Hockey phenomenon may end soon…By J. Michael Lyons, RIGAWhile Latvia's hockey officials are lobbying in Germany this week to host the 2006 Ice Hockey World Championships, its questionable whether the national team will be worthy to pla

  • 2001-05-03
  • J. Michael Lyons
RIGA - While Latvia's hockey officials are lobbying in Germany this week to host the 2006 Ice Hockey World Championships, its questionable whether the national team will be worthy to play in it by then.

The collapse of the Soviet Union, with its seemingly endless supply of money for sports programs, delivered a serious blow to the future of hockey in Latvia.

The country's Soviet-trained players are aging and its currently doubtful whether their replacements will be able to maintain the level of hockey Latvia's fans have come to expect.

"This will be the last world championships for a lot of these guys and after that it's hard to say what will happen," said Ugis Magonis, former president of the Latvian Ice Hockey Federation, who grew up with players on today's team.

With an average age of 30, Latvia has the oldest roster at this year's world championships.

Five players, including star goalie Arturs Irbe, are 33 or older.

The Czechs, the two-time defending world champions, have only one player over 30, as do the Russians.

Many of Latvia's players are hanging around to man the country's first Olympic hockey team in 66 years next year in Salt Lake City.

The Olympics, observers believe, will turn a page in Latvian hockey and fans might not like the next chapter.

The names they revere – Irbe, Sandis Ozolins, Sergei Zoltok – grew up in the Soviet system with its scores of hockey schools and professional teams.

With the former Soviet Union's extensive network of teams and leagues, players didn't have to leave home to play against some of the world's best hockey talent.

Along with talent it also supplied the second most important element in sports - money.

Young players now are struggling even to pay for ice time to practice.

Latvia's crop of young talent is facing a blight.

"We have maybe only a few young guys that are at this team's level," said Arturs Vaiders, sports editor at the daily newspaper Diena. "Even next year will be very difficult."

Latvia could produce the talent, Vaiders and others believe, if they could find the money to cultivate it.

Hockey suppliers estimate it costs an average of 450 lats to fully equip a young player, a figure more than twice the average monthly wage.

Getting that same player on quality ice in one of Riga's aging rinks and providing him or her decent coaching is another 25 lats a month.

Meanwhile, warmer winters have shortened ice time for young players in the countryside who hone their skills on Latvia's hundreds of lakes. They, too, increasingly have to pay to play and most can't afford it.

During Soviet rule the government paid for everything, from skate laces to goalie pads.

Now the costs fall on the parents.

"I can't understand how people can afford it," said Dmitri Yeryomin, who runs a local hockey gear supplier.

A former scout in Latvia and Russia for the NHL's Boston Bruins, Yeryomin has seen some of Latvia's best young players leave the country to play in well-funded junior leagues in Scandinavia and North America.

"When they turn 15 or 16 they're better off leaving for, say, Finland to find competition," he said.

But the number of players good enough to play abroad is dwindling, he said.

And Latvia's professional teams, once some of the best in the former Soviet Union, are suffering from a dearth of talent.

Fans would wait in line for tickets overnight in the 1970s and 1980s to see teams like Dynamo Riga and others play the best teams from Russia and Eastern Europe.

But the quality of the teams has deteriorated and so has the pay, forcing Latvia's best players, including virtually the entire national team, to play elsewhere.

"Our teams can't compete with the level of life abroad," said Magonis.

Teams in Russia and Finland offer top players $300,000 a year or more and a lifestyle to go with it. But teams like Liepajas Metalurgs, one of the few professional teams left in Latvia, offer low pay in a hardscrabble port city.

"(Players) play hockey in the day and old slot machines at night," said Magonis. "There's nothing else to do."

Once the president of Latvia's hockey governing body and now among its staunchest critics, Magonis believes it pays too much attention to the national team, to the detriment of player development.

The only funding the government provides hockey is bonuses to the national team following the world championships, he said.

Likewise, the federation's fundraising efforts are all directed at the national team.

The solution, he said, is to convince local businesses and the government that if they don't start funding young players the national team won't be worth watching.

"Our aim should be to support these poor kids who can play," he said.

The lack of funding for youth hockey has led Magonis to question Latvia's hope to host the world championships in 2006, a quest which has prompted federation officials to press as many palms as possible in Hannover and Cologne over the next two weeks.

the country will need a minimum of two 10,000 seat arenas.

The largest arena in Latvia presently is Riga's 4,500-seat dinosaur Sporta Pils.

"Hopefully we will still have a team," he said.