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Latvians look to new generation to lead in Vancouver

by Bill Meltzer
Ranked No. 11 in the world, Team Latvia is used to playing at the elite level internationally.

The 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver will mark Latvia's third consecutive appearance at the Olympics as an independent country. Latvia easily earned a spot in Vancouver after sweeping through a qualification tournament it hosted in Riga. In front of large, partisan crowds, Latvia dispatched Italy, Ukraine and Hungary.

For many years the Latvian national team relied heavily on a veteran core that trained under the former Soviet system. Most notably, goaltender Arturs Irbe and defenseman Sandis Ozolinsh were the team's marquee talents. But the passage of time and the end of these players' careers have thrust Latvia into a transitional phase. National team general manager Maris Baldonieks and coach Olegs Znaroks successfully have navigated the challenge to guide Latvia to yet another Olympic appearance.

There are just a few Latvian players in the NHL, among whom only veteran defenseman Karlis Skrastins and enforcer Raitis Ivanans are regular starters for their teams. Those players, along with forwards Janis Sprukts and Martins Karsums and Philadelphia Flyers defense prospect Oskars Bartulis, likely are candidates for roster spots in Vancouver. Sprukts and Karsums Latvia through the qualifiers in Riga; Sprukts led the squad with 7 points in three games, while Karsums had 4 goals and 2 assists.

Latvia still has some of its old guard of players available. Goaltender Sergei Naumov, 40, plays for Dinamo Riga. Naumov, who played in various North American minor leagues from 1994-2001, likely will play for another year in order to participate in his third Olympics. Likewise, national team stalwarts and Dinamo Riga teammates Aleksandrs Nizivijs, Girts Ankipans and Aigars Cipruss all will be called upon in Vancouver, assuming they stay healthy.

Veteran Herbert Vasiljevs, a former NHLer who currently plays in Germany's DEL for the Krefeld Penguins, remains one of Latvia's key leaders; he'll be 33 when the Olympics start. Vasiljevs frequently played with Sprukts and Karsums in the qualification tournament.

One-time Nashville Predators prospect Lauris Darzins is another certain selection. Now with Dinamo Riga, Darzins scored 2 goals at the 2009 World Championships and scored 3 goals in three games during the Olympic qualification tourney. By the time the Olympics roll around, the left wing will be 24 and just entering the prime of his international career.

Former AHL defenseman Arvids Reikis, who will be 31 when the Olympics start, also is a lock for the team. Reikis, who now plays in the DEL for Grizzly Adams Wolfsburg, led all Latvia players in ice time at the 2009 World Championships.

Dinamo Riga defenseman Krisjanis Redlihs also may have a spot in the starting blue line, in part because he can match size (6-foot-3, 190 pounds) with some of the bigger forwards Latvia will face. He had 2 assists in the Olympic qualifiers and averaged over 17 minutes of ice time at the 2009 World Championships.

Beyond this group of players, Baldonieks and Znaroks will call upon a group of players in their early to mid 20s to attempt to lead Latvia to an upset or two in Vancouver. One such player is young defenseman Kristaps Sotnieks. The Dinamo Riga blueliner, who will be 22 next year, played big minutes in the Olympic qualifier in Riga. He led the team with a plus-5 rating in the three games, along with his 22-year-old defense partner, Guntis Galvins, also of Dinamo Riga.

While Latvia has little hope of winning any medals in Vancouver, the national team rarely goes down without a fight. What's more, Latvia arguably has the most rabid core of fans of any national team. Wherever Latvia travels, a devoted contingent of hockey-loving zealots follow. Although usually outnumbered in any arena outside Riga, the Latvian cheering section inevitably makes its presence known. The flag-waving, jersey-wearing, face-painted, chanting, singing devotees typically manages to make more noise than much larger rooting sections for other teams.

The chants of "Saruj Latvija!" will ring out loud and clear in Vancouver. Win or lose, the Latvian players have a tradition of saluting their fans at the conclusion of each game. Many of the Latvian players have credited the boundless energy of their cheering section with the team's trademark never-say-die approach to the game. Latvia probably won't win many games in Vancouver, but they will compete passionately for 60 minutes every match.
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