International Ice Hockey Federation

Triple pride for Vasiljevs

Triple pride for Vasiljevs

Latvian veteran beats injury to go to Sochi

Published 08.02.2014 13:48 GMT+4 | Author Gerard Cantlon
Triple pride for Vasiljevs
Veteran forward Herberts Vasiljevs, pictured against Finland's Juhamatti Aaltonen, returns to the Latvian national team for the Olympics. Photo: Matthew Manor / HHOF-IIHF Images
Former NHL man Herberts Vasiljevs battled back to form after a broken ankle threatened to rule him out of a third Olympic appearance.

In Latvia, hockey is all about ‘lepnums’. The Latvian word for pride has always been the main feature of the small Baltic nation’s national hockey program.

The maroon flag will be flying over the Olympic ice for the fifth time (the first was in 1936) – some achievement for a nation of just two million – and forward Herberts (Herbie) Vasiljevs is preparing for his third, and probably final, appearance as a player. Lepnums abounds in him and his family’s relation with Latvian hockey.

“It doesn`t get any better. The Olympics is a dream come true for every athlete. It`s amazing to see every time what they come up with the atmosphere, the hype...”

As Russia put the finishing touches to its ambitious transformation of Sochi’s Black Sea beaches into a winter sports resort for the 21st century, Vasiljevs found his own preparations for the games also needed a last-minute push for fitness.

It’s been a season of recovery after successful surgery on a broken ankle sustained in pre-season in the Krefeld Penguins of Germany’s DEL. Vasiljevs finally got his first regular season action some weeks ago, scoring his team’s only goal in a 4-1 loss against Iserlohn. Next time out he picked up an assist in a 3-1 win over Schwenningen, and his season record now reads six games, two goals, three points and 11 shots on goal – a nice appetizer before the feast in Sochi.

With 11 DEL seasons (10 straight in Krefeld), and sporting the C on his jersey, Vasiljevs was a lock for Latvia – until that injury threatened to fracture his dream of a third consecutive Games.

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“The injury really threw me back. It happened in the pre-season, and since then I have seen the rehab more than the rink. My main goal was to be back before the end of the season. It`s only a bonus and to be honest, a little surprised that I was picked for the national team,” said Vasiljevs via e-mail.

For a time it seemed like history might repeat itself. In 2001-2002, as a young member of the Vancouver Canucks playing AHL hockey with Manitoba Moose he was on course to play for Latvia in Salt Lake City, only for a knee injury to cruelly end that dream. Despite going on to wear his team’s colours in two subsequent Games, he’s never forgotten how it felt to miss out.

“That was a real blow. I was looking forward to it, had my bags packed, ready to go and then in the last game I got hurt. It sucked...big time, but thank God we qualified for Turin and Vancouver. So then I had the chance to see what I missed out the first time.”

He laced up his skates and donned the maroon and white jersey in Turin, Italy and Vancouver, BC, Canada for Latvia.

“Turin was simply breathtaking. Vancouver was very special, because the Canadians are crazy about hockey. The rinks were packed, and some people recognized me when I had played for the Canucks,” said Vasiljevs.

In Sochi, Latvia has a very tough draw in Group C, facing games with Sweden, Czech Republic and Switzerland.

The first game will be against Switzerland at the Shayba Arena on Thursday. Shayba means “puck” in Russian and the Latvians to hope have more of it than the Swiss for the opening game. Two exhibition games had to be cancelled due to a lack of officials.

Vasiljevs is one of just 19 Latvians to play NHL hockey. Among his Trans-Atlantic peers, Sandis Ozolins and Buffalo Sabres rookie Zemgus Girgensons are on the roster in Sochi, while goalie Arturs Irbe is one of head coach Ted Nolan’s assistants. Other Latvian NHLers include Petr Skudra now a head coach with Torpedo Novgorod in the KHL, Helmut Balderis who played on several USSR squads and enforcer Raitais Ivanans who played with in the NHL with the Los Angeles Kings, Montreal Canadiens and Calgary Flames.

Irbe, Balderis and Ozonlins, who carried Latvia’s flag in Friday’s opening ceremony, are also the only Latvians in the IIHF Hall of Fame.

Latvian hockey has been a major source of pride in the Vasiljevs family. His father Haralds coached the Latvian World Championship team from 1999-2001 and also played for his country.

Haralds also played for Dinamo Riga in the Soviet era (1967-1983) and was joined there by his brother Edmunds (1969-1982), Herbie’s uncle, who won a gold medal in 1973-1974 with the Soviets in what was then called the U-20 tournament, the forerunner of the wildly popular World Junior Hockey Tournament.

“My uncle was my coach growing up. He helped me a lot. My dad gave me a lot of tips and pushed me to the limit. He was my coach after we moved to Germany when I was 14. I was just another player, but it was something special having my dad coach me with the national team,” Vasiljevs recalled.

Herbie’s pro hockey career has taken him all over the world and Germany has been home as his parents emigrated when father Haralds coached the Krefeld junior hockey program after ending his playing days with ERC Dortmund. He is still coaching in Austria with the EC Graz 99’ers junior program.

From Baltic Latvia to Black Sea Sochi is a 1,579-mile (2,541 km) trip – and an easy one for the hockey-mad Latvians fans to make. And the noise they will bring to the arenas is appreciate by Vasiljevs and his colleagues.

“Our fans are the best in the world. I can´t praise them enough. We are not a wealthy country, but the people love their hockey and in the summer and (during the) Olympics they practically live hockey 24/7. To win a game in the Olympics would be the best present we could give our fans, our country.”

Team Latvia assembled in Riga on February 1st, but had to wait for the arrival of head coach Ted Nolan as his NHL program continued with the Sabres. It’s a situation which has forced a slightly different approach to preparation.

“Of course, it`s not a perfect situation but we have other coaches that are helping him out. I`m not sure what kind of role I`ll be playing on the team, but very proud to be a part of it. We are all professionals and we have to be able to adjust no matter how little time we have. It`s the same problem for every team.”

Latvia has just one win in its Olympic hockey history, beating Austria 4-2 in 2002, so getting a win in Sochi is the first target.

Vasiljevs is realistic about their chances of a medal, especially considering their pool draw.

“Ha, ha. I don’t know about a medal. A couple of wins would be a great result for Latvia,” he said.

Whatever the results, though, the Shayba and Bolshoy arenas in Sochi will add to the long list of great arenas where Vasiljevs has suited up for action.

“Madison Square Garden, Hamburg, Prague, Riga, Vancouver and there is a lot more. All these places have great rinks. It’s been great to play in them.”

Vasiljevs became a German citizen in 2011 and stopped representing Latvia in the World Championships then. Now he is back and at the age of 37 it’s likely that Sochi will be his final appearance on the ice for the land of his birth.


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