SOCHI, Russia — Latvia? Where’s Latvia? Ted Nolan had no idea when he got the call. All he knew was that he wanted to coach again, and this was an opportunity, and sometimes all you need is an opportunity. So he boarded a plane a few days later and flew to Europe. He found the little nation on the Baltic Sea surrounded by Estonia, Russia, Belarus and Lithuania, and he got to work.
Where’s Latvia now? In the quarterfinals of the Olympic men’s hockey tournament for the first time in history, thanks to Tuesday’s 3-1 upset of Switzerland. Nolan, a Canadian, will lead Latvia against Canada on Wednesday. He called it “David and Goliath,” and it is. But he also said “miracle things can happen,” and they already have.
“We never had a coach that actually believes in the players,” said forward Kaspars Daugavins. “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.”
The Latvians hadn’t won a game at the Olympics since 2002. They needed to qualify for Sochi because they weren’t high enough in the world rankings to get an automatic bid. So in the summer of 2011, they called Nolan, the former Buffalo Sabres and New York Islanders coach – a man who had won the Jack Adams Award as the NHL’s coach of the year but also had been exiled from the league twice.
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Nolan discovered a small hockey nation, but a passionate hockey nation. Latvia had only 1,200 registered players, but it had some good ones. Having grown up on a Native reservation, he taught them to battle. He insisted they speak their own language in the dressing room, not someone else’s language. He learned a few words in Latvian, too.
“When I was a kid, not too many people believed in myself or gave me an opportunity. We had to fight for everything we got,” Nolan said. “Coming from where I came from, it kind of teaches that it’s important that everybody has an opportunity and to believe in themselves. I think a lot of it had to do with the way I got raised.”
Nolan reached out to veteran defenseman Sandis Ozolinsh, who hadn’t played for Latvia in years. Ozolinsh decided to return right before the qualification tournament last February, when he was 40 and playing in the KHL. On home ice in the capital of Riga, the Latvians beat out Great Britain, France and Kazakhstan.
That was an accomplishment in itself, and that could have been enough for Nolan when the Sabres called to offer him an interim coaching job in November. But he said the first thing he asked team president Pat LaFontaine was whether he could keep coaching Latvia. He wanted to finish what he had started.
“We had to win our way here,” Nolan said. “So it was very important. We started this 2-1/2 years ago, and today to see the benefits of it and to see how close the guys are getting and how hard they’re working, it was worth it.”
The Latvians have one NHL player: the Sabres’ Zemgus Girgensons. They have others who have played in the NHL, like Ozolinsh and Daugavins, but mostly they have a mix of players from the KHL and European leagues. They have one U.S. college player: Bowling Green’s Ralfs Freibergs.
They didn’t win any of their preliminary games. But they played the Swiss close, losing only 1-0 after allowing a goal with 7.9 seconds left, and they were competitive in a 4-2 loss to the Czech Republic and a 5-3 loss to Sweden. They felt they were improving. Nolan told them the fourth game was the one that mattered.
“So we talked in the room,” Daugavins said. “We said, ‘We battled top teams in the world. All those guys play in the NHL and make huge bucks. Let’s make a statement out there that we can actually play hockey.’ ”
They came out hard against the Swiss again, and this time they scored two goals in the first period. They gave up a goal in the second, but they iced it with an empty-netter.
Do they have a chance against Canada? Probably not.
“How do you beat them?” Nolan said. “Cross your fingers and hope for the best and [shoot] the puck off the boards.”
The Canadians have not been as dominant as expected. But that’s because expectations are stratospheric, and they played two teams – Norway and Finland – that sat back, clogged the middle and kept their talented forwards outside in the offensive zone. The game they played against a team that tried to skate, Austria, they won, 6-0. That was also the second game of a back-to-back set for Austria, and Team Canada coach Mike Babcock pointed out that back-to-backs are hard for smaller countries because of their relative lack of depth.
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Switzerland, which beat Canada in 2006 and took Canada to a shootout in 2010, would have played like Norway and Finland. It sounds like the Latvians will play like the Austrians, and it will be the second game of a back-to-back for them. “Latvian players, they’re a working bunch, so you’ve got to let them work,” Nolan said. “You can’t sit back and try to play a defensive style.”
“If you play careful, you’re going to make mistakes,” Girgensons said. “You just go out there and play the game we play. We were really aggressive all the games. It’s been working for us, so we’ve got to look forward to doing it again.”
But, hey, where’s Latvia now? Nolan has them believing, and they have nothing to lose.
“You never know,” Daugavins said. “Miracles have happened before, as long as we earn the miracle. We just have to go out there and enjoy it and work hard, just as we did today. … 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.”
Maybe Latvia already did.
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