Skrastins embodies Latvian hockey pride
Friday, 24 August 2007
Originally published on IIHF.com in 2006
By Lucas Aykroyd
With just 2 million citizens and just over 1000 hockey players, Latvia is thrilled every time one of its native sons cracks the big time. And defenseman Karlis Skrastins of the Colorado Avalanche is one of the best contemporary examples.
Of course, there are others. Helmut Balderis no longer had the speed that earned him the nickname of “Electric Train” by the time he played 26 games with the Minnesota North Stars in 1989-90, but the iconoclastic right wing from Riga proved he was still a proud competitor. More recently, goaltender Arturs Irbe and forward Sergei Zholtok prospered versus NHL competition, although Irbe now earns his living in the Austrian League and Zholtok tragically died while playing for Riga 2000 in November 2004.
But Skrastins still soldiers on in the NHL today. The hard-hitting 6-1, 196-pound veteran is currently the league’s reigning ironman, with more than 400 consecutive games played. He also captained Latvia’s 2005 IIHF World Championship entry. The former Nashville Predators draft pick realizes that while his professional involvement is a source of pride to his fellow countrymen, what truly electrifies Latvia is the prospect of success at the top level of international competition in the 2006 Winter Games.
“We are proud to be in the Olympics,” said Skrastins. “It’s a big, big deal for a small country like Latvia. It’s going to be quite an experience. We’re going to have a lot of new guys, and we’ll be playing against big teams like the USA and Russia, with all NHL guys. It’s a good thing for our players and fans. Everyone’s looking forward to seeing how we do against those big guys.”
Hockey fans around the world remember the shocking upset Belarus achieved versus Sweden in the 2002 Olympic quarter-finals. But not everyone is aware that Latvia pulled off a similar feat in a must-win situation on home ice in Riga last year. On February 13, 2005, Skrastins and his Latvian teammates rallied from a 4-2 deficit in Olympic qualification play to triumph 5-4 over (you guessed it) Belarus. The result secured Latvia’s place in Torino 2006.
“It was like a miracle,” Skrastins said with a smile. “There was about four minutes left until the end of the game, and we almost all had our heads down. Then we scored a goal. It was a good thing we were playing at home, because the fans started getting louder and louder. Then we scored another goal and another, and everything had changed. Of course, we were very lucky at the time. But we tried to do our best, and we were happy to get into the Olympics.”
Latvia defeated the mighty Russians at the 2000 and 2003 IIHF World Championships. Could similar upsets be in the offing for the small Baltic nation at the 2006 Olympics?
“It would be nice if we would beat some big teams,” Skrastins admitted. “It’s not our goal, but we’re going to take it one game at a time. It’s hockey. You never know what is going to happen. Maybe we can beat some big guys and get into the quarter-finals.”
Regardless of the final Olympic results, 2006 will be remembered as a banner year for Latvian hockey. The country’s U-20 team participated in its first-ever IIHF World Junior Championship last month in the Canadian province of British Columbia, and despite finishing ninth out of 10 teams, players like goalie Ugis Avotins and captain Martin Karsums became fan favorites. In May, Riga will proudly host the 2006 IIHF World Championship, showcasing a new downtown arena with a capacity of 12,500.
“I think people are going to like it,” said Skrastins. “We have a very nice city in Riga. The Old Town in Riga is beautiful, full of culture. Everybody’s welcome. We’ve got crazy fans, but in a good way. Latvia will do the best it can do for our visitors.”