THN in Sochi: Latvia vs Canada – David, meet Goliath

Ken Campbell
Ozolinsh and Latvians

SOCHI – When Canada steps on the ice Wednesday night against Latvia it will be David vs. Goliath. Even Ted Nolan, who coaches the Latvians, thinks that. It will take a miracle of biblical proportions for the Latvians to duplicate the future king of Israel’s rock-throwing feats. But if there’s any team with the constitution and level of confidence to be up to the task, it’s the Latvians.

“They’re not going to have an easy day, that’s for sure,” said Zemgus Girgensons, Latvia’s only current NHL player, said of Canada. “It’s nothing to lose for us.”

The Olympic hockey tournament that keeps delivering the unpredictable did not disappoint once again when the Latvians shocked Switzerland by beating them 3-1 in the qualifying game, with the winner getting rewarded by facing a rested Canadian team 21 hours later. But led by the indefatigable Sandis Ozolinsh and the unfailingly optimistic Nolan, the Latvians will come into the game brimming with vigor and confidence.

This is a really, really interesting team. It starts with the 41-year-old captain Ozolinsh, who carried a Kalashnikov as a teenage member of the Soviet Red Army and won a gold medal with the Soviets in the 1992 World Junior Championship. He then went to the NHL where he won a Stanley Cup, earned $38 million and played more than 800 games before retiring, then coming back to help his country qualify for the Olympics.

And it goes through the lineup right to Nolan, who has an uncanny ability to make his players believe in themselves, even when reason would tell them not to. For example, he said this after the game: “We’re going to turn this thing around in Buffalo.” Sounds like a guy who’s intent on staying there and maybe isn’t quite aware the Sabres are the 30th place team in the NHL.

“He’s been a huge part of us,” former NHLer Kaspars Daugavins said of Nolan. “We never had a coach that actually believes in the players. It’s always been like army-style where everybody just has to work hard and you never get a tap on your shoulders, saying ‘Good job, buddy.’ He brings a different spirit on the team. He actually makes us believe that we’re actually a good team. I’ve been to a lot of world championships and an Olympics before and we never had a feeling that we can actually win something.”

They do now, thanks to their heroics against the Swiss. This is the first time the Latvians have ever qualified for the quarterfinal in an Olympic tournament. Logic would dictate they’re in for a huge dose of reality tomorrow. But logic would have also dictated that they were dead in the water against a team that had only given up one goal in the tournament so far. In fact, the Latvians scored more goals in 11 minutes and 18 seconds in the qualifier than they, the Swedes and the Czechs were able to combine to score in 180 minutes of hockey in the preliminary round.

Nolan wasn’t about to divulge his game plan, but it likely won’t be terribly complicated. Nolan has never been known as a master tactician behind the bench, but for reasons even he can’t explain, he has an uncanny ability to get his teams to play with passion that is off the charts.

“Same thing we talked about today, trying to be Switzerland,” Nolan said about how his team would approach Canada. “(The Swiss) are a good team. They’re a very good team. They beat Canada twice last year at the World Championships, so how do you beat them? Cross your fingers and hope for the best and (shoot) the puck off the boards. You get one more goal than them, you have a chance to win.”

Well, since you put it that way…

And the Latvians might not be as foreign to the NHL and North America as you’d think. Of the 22 players who appeared against Switzerland, 13 of them either play or have played in North America at some point in their careers. A number of them cut their teeth – and probably lost a few – playing major junior hockey and many have played in the minors. Daugavins himself played for the Boston Bruins in the Stanley Cup final just last spring. Nine of them play for Dinamo Riga in the Kontinental League and five more play for other teams in the KHL.

With Nolan behind the bench, anything can happen. It probably won’t, but it’s kind of fun to imagine that an underrated team playing on 21 hours rest can give a scare to a world power.

“We’ll just tell our goalie (Edgars Masalaskis) to stop every shot,” Daugavins said. “Then you can’t lose, right? They’re such a good hockey team. The odds are so low, but maybe we’re going to go there and just enjoy. Maybe by having a lot of fun, maybe Latvia will get a break. You never know.”