EDMONTON- “We have just made history!”
Indeed, Martins Lavins.
After posting an all-time 0-27 record in the round robin, Latvia clinched their first preliminary round game in the top division with a 5-2 major win over Czechia on Sunday, the final game of the first round team. It also meant they were in the quarter-finals for the first time, sending Slovakia home a month after the team produced three first-round NHL prospects – all who chose to stay home. .
Defender Ralfs Bergmanis was the hero for Latvia, with the University of Vermont captain scoring a hat trick to lead the way. Lavins and Rainers Rullers scored the first two goals of the game on just four shots for Latvia early in the game.
Latvia needed to win the game by any means to move past Slovakia, who beat Latvia in a shootout earlier in the week. If the Slovaks had won in 60, Latvia’s win tonight wouldn’t have had the same impact.
It’s all incredible, and it’s even more incredible given the context.
When Latvia defeated Kazakhstan on Dec. 18, 2021 to close out the Division IA World Junior Championship, it looked like the end of the road for most team alumni.
A total of 13 players born in 2002 took part in what seemed to be their last junior tournament. They won the money, so they just missed the promotion. That honor went to Belarus, who had a perfect 5-0 record, highlighted by a 2-1 win over the Latvians on day three of the tournament.
That’s it. It’s finish. Try again next year.
And then, a few months later, everything changed dramatically. Russia was expelled from the top tournament due to invading Ukraine, and Belarus was not allowed to replace them. Latvia were heading to the 2023 World Junior Championship, wherever it takes place.
But wait. The 2022 tournament was yet to be replayed, and they were heading there as well.
Thus, for the very first time, a team participated in two different Junior World Championship tournaments in different divisions in the same year.
Saint Molly. And without expectations – there is no relegation this year – they have achieved the unthinkable.
“It’s a dream come true,” Lavins said after the game. “We knew we had just done something special, and it’s an amazing feeling to share something like that.”
Nor was the victory a fluke. The Czechs had more shots, but Latvia took advantage of every opportunity. And that’s exactly what they did throughout the tournament, giving Canada and Finland — two gold-medal favorites — a few tantrums along the way. They even scored the first goal against Slovakia. In all four games, the Latvians were outplayed and outplayed, but they worked hard, had some promising moments and got some good goalkeepers from Bruno Bruveris – the goalkeeper on Sunday – and substitute Patriks Berzins.
“I’m very proud to be part of this special moment for us, it’s amazing,” Bruveris said. “We’re like family in the locker room, and that’s the most important thing you need to play hockey because it’s a team sport.”
The “family” mantra was evident in the press mixing area after the match, with a few players gathered for a big hug while answering questions in English.
“We play as hard as we can, we know we don’t have as much talent as other teams. We just play with our hearts,” Lavins said with a big smile.
Latvian fans have always been known to be among the best in international hockey, traveling to events no matter where. Riga hosted the 2021 World Men’s Hockey Championship, but without fans due to COVID-19. That year, however, Latvia scored one of the greatest victories in team history when they beat Canada to open the tournament thanks to an incredible effort from promising young goalkeeper Matiss Kivlenieks.
Kivlenieks was tragically killed in a fireworks accident a few months later, and fans have been paying tribute to him ever since, with some wearing shirts bearing his name in Sunday’s historic win.
Latvia will co-host the 2023 World Championship with Finland, so they will have another chance to show how dedicated they are to the hockey market.
“We heard them in the stands, they were so loud,” Lavins said. “It keeps us going. It’s amazing. All the positive messages from the fans in Latvia, it’s a joy to play for them.”
But back to the junior team, it’s hard not to smile watching these young men celebrate. Several players said they didn’t feel any pressure in this tournament, so it was all about getting out there, playing their game and learning for the future. A total of 16 players — including the three NHL picks and potential 2023 selections Rodzers Bukarts and Niks Fenenko — are eligible to return for the next tournament later this year. Six players can return for 2024, and Peteris Bulans can even return in 2025, if Latvia are still in the Premier League by then.
This group truly believes that they can accomplish anything with hard work.
Latvia will be in trouble in the quarter-finals, facing Sweden or the United States, two favorites for the gold medal. But the team feels they can take on anyone and aren’t afraid of the challenges ahead – no one picked them to beat Czechia, after all.
And, huh? Why not? Part of the beauty of this tournament is that anything can happen. Ask Lavins.
“We’re not done yet, there’s a lot of fight left in us,” Lavins said.