SKATE HAPPY: A series of victories in the qualifying matches secured the hockey obsessed nation a spot in the next Winter Olympic Games, where it will be grouped with some of the best teams in the world.
RIGA - After defeating Italy 4-1 in an exciting final Olympic qualifying match in Riga, the Latvian national men's ice hockey team has qualified for the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.
"It is a very good feeling that we will again be going to the Olympic Games," Head Coach Olegs Znaroks told journalists after the game.
"I'd like to thank all the players, and the fans that hugely support us," he said.
In their last game of the qualifying matches held in Arena Riga, Latvia came out on top of Italy after a tense few periods.
Forward Janis Sprukts was named player of the game.
The Latvian team in Group F of the qualifying tournament defeated Hungary and Ukraine before going on to win against Italy.
The Olympic Qualifying matches were all held in Arena Riga, giving Latvia the home field advantage. In front of a screaming 9,000 fans, Team Latvia, led by Sprukts, soundly defeated the rest of the Group F qualifying teams. In the first of three qualifying rounds on Feb. 5, Latvia beat Hungary 7-3, and went on to take down Ukraine 4-2 on Feb. 6.
Though the game was close, Latvia still came out on top. Perhaps Znaroks said it best when he said "our team demonstrated a beautiful game."
Head coach of the Italian team Rick Cornacchia was also enthusiastic, praising Latvia's performance.
"Latvia really showed a good match in front of a fantastic crowd," he said. Latvia's fans have gained a world wide reputation as being some of the loudest and most enthusiastic hockey supporters since the World Championships in 1997.
New York Times reporter Jeff Klein also commented that the fans "celebrated with customary Latvian glee" as the final period rolled around and the Latvian team sealed the victory.
"I can only congratulate them and will see them in Vancouver. I'm happy that the result wasn't 3-0 and that Italy continued to fight. Unfortunately the result wasn't as I would have liked," said Cornacchia.
Latvian men's hockey is currently ranked 10th in the world by the International Ice Hockey Federation, based on their performance at last years Halifax World Championships. Italy is currently ranked 14.
This will be the fourth winter Olympic Games for the Latvian National team. The team has previously competed in the 1936 Games in Germany, the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City U.S.A., and the 2006 games in Turin Italy.
The Latvian team has been coached by Olegs Znaroks since 2006.
The 2010 Winter Olympic Games ice hockey competition begins February 16 in Vancouver, Canada. Latvia will be playing in Group B against Russia, Czech Republic and Slovakia, all three of which are ranked higher than Latvia.