5 reasons Latvia is playing for a medal
by Derek O'Brien|28 MAY 2023
photo: © International Ice Hockey Federation / Matt Zambonin

When the 2023 IIHF World Championship began, the co-host Latvians were given a slight chance to reach the quarter-finals but not much to go beyond – after all, they never had before. And yet here they are, dusting themselves off after a very respectable 4-2 loss to Canada and ready for a game against the USA with the bronze medal at stake – it would be the first-ever medal for the hockey-crazt nation of 1.8 million.

But how have they reached this position? Here are five reasons why.

Veteran leadership

Latvia is one of the oldest and most experienced teams at this tournament. Coming into this year, six players had played in at least eight World Championships and three had played in 10 or more – Andris Dzerins, Ronalds Kenins and captain Kaspars Daugavins. That group has seen some success, such as reaching the quarter-finals at both the Olympics and World Championships in 2018, as well as a lot of near misses.

“Kaspars, you know, he’s seen a lot,” Rudolfs Balcers said about the team captain. “He’s played a lot of hockey in his years and he knows the game and how to step up in the big moments. I think that leadership he brings to the group is unreal for us.”

Penalty killing

On the opening night of the tournament, Canada scored a power-play goal in its second opportunity of the game against Latvia. Since then, the Latvians have killed off 27 consecutive penalties. At 28-for-29, that gives Latvia a tournament-best 96.55 per cent penalty-killing rate. A lot of that comes down to goaltending and the will of the players to take away shooting lanes and block shots. It’s a good thing that their PK is so strong because they’ve spent 52:28 shorthanded through nine games, which is second-most in the tournament.

Arturs Silovs

Last year, Arturs Silovs was Latvia’s backup goaltender behind Elvis Merzlikins. However, after two impressive relief appearances, he was given an all-important start in the last game against Sweden, which the Latvians had to win to keep their quarter-final hopes alive. Although the Latvians lost 1-0, Silovs did all he could, stopping 34 shots.

This year, the 22-year-old Vancouver Canucks prospect has proven that last year was no abberition. He entered Latvia’s first game against Canada in relief and has played every minute ever since. As the Latvians won six in a row, Silovs stole at least a couple of them. Also, the team has gotten progressively better throughout the tournament, but that’s what happens when the players have confidence in their last line of defence.

The Latvian fans

It may seem like a flimsy answer, but the Latvian team would not be in Tampere this weekend if it hasn’t been for their fans in Riga for their first eight games. The Latvian players have stressed the boost their fans have given them repeatedly throughout the tournament. They appreciate the support so much that they will do anything to win for them.

Ralfs Friebergs said: “We have the best fans in the world. When it’s hard, they make it easy.” When Daugavins was asked what happened after the team lost its first two games, he said: “Our backs were against the wall and we’re at home. We owe it to our fans, they’re buying tickets, spending big money to come watch us.”

While they’re not at home anymore on the final weekend, plenty of Latvians have followed them to Finland, where they continue to get solid support.

They believe in themselves

This is really a culmination of all the previous reasons. Veteran leadership, great penalty-killing, superb goaltending and the will to skate through walls for their fans produced a string of six straight victories, and winning begets more winning. They know they can do it.

As Daugavins said after the quarter-final victory over Sweden: “I think for years we’ve believed that we could do it but we always came up a little bit short. But we believed, we kept going, and the character we have on this team paid off. Now we’re taking it step by step and we’ll see what happens.”