STILL IN THE A-LEAGUE: Uncertain future for Olegs Znaroks as Latvia’s squad barely holds onto Elite Division status.
RIGA - Latvia has saved their best for last, narrowly avoiding relegation from the Elite Division at the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) World Championships in Slovakia. In a Championship that the Latvians went into full of hope, the team ultimately failed to fire, needing to beat Austria 4-1 in their final match on Sunday evening just to avoid relegation from the elite division.
With a roster dominated by players from Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) club Dinamo Riga, Latvia was expected to build on the success of that team’s fortunes, which had earlier this year reached the KHL conference semifinal stage for the second season running. Latvia was also expected to benefit from having no players involved in the ongoing National Hockey League (NHL) playoffs in North America, with the majority of other teams in Slovakia forced to send second string lineups, with front line players committed to their domestic duties in the NHL. However, neither of these factors came to fruition for Latvia, who managed to win just two of six games, leaving head trainer Olegs Znaroks in limbo as to whether he will continue coaching the team in the future.
Following the side’s third loss in pool play which sealed their fate to the elimination round, Znaroks told Russian media that, “I said it already before the World Championship that I’d have to think about whether to continue to work with [the] team or not. Most likely I’ll step down,” before adding, “I do this out of love, because I consider myself a patriot. I care about this team and I’ve known more than half of the players since they were just kids. It’s a shame that we got into this situation.”
Latvia showed promise in their opening game in Slovakia, going into the final period with reigning world champions, the Czech Republic, tied at two goals apiece. However, their defensive efforts broke down over the last 20 minutes as they went on to lose 4-2, only to then learn after the game that star defenseman, Arturs Kulda – the only North American-based player to travel with the team to Slovakia – would be suspended for 3 games following an unsportsmanlike check in the game’s opening period.
Up against the world’s fourth-ranked team, Finland, two nights later Latvia again put in a strong performance before allowing the Finns to tie the game at two goals apiece with under eight minutes remaining in regulation time. The match then needed to be decided in a shoot-out, at which point Finland was able to prevail.
Theoretically, Latvia only needed to win one game in pool play to go through to the playoff round, with Denmark the obvious target to achieve that. However, like their game against the Finns two evenings previous, Latvia could not finish off Denmark in regulation time, with the game again tied at two. Then, agonizingly once again, Latvia failed to secure the match in a shootout, allowing Denmark to claim their group’s third and final ticket to the playoffs. Even worse news for Latvia was the championship-ending injury sustained by star forward Lauris Darzins.
Playing against Slovenia in the opening match of the relegation round, the downtrodden Latvians failed to fire as they were easily accounted for 5-2 with two late goals required to put some form of respectability in the score line. It also left them needing nothing less than victory in their two remaining games if they were to avoid dropping out of the Elite Division – something that has never happened to a Latvian team since winning promotion to the top division in 1996.
The reality of the situation turned out to be all the motivation the team needed, with Arturs Kulda returning from suspension to help his side to a comprehensive 6-3 victory over Belarus, seeing them fight to see another day.
Going into the final night of relegation action on Sunday (May 8), Latvia came up against Austria, who also needed the win to avoid relegation. But Latvia refused to give their opponents a look in as Kaspars Saulietis provided an assist on one of Latvia’s two opening period goals, before scoring a goal apiece in each of the remaining two periods to set up the 4-1 victory.
Latvian Captain Herberts Vasiljevs would later contribute thoughts of relegation as the key motivating force behind the Latvian’s reverse of fortunes in their final two games. “When you go into a game thinking ‘don’t lose,’ then you’re going to lose. We came in with the thought we have to win it. That was the difference. We weren’t nervous. We went out and gave everything we had, and that’s the result.”
With an aging roster and Latvia’s next wave of young talent still to reach their prime, leading Canadian hockey writer Andrew Podnieks – who is of Latvian origin – warns Latvian fans that they may have to become accustomed to seeing their team go through the same nerve-wracking elimination process in the immediate future. Podnieks wrote on the tournament’s official Web site, iihf.com, that “…the Latvians are having a tough time keeping up with the big boys these days. The nation is waiting for some of its bright young stars to develop, and until then playing in relegation, rather than the playoffs, might be the norm.”
Next year’s World Championships are scheduled to be played a little closer to home, with Helsinki named to host both the 2012 and 2013 editions of the annual championships.