Latvia, Lithuania join forces
by Martin Merk|11 AUG 2022
Reigning Latvian champion Zemgale Jelgava will be busy playing in the Latvian OHL, the Finnish Mestis and the IIHF Continental Cup.
photo: Guntis Lazdans
The Russian invasion of Ukraine is also the end of clubs from west of Russia in the Kontinental Hockey League with the withdrawal of Dinamo Riga und Jokerit Helsinki in the Russian-based league. For the 2022/2023 this means a drastic change of the hockey landscape in Latvia as many Latvian national team players played their club hockey with the team.

Now the picture of what the future of club hockey will look like has become clearer. On Wednesday the Latvian Hockey Federation and its Lithuanian counterpart Hockey Lietuva made the announcement to join forces with teams from both countries set to compete in Latvia’s top circuit OHL.

For the new season the Dinamo Riga brand will continue to exist as club in the Latvian league that will include nine teams. Among the participants remains Latvian champion Zemgale/LLU Jelgava, which, however, will also enter a team in Finland’s second-tier league Mestis in addition to representing the country in the IIHF Continental Cup.

The other Latvian teams are regular-season winner Mogo/LSPA Riga, HS Riga, DLSS/Dinaburga Daugava and Prizma Riga. However, HK Liepaja and Olimp/Venta Riga won’t compete in the OHL anymore next season.

The changes in the landscape also led to discussions with clubs from the Baltic neighbours. Further south from the border the top-three teams from Lithuania will join the now open Latvian championship. Traditional club Energija Elektrenai, alma mater of former NHLers Dainius Zubrus and Darius Kasparaitis, will return to the Latvian league where it used to play until 2012 and will be joined by two clubs from the big cities nearby, Lithuanian champion Hockey Punks Vilnius and Kaunas City.

“We are pleased to expand the territory of the OHL and increase the total number of teams. The participation of Lithuanian teams will definitely help further popularize and develop hockey in the Baltic region,” said Latvian Hockey Federation President Aigars Kalvitis.

“I have no doubt that the joint Lithuanian and Latvian ice hockey league will further increase the interest in this sport in both countries and will help raise the general level of ice hockey. For our teams it is a great opportunity to compete in a championship of higher level, and hockey fans will be able to see many interesting encounters with our neighbors," said Zubrus, who chairs the Lithuanian ice hockey association Hockey Lietuva.

It will be the first time in ten years that the top Latvian men’s league will open for foreign clubs from its neighbouring countries. In recent years the same has already happened in women’s hockey where the Hockey Stars Vilnius finished in fourth place.

The OHL season with 144 regular-season games will start on 3 September with nine teams of which eight will advance to the quarter-finals next spring. The league will also determine the national champions with the top Latvian and the top Lithuanian OHL team becoming recognized as national champion of their respective country.

With Latvian hockey putting the focus more on its domestic league and cooperation with its closest neighbouring countries after the end of the KHL era in the country, Lithuania will get a chance to further popularize hockey. During the past ten years more teams have competed in Lithuania and the pool of hockey players almost tripled. Lithuania has never played in the top division since its only participation in 1938 but has come close last spring by finishing the 2022 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group A in third place behind promoted teams Slovenia and Hungary.