Tuesday, 18 February 2014

The Latvian Threat

In what would be considered the first true upset of the tournament, Latvian's men's hockey team knocked off Switzerland today, giving the eleventh-seed in the tournament their first berth ever in the quarterfinals of the Olympic men's hockey tournament. Led by a number of former NHLers, the Latvians played a very poised defensive game in handing the Swiss an early ticket home with a 3-1 loss. The Latvians, who went winless in their group, won their first game of the tournament in stunning fashion, and a lot of the credit for this win has to go to Buffalo Sabres head coach and current bench boss of the Latvian squad, Ted Nolan.

If one needed a quotation that sums up the Latvian mindset, there was an exchange between President Snow and Seneca Crane in The Hunger Games that might be best-suited for this Latvian squad.
There are 1200 registered hockey players in Latvia. The current squad has one NHL player, and Zemgus Girgensons is just 20. They finished dead-last in both Torino and Vancouver, and looked like they might be destined for another finish without a win in this tournament. Ted Nolan, however, was reportedly the spark, as President Snow stated, as he instilled the idea of hope in the Latvian players. After falling 1-0 to Switzerland in group play, Nolan told his squad that there was a chance that they could do the unthinkable.

Then they went out and did it. 3-1, and a date with the Canadians.

"He's been a huge part of us," former Bruins and Senators winger Kaspars Daugavins told ESPN's Pierre LeBrun about 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. We just went out there and played."

They played with an edge today. They looked hungry, and exhibited a willingness to do whatever it took against the Swiss team who looked overwhelmed by Latvia's resolve. They scored timely goals in snapping Hiller's two-game shutout streak, and goaltender Edgars Masalskis stopped 32 of 33 shots, some of the rather spectacular variety. If nothing else, it was a gritty win that had all the trademarks of a Ted Nolan-coached team.

How is it that a First Nations coach from Canada has led a Baltic nation to their best finish ever in the Olympics? "I just believe in paying it forward, I guess," Nolan told Puck Daddy's Sean Leahy. "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, and coming from where I came from, it kind of teaches that it’s important that everybody has an opportunity and to believe in themselves."

If there was anyone who believed in Latvia against the Swiss, it was Latvia. That's really all that mattered, too, because if you don't believe in yourself, why should anyone else believe in you? And while the cards are heavily stacked in Canada's favor in Wednesday's game, you never know what may happen in a one-game tournament. After all, hope springs eternal, and it starts from the top down.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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