By Martin Merk – IIHF.com
22nd this year, 23rd last year – the Lithuanian men’s national team has only once been better in the overall placings of the IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship program (19th in 2006) since the country’s return on the international stage after restoring independence in the early ‘90s.
Within these positions Lithuania was at the border between the second and third tier of world ice hockey. The team won the 2018 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group B in front of 10,170 fans on home ice in Kaunas when it beat Baltic rival Estonia for promotion.
On the roster were two legends with Dainius Zubrus and Darius Kasparaitis – playing for the first time together for their country. Kasparaitis just became eligible to represent the country of birth after having played four years of amateur hockey in Lithuania following a pro career that saw him play over 800 NHL games while representing the Soviet Union and later Russia on the international stage. For Kasparaitis it was a dream to end his career like that in the country of birth, while Zubrus came back on the ice for another year to follow up on promotion.
A year later, with a younger roster following several retirements, the Lithuanians didn’t succeed in staying up and finished the 2019 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group A in last place despite a surprise 2-1 win over Korea and nearly upsetting tournament favorites Belarus. The team didn’t win the games it needed to win the most, including a finale against a struggling Slovenian team that came back to life against Lithuania.
“We were inexperienced, there was a fatigue level. Altogether I’m happy with the way we played,” said Zubrus.
As a hockey nation we are improving. It’s a step into the right direction.
Zubrus is sure that playing one year at Division IA level wasn’t a fluke. After all, the U18 and U20 national teams havereached similar heights in the rankings during the last few years.
Ice hockey has deep roots in the Baltic countries. In 1938 Lithuania joined the IIHF, playing in the World Championship in Prague that very same year where it finished in 10th place with a 1-3 record and a win against Romania. Then came World War II with Lithuania becoming part of the Soviet Union for almost five decades. During Soviet times ice hockey saw little development in Lithuania. Riga in Latvia was the centre for producing hockey stars in the Soviet republics of the Baltic region while Lithuania brought out world-class players in basketball.
Today Lithuania is still a basketball country, but ice hockey has won more fans in recent years also thanks to the country hosting regular IIHF tournaments in big basketball arenas in Vilnius and more recently Kaunas rather than at smaller venues on the countryside like in Elektrenai, which became the hockey hotbed of Soviet Lithuania and is the birthplace of both Zubrus and Kasparaitis.
A bankruptcy case of the old federation after hosting the Division IA in Vilnius in 2009 was a setback in the short term but created a new ice hockey federation, wider participation in league play and kids hockey, better structure and more transparent management.
Lithuania is surrounded by other countries with deep ice hockey roots: Belarus, Latvia, Poland, Russia and Sweden. That makes cross-border co-operation and opportunities for players bigger. Next week during the International Break Lithuania will compete in the Baltic Challenge Cup. After hosting the tournament last year in Klaipeda, it will take place in the Estonian capital of Tallinn from 7 to 10 November.
One year ago Lithuania’s hockey legend Dainius Zubrus decided to run for federation president in order to take the game to the next level. The tall forward from the small town of Elektrenai, about halfway between the biggest cities of Kaunas and Vilnius, did not only play 1,293 regular-season NHL games for Philadelphia, Montreal, Washington, Buffalo, New Jersey and San Jose – he also tried to help his country in Division I play when possible. He scored his goals in the Lithuanian jersey as an active NHL player in 2005 and 2014, and came back after retiring as a professional player to defend the Lithuanian colours in 2018 and 2019. As a president he wants to leave a legacy also off the ice.
Growing the own garden
“We need more arenas, with that there will be more hockey players playing. I’m talking about kids. For us to compete at Division IA level, we need more players and we need our own players,” Zubrus said about what’s to be done. “Never mind some of these teams have players from Canada or the U.S. But I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about growing our own garden at home and build a system with a competitive championship going on throughout the season from kids to men. That’s the big picture but that’s what we’re going to try.”
That’s a long way to go but today Lithuania has 2,466 players – three times as much than 10 years ago. More kids and adults in more cities are playing in the various leagues and in recent years they have been joined by female players with the Lithuanian women’s national team joining the IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship program for the first time this season.
“We’re getting there slowly, small steps. We’re planning on building a couple of rinks in the big cities, in Kaunas for example there should be a rink soon that’s desperately needed. There’s a plan that will be executed fairly soon. Another arena will be built in Klaipeda, which is a port city. They have a pretty deep hockey culture there as well; even without a full-size rink there are quite a few kids playing hockey. There will hopefully be more cities like this to come,” Zubrus said. “That’s also a reason why I took on the presidency. I want these projects and developments not to be put away somewhere in the drawer. I hope politicians will do what they say and slowly we will grow.”
Lithuania will be back competing in the Division I Group B and travel to Katowice in neighbouring Poland where they will also face the teams from Japan, Estonia, Ukraine and Serbia in a battle for promotion.
Like one year ago the question will come up whether Lithuanian fans will see Zubrus once again on the ice.
“I’m not sure. Time will tell. Never say never. I’m 41,” Zubrus said.