Latvia celebrates in epic fashion after national holiday declared for historic hockey bronze

Latvia had never finished better than seventh place at the IIHF World Hockey Championship.

Oskars Cibulskis and Karlis Cukste celebrate with thousands of fans gathered to greet the IIHF World Championship bronze medalists in Riga, Latvia. (REUTERS/Ints Kalnins)
Oskars Cibulskis and Karlis Cukste celebrate with thousands of fans gathered to greet the IIHF World Championship bronze medalists in Riga, Latvia. (REUTERS/Ints Kalnins)

Following Latvia’s shocking 4-3 overtime victory over the United States on Sunday to secure a bronze medal at the world hockey championship, parliament met just before midnight and declared Monday a public holiday to allow the country to celebrate its national hockey team.

"It is our duty to perpetuate this significant success of Latvian hockey players in the national memory of society,” the parliament said during its announcement. "Celebrating this day together will strengthen the national self-confidence and unity of Latvian society."

Court hearings were cancelled and schools and universities were closed for the day, while businesses were thrown into chaos by the surprise announcement. The holiday also allowed Latvian fans to welcome the team back from Finland. According to Reuters, an airBaltic plane made a low-altitude fly-back over Central Riga to be greeted by thousands of fans.

On Monday afternoon, thousands gathered at the Freedom Monument in downtown Riga to celebrate the historic achievement with the team.

Latvia, who co-hosted the tournament with Finland, had never finished better than seventh at the world championships, which they've accomplished three tines (1997, 2004, 2009). They finished 10th in last year's event.

Defenseman Kristan Rubins was the hero, scoring the game-winning goal 1:22 into overtime to clinch the victory. Goaltender Arturs Silovs was named tournament MVP after finishing with a 2.20 goals-against average and .921 save percentage. The 22-year-old was a sixth-round pick of the Vancouver Canucks in 2019 and spent this past season with their AHL affiliate in Abbotsford, while also suiting up with the Canucks in five games.

Latvian players on the team and those watching from home were overjoyed by the team's achievement.

"I'm lucky that I’m a hockey player in Latvia because the people there love hockey so much," said forward Martins Dzierkals. "To be a hockey player at this time, I have no words."

"You can't believe how proud I am," Columbus Blue Jackets goalie Elvis Merzlikins said in a since-deleted tweet. "Great f'n job boys. Now everyone will take us seriously... great game. Even sitting by TV made me emotional. That's what happens when you are a small country and there is huge love in each other. You can beat whoever!"

Along with Silovs and Merzlikins, only three other players from Latvia suited up in the NHL this season: Vegas Golden Knights forward Teddy Blueger, Buffalo Sabres forward Zemgus Girgenson and Tampa Bay Lightning forward Rudolfs Balcers.

Sandis Ozolinsh is Latvia's all-time NHL points leader with 564 across 875 career games, while Arturs Irbe is the country's most accomplished goaltender, having amassed 218 wins in 568 games.