VANCOUVER – Hard work has always been the key to success for Latvian captain Karlis Skrastins, and he'll need to work extra hard in his nation's Olympic opener against Russia on Tuesday.
“We're starting against one of the best teams in the world,” admitted the 35-year-old Dallas Stars defenceman after Latvia's first practice at Canada Hockey Place. “It's going to be a big challenge for us. But on the other hand, it's exciting. It's not every year you can play against Russia. We have to show our best play, not just as a team but even individually. It's going to be tough, but you never know. We are ready. We're not scared. The biggest thing is that we have to be good defensively.”
Latvia lost 9-2 to the Russians at the 2006 Olympics in Turin, Italy. Many observers expect a similar result this time around, since Russian gunners like Alexander Ovechkin, Ilya Kovalchuk, and Evgeni Malkin have only gotten better in the last four years.
Yet Skrastins insists he's not going to get wrapped up in worrying about the big names. Nor is the third-time Olympian going to focus on the sometimes troubled history between these two nations.
Latvia was part of the old Soviet Union from 1940 to 1991. That made it particularly sweet for the small Baltic country when it (with Skrastins in the line-up) upset the all-star Russians 3-2 in St. Petersburg at the 2000 IIHF World Championship.
“I'm not concerned with the history,” Skrastins insisted. “For me, it's just a sport. We'll see how we do tomorrow. We played well at the last World Championship, and we showed we can do well against the good teams, too.”
Latvia's seventh-place finish at the '09 Worlds in Switzerland matched its best result ever (1997, 2004). In Berne, the Latvians posted memorable shootout wins over Sweden and the host Switzerland.
One advantage for recent Latvian national teams has been the centralization of much of the roster with Dinamo Riga, which currently ranks 13th out of 24 teams in the Russian Kontinental Hockey League. The 2010 Olympic roster features 16 Dinamo players. So building team chemistry shouldn't be a problem.
“Three of our lines have been playing together for almost two years, so they know one another well,” noted Skrastins, who's appeared in seven top-level World Championships. “For us, one of the biggest challenges will be playing on the small rink. But most of the guys have had three or four practices together over here already, so it's not going to be a big problem for us. Maybe more for the goalies. There'll be more shots for sure.”
A famous name from Dinamo Riga who won't suit up in Vancouver is offensive-minded blueliner Sandis Ozolinsh. “Ozo”, who won a Stanley Cup with Colorado in 1996, struggled with injuries for much of the new millennium's first decade. However, after a year away from the game, he made a comeback in his hometown and currently leads all Dinamo defencemen with 24 points.
So why isn't Ozolinsh here?
“I wasn't surprised he's not here,” Skrastins said. “Four years ago, he told everyone in Turin that these would be his last Olympics with the national team. Everybody knew he wasn't going to play. It was a big surprise that he came back and played for Dinamo Riga. Everybody was happy to see him again. We will miss him here, because he's still one of the best defencemen Latvia has ever had.”
“We've got some new guys who can step in and play, though,” added Skrastins. “And playing in Canada in the Olympics, what better place to show your best hockey?”
Some young rearguards looking to make an impact in their Olympic debut will include Oskars Bartulis (23), who's played 46 games for the Philadelphia Flyers this season, and Kristaps Sotnieks (23) and Guntis Galvins (24) from Dinamo Riga.
They can certainly learn from how Skrastins handles himself: not only is he one of the NHL's premier shot-blockers, but he established the league's “Iron Man” record for defencemen with 495 consecutive games played between 2000 and 2007.
Latvia finished 12th and last overall in Turin, and Vancouver is expected to be another learning experience. But for underdog nations, the nice thing about this year's Olympic format is that the tournament can turn into a big success if they win just one game – particularly when elimination play kicks off on February 23.
“In one game, there's more pressure on the favourites,” said Skrastins. “For us, there's nothing to lose. Nobody expects us to win. But if we do, it'll be a big upset.”
And a big party for the hockey world's most famously noisy fans in Latvia.