Hockey is a very popular sport in Latvia, sharing a number one position with football. But when the national hockey teams of Latvia and Russia meet everything else stands still – pride and prestige are at stake.
Hockey began to be played in Latvia in the 1920’s. In 1932, Latvians took part in a significant international tournament for the first time. In their first games at the 17th European Championship in <st1:State>Berlin</st1:State> they lost to Czechoslovakia 7-0 and to France 1-0 and as a result did not advance from their group. It was a year later in Prague, at the 7th World Championship when the wait for their first international goal ended – and it was Switzerland who were on the receiving end. Another important moment came a year later in Davos, where the Latvians first played against Canada, represented then by the Winnipeg Monarchs. The first Latvian victory in an international game was elusive up until Prague in 1938 when the Latvians beat Norway 3-1 and they finished fourth in the Group B table. A year later, Latvia won a match with Yugoslavia, even earning a shut-out but their performance was still not enough to be considered among the world’s best. In 1939, the Latvians played in an international tournament as an independent state for what was to be a long time – from the 1940’s they became one of the fifteen republics of the USSR.
An interesting thing is that even though the Latvians had been sending their players to the World or European Championships, domestic competitions existed only in a very limited manner and clubs started to be formed there mostly only after World War II. There are now 59 clubs in Latvia, and competitions are played in 11 stadiums. For instance the most famous Latvian club – Daugava Riga – dates its birth from the year 1946. Its players, proudly wearing the team’s blue and white, participated from 1947 even for the championship of the USSR. They have always been a credit to Latvian hockey. In comparison with the Russians, the Latvians had an advantage – right after the war they knew more about hockey and their players had gone through training and exhibition games as well. Daugava, which was re-named Dynamo in 1968, kept itself at the top of the table and managed to instil fear even in such clubs as Moscow’s fabled CSKA. From time to time, the team’s coaching staff came up with some interesting innovations – Dynamo Riga, for example, was the first team in the world to experiment with four forward lines. Even the national team of the Soviet Union were understandably interested in the Latvians and their approach. Probably the name Helmut Balderis means the most to the memory of the Latvian sporting public.
Fans all across Latvia always kept their fingers crossed for Riga in duels with the teams from the Russian part of the USSR. But for a long time they had nothing to cheer about when the Latvian national team played a Russian national team.
In 1993, Latvia played in Group C of the World Championship where all the new states of the former USSR (as well as Slovakia) were placed. But the Latvians did not stay in the third tier of the tournament for long – in 1997, the Latvians moved for the first time to Group A of the World Championship. Finland, always a thorn in Latvian hockey’s side showed up in force too. None of the players who came to play for Latvia in 1997 played in the Latvian league. The goalies Irbe, Naumovs, and Skudra played overseas, the defensemen came from all different parts of the world, from Litvínov of the Czech league to Colorado of the NHL – and among the forwards there was even one player playing in Bejing! The Latvians lost their first match – with the United States 5-4. They picked up their first point in Group A of the World Championship in their third group game against Canada (3-3), and only a day later, their first victory came (against Norway 6-2). Even though the team, loudly supported by hundreds of fans, missed advancing to the next group by two points, in the end they finished a very respectable seventh.
In later years the Latvians have taken a bite out of the other teams and they have confirmed many times that they quite deserve their place among the best sixteen teams in the world. In 2000, as goalie Arturs Irbe has described it, “One of the most famous and most beautiful days in Latvian history occurred.” – at the World Championship in St. Petersburg, the Latvians beat the favoured Russian team 3-2 and slammed the door shut to the quarter-finals for the home team.
You can find the results and the calendar of 2003/04 season HERE
Latvia has never won a medal at either the World Championship or the Olympic Games.