Do you cooperate with any foreign embassies?
EG: It seems to me that most diplomats live in ivory castles, so to speak. But if they want to get down on the ground and talk real stuff, I'd be more than happy to discuss things with them and possibly arrange something. And I am not talking only about the ice hockey superpowers. We know that newcomers like China and Japan are very ambitious and have big plans. Let's talk.

TBT: What's your biggest ambition in life?
EG: Good question. People come to this world to make it more beautiful; to make it a better place to live. My way of doing this is playing ice hockey and teaching others to do it well. Over the years, this has made me and my players happy. But the public always knows better. We have many good things to come in ice hockey in Latvia and all over the world.