International Ice Hockey Federation

Latvia adds youth and energy

Latvia adds youth and energy

Bob Hartley brings fresh approach

Published 09.05.2017 14:28 GMT+2 | Author John Sanful
Latvia adds youth and energy
Young Latvian players Andris Dzerins (#25), Rihards Bukarts (#14) and Uvis Balinskis (#26) celebrate after the 3-0 win over Denmark. Photo: Andre Ringuette / HHOF-IIHF Images
Like most teams, Latvia needs to get younger and continue building the national team while keeping up with its international competitors.

Latvia enters this tournament with many new faces in the line-up.

When head coach Bob Hartley joined Latvia, one of the things he sought to do was blend veterans with newcomers who could help the team win. Among this squad, Hartley has been praised for bringing professionalism and an NHL ethos based on character, confidence and team play.

After cutting the roster down, Hartley put together a line-up that was comprised of veterans and many first timers. There are three players who have gotten their first ever World Championship minutes and another who has not yet, but with the team. And two of their goaltenders have made the trip in the past but have not played.

In choosing to go with a few more young players, Hartley asked them to put their selection in perspective to build their confidence.

“I sat some of these guys down and told them: 'Think about everyone you know who plays hockey here who you think could play for the national team. And when you do remember you are here because you’ve earned this spot. You belong on this team.'”

One such player who has shown he belongs is Rihards Bukarts. 21-year-old Bukarts is leading Latvia in scoring with three assists. He’s shown that he can play at this level and does so with confidence. Bukarts set up Zemgus Girgensons' game-winning goal against Slovakia. He joins his brother Roberts, who is a four-time participant at the World Championship, and received the secondary assist on the Girgensons goal.

20-year-old Uvis Balinskis has an assist while skating over 13 minutes per game. Balinskis saw action in 21 games for Dinamo Riga in the Kontinental Hockey League.

“Any player who is on a national team at the World Championship is here because they earned the right. They should have confidence in their abilities and represent their country proudly,” Hartley said of his team.

As Latvia works new players into the line-up, experienced hands remain important contributors. Janis Sprukts, who made his debut as a 17-year-old at the 2000 World Championship, has participated in all but five during that time. Elvis Merzlikins is now in his second tournament and playing some of his best hockey of the season by elevating his play.

Merzlikins’ success means he will carry the load here in Germany but Ivars Punnenovs and Janis Kalnins are available should they be needed. If either Punnenovs or Kalnins sees some game time, it will be the debut for either or both goaltenders. Both have been third goaltenders at previous tournaments.

Buffalo’s inability to qualify for the NHL postseason has been Latvia’s gain as Girgensons has put on the national team sweater four of the last five years.

So now Latvia finds itself in a position where they’ve collected six points after two games heading into their contest with Italy. They’ve put themselves in a good position with their two wins. But tough games are coming against Russia, Sweden and the United States. They will be tested and it will be fascinating to see how their young charges handle the pressure.



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