International Ice Hockey Federation

Sprukts set to battle

Sprukts set to battle

Veteran Latvian stays positive pre-Canada

Published 19.02.2014 17:06 GMT+4 | Author Lucas Aykroyd
Sprukts set to battle
Latvian forward Janis Sprukts looks for a rebound in front of Swiss goalkeeper Jonas Hiller in the qualification playoff game. Photo: Jeff Vinnick / HHOF-IIHF Images
Janis Sprukts knows a thing or two about earning upset victories on Russian ice. In fact, that’s how the Latvian forward started off the new millennium.

At the 2000 IIHF World Championship in St. Petersburg, this Riga native made his debut in senior IIHF competition at the age of 18. There, backstopped by star goalie Arturs Irbe, Latvia stunned the hosts 3-2, earning their first-ever victory over Russia.

“It was a long time ago!” said Sprukts, now 32, with a laugh after Latvia surprised Switzerland 3-1 in the Olympic qualification playoff. “But of course it was a great feeling for me. I was at that stage when everything was so exciting. Now I have a little bit more confidence and find it easier to play. I’m happy for my career that the coaches helped me to be there.”

As for the victory over the Swiss, the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl veteran was quick to target the key to what will be Latvia’s highest finish ever at the Winter Games: “We played as a team and the main point is that we played as one big group. That’s the reason why we won.”

Sprukts has experienced both the highs and lows of Latvian hockey. One tough experience was losing 11-0 to Canada when Riga hosted the 2006 IIHF World Championship. Fans enraged with the refereeing littered the ice with coins, cell phones, and shoes. Sprukts showed leadership by taking the extraordinary step of getting a microphone and encouraging the fans to calm down so that the game could continue.

Now he hopes the small Baltic nation, which has finished as high as seventh at three Worlds (1997, 2004, 2009), will be thrown into a more positive frenzy with a strong outing against Canada, the defending Olympic champions, in Wednesday’s quarter-finals.

One reason for optimism was the play of starting goalie Edgars Masalskis against Switzerland. A fixture between the national team’s pipes, the 33-year-old HK Poprad netminder made 32 saves in this do-or-die situation. Some were of the spectacular variety, none more so than his glove grab on an Andres Ambuhl opportunity from the slot.

“He’s playing very well,” Sprukts said. “He kept us in the game and it helped us get back our confidence. Some goals, if he’d have let them in we would have kind of lost it. But he just kept us in and afterwards we tried to [reciprocate].”

Sprukts, originally drafted by the NHL’s Florida Panthers in 2000 (eighth round, 234th overall), played 14 games in the world’s top pro league between 2006-07 and 2008-09. Against Canada, he’ll be facing former Florida teammate Jay Bouwmeester along with young stars who are already legends like Sidney Crosby and Jonathan Toews. He knows it’s a huge task.

“I think they play strong hockey with really big pressure to the net,” Sprukts said of Canada. “That’s the most key thing we have to neutralize.”

Latvia’s only previous Olympic game against the Canadians was way back in 1936, an 11-0 loss. The Latvians have only secured one point versus Canada in 10 tries at the Worlds, a 3-3 tie in 1997.

Is there a chance for Latvia’s Canadian coach Ted Nolan to make some history against his own country?

“We’ll see,” Sprukts said with a smile.


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