|National federation||Latvian Ice Hockey Federation|
|IIHF since||February 22, 1931|
|Top league||Latvian Hockey League|
|Current champion||HK Mogo|
Latvia is a country in the Baltic region of Northern Europe. Riga is the capital and largest city. Latvia was part of the Soviet Union from 1940 until it regained its independence in 1991.
|Latvian Championship||1931||1940||Defunct national championship|
|Latvian SSR Championship||1940||1991||Defunct Soviet-era competition|
|Latvian Hockey League||1991||-||Top-level national competition|
|Latvian 1. Līga||2014||-||Second-level national competition|
|Pirma Liga||1994||2003||Defunct second-level competition|
|Latvian junior competitions||-||Various junior competitions|
|Latvian Women's Hockey League||2004||-||National women's league|
History of hockey in Latvia
The first ice hockey game in Latvia was played on February 15, 1909, between the Baltic Germans and Unions won Schutzengartens (4-3 was the score). The teams had seven players apiece, the game was played on a 35x50m field, and several players had "Canadian ice hockey" sticks, while others played with bandy sticks. There were no boards. The match was contested under poor weather conditions, and by the end the puck resembled a snow ball.
Bandy was however the dominant sport in the country during this time period. According to the Latvian Bandy Federation, the first bandy games were played in the country in 1911. The first local bandy championships were staged in 1920. In 1923, Rīgas Airētāju (Riga sailing club) was crowned Latvian bandy champions.
The Latvian Ice Hockey Federation was founded on January 5, 1923, and the country became IIHF members eight years later, on February 22, 1931. Latvia was expelled from the IIHF in 1946 after the country's annexation by the Soviet Union. The Latvian Ice Hockey Federation was reinstated in 1991 after the country became independent, and they re-joined the IIHF on May 6, 1992.
In February 1924 Kenigsbergas VfK and Riga Airetaju played two games of "Canadian" ice hockey against each other (2-1 and 9-0). The same year the clubs LNJS (Latvijas Nacionala Jaunatnes Savieniba) and Union Riga emerged on the hockey scene. The LNJS team changed the name two years later to LZSS (Latvijas Ziemas Sporta Savieniba).
During the 1929-30 season the hockey in Latvia was further kick-started, especially around Riga and Liepaja. A person who helped to develop the hockey in Latvia was the Swede Sven Janzon. He had played elite hockey in his native Sweden during the 1920's and later even played professional hockey in Germany. Janzon came to Riga in the early 1930s where he for two years was a manager for a company in Riga.
German members of the Worker's Sports Union (SSS) helped further the move toward ice hockey. Three workers teams - Rīgas Centrs, Brīvības vārti, and Spēks, made the switch. The SSS (Worker's) Championship was first intended to be held in 1930, but did not materialize due to adverse weather conditions. It was contested annually four times from 1931-1934. On February 15, 1930, Rīgas Centrs took part in a match against the German Königsberg SSS unit. Several subsequent matches were arranged between Latvian and German SSS divisions.
The first match in Liepaja took place on February 21, 1930, with Olimpija Liepaja defeating Hokei Balten by a score of 2-1. A tournament involving three Liepaja-based civil societies was arranged. It was won by ASK Liepaja, who finished ahead of Olimpija and Balten.
Sven Janzon arranged a hockey camp on December 12, 1930 in Riga. The interest was lukewarm in the beginning but he managed to get enough interest in it that a five-team tournament was staged soon thereafter. The Latvian Championship was contested for the first time in 1931-32. Most of the league games at that time seldom attracted more than 500 curious spectators. The league was divided into separate Liepaja and Riga zones for the first two seasons, but due to the long travel distances to Riga, the Liepaja teams soon faded away.
Three clubs dominated the Latvian club hockey during the 1930s, sharing all the league titles: Union Riga, ASK Riga and US Riga. These three teams also provided the national team with all its players. During the 1940-41 season the US team changed its name to Dinamo Riga and won the league that year - the first season of the Latvian Republic. The ASK team changed its name to RDKA (Rizskij Dom Krasnoj Armiji). During the war years only three or four teams competed for the title.
The core of players were virtually the same in the Latvian league throughout the 1930's and 40's. After the war, seven of the best Latvian players went to Germany where they played for HC Augsburg: Alfons Ansons (goalie),Roberts Blukis, Kleinop, Eriks Koneckis, Ojars Ritum, Veidi and Leonids Vedejs. The Augsburg team was dubbed "Die Letten Mannschaft" (The Latvian Team) by the Germans and most of the players were pretty successful.
After the war the best Latvian teams played in the Soviet Championship League while the others took part in the Latvian SSR Championship. The best team in Latvia after the war was Dinamo Riga, who prior to 1946 was named Daugava Riga. In the 1990s they changed their name several times; first to HC Riga, then Riga Stars and Pardaugava Riga.
They finished in fourth place in the Soviet league three times (1947,1948 and 1977). The white and light blue Dinamo played a very technical and fast hockey. Their legendary coach during the 1970s was long-time Soviet National Team and HC CSKA Moscow coach Viktor Tikhonov, who was one of the first in Europe to use four lines when he coached Dinamo in the 1970s.
The Dinamo team relied heavily on their goalie Mikhail Vasilenok who played over 300 league games. Another reliable player was Vyacheslav Nazarov who played over 400 league games, Valeri Odinstsov and Victor Khatulev. Khatulev was the first ever Russian to be drafted by an NHL team (Philadelphia 1975). But all these guys were Russians. One of the best Latvian players during the 1970's was Yuri Reps who even represented Soviet Union on a couple of occasions. But the brightest star was undoubtedly Helmuts Balderis. Balderis was one of the fastest skaters in hockey history during the days when he represented the Soviet national team (130 times - 58 goals). He was dubbed "The Greyhound from Riga" and thanks to his incredible skating he was drafted in the NHL as a 37 year old by Minnesota North Stars in 1989.
The Latvian Hockey League was staged in independent Latvia for the first time during the 1991-92 season. Eight teams participated in the inaugural season. The Saga and Pardaugava teams both shared the league lead with 23 points and had to play a game vs each other to determine a champion. HK Sāga Ķekava Riga won 8-6 and became the first champions after independence.
In 1993 and 1994 it was Pardaugava Riga who won the league. In 1993 the team almost exclusively had junior players on the squad. In 1993 there were 15 teams competing for the title but un 1994 they were only seven. Worth noting is that in 1993 the 40-year old Helmuts Balderis won the scoring championship with 142 points (76+66) in only 28 games. His line-mate was also a 40-year old named Mikhails Abalmasovs who finished 5th with 69 points (30+39) in 28 games. Their team Latvijas Zelts (Latvian Veterans) finished second in the league 1993.
In 1995 HK Nik's Brih Riga won the league easily, collecting 44 out of 48 points and had a goal difference of 203-93. In 1996 it was the Riga Allianse that won. 43-year old Helmuts Balderis finished fourth in scoring with 54 points (18+36) in 30 games. Not bad for a 43-year old. In 1997 Latvijas Bērzs Essamika took the title after winning 18 out of the 20 league games. Nik's Brih repeated as champions in 1998 and 1999, but after 2000, HK Liepājas Metalurgs and HK Riga 2000 dominated the league.
Pardaugava Riga also played in the International Hockey League until it folded in 1995. A new Dinamo Riga squad was established in 2008 and has participated in the Kontinental Hockey League since its inaugural 2008-09 season. Domestically, three straight first-time champions were crowned between 2013 and 2015, with HK SMScredit, HK Prizma Riga, and HK Mogo, respectively, winning.
The men's national team made its international debut on February 27, 1932, defeating Lithuania in a friendly by a score of 3-0. The first goalscorer ever was Johans Skadins , the second goal came from Alfreds Verners and the third and last goal was scored by the captain of the team, defenseman Indrikis Reinbahs.
A few weeks later, Latvia participated in the 1932 European Championship, finishing in eighth place. The following year, they played in their first World Championship, finishing in eighth place. Prior to being annexed by the Soviet Union, they also participated in the 1935, 1938, and 1939 World Championships. Latvia also took part in the 1936 Winter Olympics tournament, held in Garmisch-Patenkirchen, Germany. They finished in last place after failing to win a game.
The most successful player in Latvia during the 1930s was defenseman Leonids Vedejs who played in 34 of the 36 international games that Latvia played. After World War II, Vedejs moved to Germany where he played with several other countrymen on the aforementioned HC Augsburg club. His career was unfortunately cut short due to a serious injury. Another prominent player was Roberts Blukis who represented Latvia in 32 games. Blukis went on to play for Augsburg Germany after the war like Vedejs did.
Erik Konecki was another unforgettable Latvian player who was one of the best players in Germany during the late 1940's and early 50's. He couldn't represent Germany because he had already represented Latvia earlier on (1939). He was one of the seven Latvian players that played for HC Augsburg during the 1940's. He later became the coach for the German national team. Latvia's final international game came on March 10, 1940 at home in Riga against Estonia, a 2-1 win for Latvia. The goals were scored by Voldemars Sulmanis and the last one in 52 years by Karlis Muske.
After independence, Latvia made its comeback on November 7, 1992 against Lithuania in a qualification game for the C-Pool. The Lithuanians were also Latvia's first international opponents during their first independence period. Latvia had no problems and beat Lithuania quite easily 13-2 and 6-3, and qualified for the 1993 World Championship C Pool. The Latvians were coached by Helmuts Balderis. After the two qualification games against Lithuania the Latvians played two friendly games against Finland, losing one 6-3 and surprisingly winning one 6-3. The 40-year old Balderis played in these two friendly games, fulfilling a life long dream to represent Latvia. He had 4 points (2+2) in the 2 games against Finland and was probably the best Latvian player. The Latvians also played games vs Austria (5-2), France (7-3), Norway (6-1) and Poland (3-2) that season.
At the 1993 C Pool, hosted by Slovenia, Latvia tied Ukraine 5-5 and swept by North Korea 4-0, Belgium 26-3, South Korea 27-0. and Israel 32-0 in the preliminary round. Latvia qualified for the semifinals where they faced the host Slovenians. The game was virtually over after the 1st period when Latvia's Aleksei Frolikov's scored a natural hat trick to give Latvia a 3-0 lead. The Slovenes fought bravely and bombarded the Latvian goalie Sergei Naumovs with 39 shots, but to no avail. Latvia won the game 5-1 and advanced to the finals. In the final Latvia, edged out Ukraine 2-0 after some splendid goaltending from both teams The game wasn't decided until in the 3rd period when Artis Abols scored the second goal and secured a ticket to the 1994 B-Pool.
After two consecutive second-place finishes in the B Pool, Latvia earned promotion to the Top Division after winning the 1996 tournament. Latvia beat Great Britain 6-5, Japan 6-1, Denmark 5-3, Belarus 4-1, Poland 4-2, Netherlands 15-3 and they tied Switzerland 1-1. The tie vs Switzerland was enough to secure first place. The heroes for Latvia in that game was NHL goalie Arturs Irbe who made some spectacular saves and Oleg Znaroks who scored the equalizer 13 minutes from the end.
Latvia has played in the top-tier of the World Championships ever since, finishing as high as seventh place in 1997 and 2004. They qualified for the 2002 Winter Olympics, Latvia's first Olympic appearance since 1936. The Latvians have played at every Olympic tournament since then, and only lost to the juggernaut Canadians 2-1 in the quarterfinals in 2014. A stellar performance by goaltender Kristers Gudļevskis was mostly to thank for this closer-than-expected result.
Some of the best Latvian players of all-time have been: Arvids Petersons, Roberts Blukis, Eriks Koneckis, Leonid Vedejs, Helmuts Balderis, Yuri Reps, Arturs Irbe, Sandis Ozolinsh, Sergei Zholtok, Sergejs Naumovs, Alexander Semjonovs, Aigars Cipruss, Alexander Beliavskis, Alexander Kerch, Harijs Vitolinsh, Leonid Tambijevs, Grigorijs Pantelejevs, Olegs Znaroks, Karlis Skrastins, and Peteris Skudra.
The women's national team made its debut in 1992, playing in the IIHF European Women Championships Pool B Qualification tournament. They participated in the European Championships from 1993-1996. Latvia has taken part in the IIHF World Women's Championships every year since 1999. The women's national team has never qualified for the Olympic Games.
The junior national team participated in the IIHF World U20 Championship Group C Qualification tournaments in 1992 and 1993. They first played in the Group C tournament in 1994. Latvia has participated in the Top Division of the world juniors on five occasions.
Special thanks to Patrick H. for supplying information on this country.