Team Latvia is the clear favourite in one category at this year’s World Juniors. They’re the favourite underdog of fans watching games in Kelowna and Kamloops. This is the first time a team from Latvia has competed in an IIHF World Junior Hockey Championship, after winning the right to compete here last year in the 2005 World U20 Championship Division I Group B tournament with a record of four wins and one tie.
Unfortunately, so far all the Latvians have for their hard work in BC is three losses. But thanks to the solid goaltending of 18-year-old Ugis Avotins, the Latvians may yet be able to surprise a few people and pull off an upset against Sweden.
Latvia is a small European country on the Baltic Sea, bordering on Russia, Lithuania, Belarus, and Estonia. Its capital city, Riga, is where most of this year’s U20 team plays professionally. And Latvia’s population of 2.7 million also includes many great hockey fans, said Avotins
“Hockey is very big in Latvia, so just being at the tournament is a big success,” said Avotins, through the aid of translator Maris Baldondieks.
“We know we’re not the top team here, but our goal is to win and stay here as long as possible,” continued Avotins with an optimistic smile. “Anything can happen.”
The Latvian squad, mostly 18- and 19-year-olds, is comprised of 16 players from the club HK Riga 2000. This core has been supplemented with two players from the QMJHL’s Moncton Wildcats, Martin Karsums and Oskars Bartulis, and a handful of others from various European teams.
The Latvian World Junior team, in addition to aiming for success at the U20 level, is also using the tournament to prepare for the IIHF World Hockey Championship, where some of these same players may see action in front of a wildly supportive home crowd. That tournament will run May 5-21 in Riga, featuring the world’s top 16 hockey nations.
At 6-1 and a slender 154 pounds, Avotins doesn’t exactly fill the net, but he’s steady and moves well. He’s already seen a lot of rubber at this tournament. He withstood a 39-shot onslaught versus the Czechs. He gave up five goals, but many of the stops he did make were highlight reel material.
An added benefit of playing in the World Juniors is the exposure the tournament brings to the players. “It’s a good possibility to show everybody off, and myself of course,” said Avotins. Though he is still undrafted, he does hope to play in the NHL one day.
Unlike much of his goaltending brethren, Avotins doesn’t subscribe to any quirky superstitions, but he does have one hang-up: he prefers to be the last player from his team to hit the ice, whereas most teams send their goalie out first. He doesn’t have any major idols, but does try to learn something from all goalies, which he’s been doing since he started playing hockey at age six.
After praising the play of Avotins at a post-game news conference following his team’s game versus the Czechs, Latvian Head Coach Olegs Znaroks also said through a translator that he wished to thank the fans for all their support. An enthusiastic crowd in Kamloops had cheered his team on, and for that, he was very appreciative, he said.
The team’s translator, Maris Baldonieks, does quadruple duty. “I’m a coach, translator, general manager and trainer,” said Baldonieks. His numerous job titles are necessary because the Latvians are a “small contingent,” in his words. That may be true, but what the Latvians lack in size, they more than lack up for in enthusiasm and heart--oh, and fan support too.