Source: Baltic News Network
When it comes to ice hockey, this May has been starkly different for Lithuania and Latvia. Having lost to South Korea, the former has dropped into a lower league, IB, and the latter has risen to the dizzying dazzle of stardom, winning bronze in the 2023 IIHF ice hockey world championship that was held in Riga and Tampere.
Note –with a win against the mighty United States.
“The entire country was and still is in a state of euphoria. Over 30,000 gathered in the center of Riga to greet the players upon their return and Monday was declared a legal holiday as well. Moments like this when it seems everyone has finally found one thing they can agree on are invaluable – for national morale and positive thinking,” Ilze, an American living in Latvia, told BNN.
With the braliukai (that’s how many Lithuanians call their closest neighbours, Latvians, amicably) leaping in joy, many Lithuanian ice hockey pundits and ordinary Lithuanians are scratching heads anew – can the country’s ice hockey be any better? And what needs to be done to ascend the IIHF ladder?
Remigijus Valickas, executive director of Lithuania’s National Ice Hockey League (LNIHL), says “all is about traditions.”
“LIKEWISE LITHUANIANS IN BASKETBALL, LATVIANS HAVE VERY STRONG ICE HOCKEY TRADITIONS,
hence the respective attention to young ice hockey players, the financing of ice hockey schools, and the sport’s infrastructure. Until recently, Lithuania has had only three ice hockey arenas – in Elektrėnai, Kaunas, and Rokiškis. To draw a parallel with basketball, where our national basketball team would be if had only three basketball courts?” R. Valickas told BNN.
He says that with more ice arenas being opened, more children enroll the ice hockey schools.
“And the number of our children playing ice hockey has grown exponentially – from 170 in 2013, when I came to the Ice Hockey Federation, to a little bit over 1 100 now. So, the investments in children will yield results – sooner or later,” the LNIHL executive director emphasised.
Yet, he agrees, getting back to the IIHF’s higher tier, IA, to which the Lithuanian ice hockey squad belonged before dropping into IB after an unsuccessful tournament in May, will not be easy.
“The top division has 20 teams. So considering everything and being the 23rd on the IIHF ranking our situation is not tragic. By the way,
THE ONLY TIME OUR NATIONAL SQUAD PLAYED IN THE TOP DIVISION WAS IN 1939.
Understandably, there were quite a few teams in the championship and ice hockey has changed unrecognizably since then,” R. Valickas noted.
He says Lithuania has never beaten Latvia on an ice hockey rink yet.
“We lost even against their teams with the second-tier players on the rink. But there is always a first time – for our win against it, too,” he said.
Speaking to BNN, Gintaras Nenartavičius, a sports journalist at lrytas.lt, insisted that, compared to the situation two or three years ago, Lithuania is seeing a slump in the performance on the rink.
“A couple of years ago, we saw a kind of rise in the sport, but things are edging downward now. Just a few years ago, we could fight on par against Poland, but they crushed us 7-0 in the IIHF’s IA tournament in May, a big embarrassment. Even the Poles were surprised how weak our team was,” he said.
According to the sports journalist, there is a “bunch of reasons” for Lithuania’s unimpressive performance on the rink.
“Of course, No. 1 is traditions.
WE ARE A BASKETBALL COUNTRY, NOT ICE HOCKEY. IN LITHUANIA, ICE HOCKEY IS DEEMED A NICHE SPORT,
with the games’ centers still being far from the major cities: in Elektrėnai (a town of about 11,000 inhabitants in Vilnius County, some 45 kilometers away from Vilnius – L. J.). And the other in Rokiškis, a far-flung provincial town,” G. Nenartavičius said, adding: “Recently, the Latvians have significantly ramped up their ice hockey infrastructure and the bulk of it is in Riga.”
According to the journalist, unless the local ice hockey coaches can pick talents from a big line-up of children, a breakthrough cannot happen in the sport.
“Now, they train who they have – quite a few children on the rink. Far from the luxury of basketball coaches who have dozens and dozens lining up for the selection,” G. Nenartavičius said.
In his words, as a sport, ice hockey is expensive – for children and their parents.
“The gear costs hundreds and thousands. It is not like basketball where you can put a T-shirt on and any sneakers and run on the court. Many parents just cannot afford having their child in an ice hockey school,” the journalist suggested.
“I spoke to some Ukrainian children and their parents who came to Vilnius from Kharkiv (Ukraine’s second-largest city – L.J.). Even though, all together, Ukraine’s ice hockey is weak, but, to believe them, they had great conditions for training there. And here the conditions they have do not even come close to those in Kharkiv,” he added.
For Aurimas Jokimčius, head of „Šaulys“ ice hockey school in Šiauliai, Lithuania’s fourth-largest city, the underlying issues of national ice hockey are embedded in the sport’s financing.
“Unlike in Latvia, where both Government, the local municipalities, and numerous big-name companies support the sport financially, here in Lithuania, we are getting just crumbs.
THE SECOND REASON IS THE LACK OF PROPER ICE HOCKEY ARENAS IN LITHUANIA.
We tend to support sports, with the exception of basketball, only when their best athletes win internationally,” A. Jokimčius told BNN.
Asked how his private ice hockey school has been doing over 10 years in operation, he was honestly blunt: “We have been skidding most of the time and we are still skidding, yet persevering and chugging forward.”
“For many parents, ice hockey is too expensive. Imagine the prices of the outfit at nearly 500 euros and the arena lease costs us roughly 2000 euros per month. And then travelling to tournaments and so on,” he said,
Yet the school founder and coach says that, when it comes to the children’s motivation, he has no problem with it.
“When you play ice hockey in Lithuania, getting into the national squad is much easier than, say, for all the aspiring young basketballers, where the competition is huge,” A. Jokimčius said, adding: “If you work hard and stay goal-oriented, success will come. For example, we have young Lithuanians playing for top-tier Swiss and Swedish ice hockey clubs.”
However, he is hesitant if Lithuania can make it into the top IIHF division in the next 10 years.
“Many cards have to fall on the table favourably. Having many more ice hockey arenas, allotting bigger financing for the sport is a must. Our Baltic children, and Lithuanian children too, are gifted as players of physical sports, so I am optimistic,” A. Jokimčius said.