It is a look back at the IX season of the KHL Championship. Lady Luck does not smile on everyone, however, and for every victor there is a vanquished. Today we pay a pictorial tribute to one of those teams for whom 2016-17 was a struggle against adversity – Dinamo Riga.
For this club from the Latvian capital, an ever-present in the League’s nine-year history, this has been the most disappointing season of all. The team was the first to be mathematically excluded from playoff qualification, finished bottom of the Western Conference, and only Metallurg Novokuznetsk stood below them in the overall regular season standings.
Since the departure of Pekka Rautakallio, the club has endured years of instability and uncertainty surrounding the top job, and this has taken an inevitable toll on results. The team ended the season with general manager Normunds Sejejs as acting head coach, but two days ago the club announced the departure of Sejejs and the appointment of one of his assistants, legendary Stanley Cup winner Sandis Ozolins, as head coach.
The Riga men began the campaign with six straight road games, from which they yielded just a solitary point. Not a complete disaster, but a worrying trend had already appeared – they were losing games in which they had enjoyed a lead, often losing in the closing minutes, or if not, then in overtime.
The team found goals hard to come by throughout the regular season, and the final total of 116 was easily the worst in the west. In contrast, the goals allowed column was far healthier – a mere 158, thanks in no small part to the solid performances of goaltenders Jakub Sedlacek and Janis Kalnins. The latter even claimed a Goaltender of the Week award following one particularly impressive spell.
Many expressed disappointment at the form shown by players who for several seasons have been regarded as the Riga club’s leaders. Much more was expected from Mikelis Redlihs, Lauris Darzins, Tim Sestito and others. “If between them they had managed 10 more goals, especially in those games we lost by the odd goal, then we would have 10-15 more points, and there would be none of this talk about bad luck or psychological burdens. Just three more goals from each one and it would have been a different story, but sadly, that didn’t happen,” – lamented Normunds Sejejs in an interview with KHL.ru.
Fortune was particularly cruel on Dinamo in the shootout. In one amazing spell, from the 17th to the 26th of October, the team contrived to hold Spartak, Torpedo, HC Sochi and Dynamo Moscow through regulation and overtime, only to lose each time in the shootout. “It would be far simpler if we were losing 0-5, or 0-10. Then you deserve it, and you can’t complain. But losing all the time from just a single shot – that’s the worst thing of all,” – said Normunds Sejejs after yet another such defeat.
Of course, even the darkest periods have their bright spots, and one arrived for Dinamo during a curious spell in early December, when the team played some of its home games away from the Arena Riga. This meant that the Estonian capital, Tallinn, appeared on the map of KHL venues, and it turned out to be a happy hunting-ground for the Latvians. On the 2nd of December, in front of a sell-out crowd, Dinamo enjoyed a 4-3 shootout victory over the reigning champion, Metallurg Magnitogorsk.
There was a further injection of optimism in early winter, when the most famous and successful player in Latvian hockey history, Sandis Ozolins, joined the coaching staff. His presence as an assistant was not enough to reverse the tide of poor results, however.
It was perhaps inevitable that the poor performances on the ice would have an impact on attendances at the home games. Only recently, the Arena Riga would often be filled to the rafters, but a full house is now a rare occurrence. Of course, nothing could dampen the passions of Riga’s most loyal supporters, who ensured the stadium was still more than half full during these difficult times.
As early as the 16th of January, a failure to claim a win in regulation against Kunlun Red Star meant the team had no chance of qualifying for the playoffs. However, having shed the mental burden of needing points, and playing purely for pride, the Dinamo players rediscovered some of their free-flowing hockey and even put together a run of three victories for the first time in the entire campaign. They also finished on a high note, winning their last two regular season games.
Despite the serial setbacks over the past 12 months, the Riga men continue to battle and the fans have been keeping the faith, confident that the best is yet to come. The appointment of their hero as their team’s head coach can only strengthen the feeling that the only way is up.