Two goalies lead the way among Latvia’s KHL representatives, with Edgars Masalskis representing the old guard andJanis Kalnins blazing a trail for the new generation. There’s not much between them: Masalskis has a handful more games but will likely be overtaken by Kalnins next season; Kalnins has more wins, but has played more games on a Jokerit team among the leaders in the Western Conference. Masalskis has the more illustrious international career, but Kalnins has time to make his mark in his country’s colors.
Now aged 40, and on the coaching staff at Dinamo Riga, Masalskis made his first appearances in the KHL back in the inaugural season. He featured in the first eight games of that campaign before Sergejs Naumovs took over as first choice. Masalskis went to Germany but was soon back home, backstopping Riga to the 2010 playoffs and going to the Vancouver Olympics before moving to Ugra for two more playoff campaigns. In 2013-2014, he missed much of the campaign, only getting on the ice in January with HC Poprad in Slovakia and playing at the Sochi Olympics with just a handful of games under his belt. That unhappy season persuaded him that the KHL was the place to be and he returned to Dinamo once more. “I’m really glad to be back in this league and playing at home,” he told R-Sport at the time. “I didn’t really mind which club I went to, I just wanted to get back to the KHL. After I basically missed last season it was important for me to get back to this level, and I’m delighted that it worked out that I could return to Riga.” The Latvian played two more seasons with Lada before finishing his playing career in 2017.
Masalskis’ final season in the KHL was Kalnins’ first. He made his Dinamo Riga debut at the age of 24 and produced a creditable campaign on a struggling team. In 2017-2018, he maintained that form and earned a move to Jokerit, where he has since established himself as #1 despite competition from Stanley Cup winner Antti Niemi. It represents a big upswing in fortunes for a player who was playing in the Hungarian championship as recently as 2016, but Kalnins took the step up in his stride.
“I don’t think anyone would have expected much from a goalie from Hungary,” he admitted in an interview with KHL.ru in October 2019. “But it just took me a handful of games to get used to the KHL. I didn’t need to do anything special; I just played my hockey. I got a chance and I made the most of it.” But there’s still one minor difficulty with life at Jokerit: “Even now, I’m still not sure where I can park my car in Helsinki!” he joked.
When Kalnins was allowed to leave Riga for Helsinki, it came as a surprise. But the explanation quickly followed when Kristers Gudlevskis signed for Dinamo. He was coming back to Latvia after five seasons in North America, a spell that saw him produce a headline grabbing performance against Canada at the Sochi Olympics and brought an NHL debut with the Lightning. However, his return to Riga was not a happy one: in 2018-2019 he shared game time with Timur Bilyalov, now of Ak Bars, and last season he lasted just nine more games before moving on to play in the DEL.
At the foot of the table we have three back-up goalies. Maris Jucers, who played in Riga for two seasons as understudy to Chris Holt and Mikael Tellqvist, comes next in terms of games, but he is outstripped by Naumov when it comes to victories. Finally, young Janis Voris made his KHL debut in the 2019-2020 season and got his first career shut-out in the same campaign when he blanked Barys on Jan. 4. The 20-year-old played a season of junior hockey in America and has since signed a contract with Rodovre in Denmark in search of regular game time in men’s hockey.
One of the KHL’s iron men, Kristaps Sotnieks has been part of the league from day one and he’s still going strong. The 33-year-old has completed 12 seasons in the KHL, and all but two of them with Dinamo Riga. His longevity is all the more remarkable, considering he identifies with an all-action style. Back in 2011, he talked up his philosophy on the game, saying: “The coach is asking the defensemen to move the puck quicker, to play more active and skate better. We have more hits, and the tempo is up. I like that kind of hockey. Sure, it needs you to be in the best possible condition but I’m already used to that.” Sotnieks is likely to be back next season, but his next employer is uncertain. In April he was close to joining HC Sochi, but the move broke down and the Riga native is currently a free agent.
Krisjanis Redlihs, one of three brothers to play for Dinamo Riga, is next on the list. Like Sotnieks, he was in at the start with Dinamo in the KHL, and he continued playing in Latvia for almost his entire career in the competition. Along the way, he became the top-scoring Latvian defenseman in KHL history. However, his one move — to China last season — was unusual. Kunlun Red Star head coach Jussi Tapola, faced with an injury crisis among his defensemen, admitted that he signed Redlihs without ever seeing him in action. After the defenseman’s debut — ironically against Dinamo Riga — Tapola told journalists: “This was the first time I saw him on the ice, but we have a very good partner, Instat, and using their programs I could get a detailed view of his strengths and weaknesses. On that basis I decided that he was a good fit for us, and his first game reinforces that confidence.” However, the stats could not predict that Redlihs, too, would fall foul of the Red Star injury curse: he played just 12 games for the Dragons.
Much-travelled Georgijs Pujacs defies the stereotype of Latvian players enjoying their best years at home. Before the KHL began, this Riga native had two spells in America, a season in Sweden and stints in Russia and Belarus. He finished his first KHL campaign with Dinamo Riga, but was immediately on the road again, playing for Sibir and Avangard before returning to Dinamo in 2013. Still, the wanderlust wasn’t sated: Neftekhimik was the next call, plus a spell in Slovakia. Aged 39, this 3-time Olympian was still playing last season in the Latvian championship.
It would be fair to describe Guntis Galvins as a divisive figure. Like many Latvians in the KHL, he joined Dinamo Riga for the start of the league and played the bulk of his career there. He enjoyed some good times: Krisjanis Redlihs paid tribute to their effective partnership in the early years, the team repeatedly reached the playoffs — in 2011 Galvins even entertained hopes of making the Conference finals — and the defenseman was awarded the ‘C’ for 2012-2013. But there were downsides as well: import Rob Schremp branded Galvins ‘rat of the year’ after his departure from the team in 2012 and amid the furore the defenseman was stripped of the captaincy. Later, Artis Arbols complained that he was unhappy with the player’s attitude and the defenseman moved to Ugra at the end of the season. His spell there was brief: the team had six imports, and Galvins was the player asked to leave. There were stints with AIK and Bolzano before he made his peace with Dinamo and played three more KHL campaigns in Latvia.
No such drama with Arturs Kulda. A stay-at-home defenseman by nature, he brought a smattering of NHL experience with him when he arrived at Sibir in 2012 to add heft to a defensive unit featuring a young Nikita Zaitsev. In Novosibirsk he was reckoned one of the most popular imports of recent times and since his arrival in the league he’s calmly played through almost 400 games.
However, the best on the list arguably appears at the foot. Sandis Ozolins is, by any reckoning, the finest defenseman Latvia has produced. Stanley Cup winner, serial NHL All-Star, lynchpin of the national team for three Olympic campaigns, Ozolins has pretty much done it all. When he came to the KHL he was already a veteran; indeed, he joined Dinamo Riga for the 2009-2010 campaign after a year’s sabbatical. But he became a face of the league and in 2012 he led ‘Team Ozolins’ in the All-Star Game in Riga.
For this Latvian legend, it was an Indian summer. In 260 games he compiled 132 points — the second best result for any Latvian defenseman in the KHL, and delivered in barely half the games it took Redlihs to inch ahead. It was also a return to his past: as a junior, Ozolins was on Dinamo’s books as the team played in the Soviet championship. “When we were kids, we would look wide-eyed at the guys from the pro team,” he told KHL.ru on his retirement in 2014. “We would look at them and think ‘Wow! This is Dinamo Riga!’.”
Later, his return home rekindled his love of the game. “There was one day at the Sharks when I knew I couldn’t play anymore,” Ozolins recalled. “I was standing on the blue line, the puck coming toward me, and I didn’t know what to do with it. It was like I was afraid, I felt panic. Of course, it bounced over my stick and they went and scored on us. After that I didn’t play for an entire year, I didn’t even know where my equipment was. I was lucky to get the invitation to play for Dinamo Riga and once again I was having fun and enjoying my hockey again.”
Lauris Darzins is Latvia’s leading scorer in the KHL, with 328 (127+191) points. But the fact that he is still playing the game owes something to soccer star Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Darzins, one of the bright young stars of Latvian hockey in the early seasons of the league, had several seasons blighted by injury — most notably his chances of establishing himself at Ak Bars were wrecked by a series of niggles on his move to Kazan, limiting him to just 43 games in two years. So, when a serious injury struck during preparations for the 2017 World Championship, he seriously thought of retirement.
However, Zlatan, Sweden’s soccer legend, suffered a similar injury playing for Manchester United and his return to fitness inspired Darzins. “All the time I was just thinking that I needed to get fit faster than him,” Darzins said when he returned to action in November 2017. “Yesterday he played 13 minutes, today I managed to play a little bit longer so we can call it a tie.” In addition, Darzins scored off his first shot of the season as Dinamo defeated Avtomobilist.
Many of Darzins’ points came in tandem with Mikelis Redlihs. The two are almost contemporaries and emerged together in Riga. In the 2009-2010 season, their flash and dash lifted the team to a playoff win over SKA, the team’s best result in the KHL era. Darzins was the more prolific, Redlihs the speed king. In 2012, after topping the fan vote ahead of the All-Star Game in Riga, he set a record for the fastest lap of the ice during the Skill Show. And even this season, at the age of 35, he shows no sign of slowing down. In September, the KHL’s new Smart Puck technology showed him reach 39.8 km/h during a game against Neftekhimik, the fastest player that month. With pace like that, the right winger is surely capable of finding a club to continue next season after his latest deal in Riga came to an end.
Martins Karsums is a player closely associated with Oleg Znarok. They first worked together when Znarok was head coach of Team Latvia and Karsums was pursuing his career in North America. That adventure brought 24 NHL appearances with Boston and Tampa Bay before he returned to Latvia and joined Dinamo Riga late in the 2009-10 season. Their paths crossed again at Dynamo Moscow in 2013-2014, and Karsums remained there as Harijs Vitolins took over as head coach when Znarok got the Team Russia job. Finally, when Znarok — now an Olympic champion — returned to club coaching at Spartak this season, Karsums was one of the players he inherited. In many respects, Karsums is the type of player Znarok enjoys working with: uncompromising, as likely to take a penalty as to score a goal, but willing to buy into the team philosophy and help construct the siege mentality that has helped Znarok’s teams win so many trophies. However, a 22-point return for the Red-and-Whites last season was a disappointment and Karsums is currently a free agent.
If Karsums can often be heard discussing refereeing decisions, Gints Meija is one of the quiet men of the league. His 541 games have all been in the colors of Dinamo Riga, where he has rarely been the most prolific of players. However, his contribution is measured less in points than in his easy-going nature, work ethic and commitment to the cause. After 12 seasons at the club, including time as captain at Dinamo and assistant captain for team Latvia, he’s become part of the fabric of Latvian hockey in a way that few players can hope to match.
Miks Indrasis is another player who emerged as a star for club and country at Dinamo Riga. Indeed, the 29-year-old even maintained his connection with his old team after moving to Dynamo Moscow two summers ago. Early in his career with the Blue-and-Whites, Indrasis potted his 100th KHL goal — into Dinamo Riga’s net, in fine style, to complete a fightback from 0-2 and secure a 3-2 win.
If Meija is a player who slowly accumulates his points, the final player on this list, Kaspars Daugavins, is very different. With 225 points in 363 regular season games since he joined Dynamo Moscow in 2014, Daugavins is a consistent contributor with the creativity to conjure something out of nothing and change the course of a game. And he added a new achievement to his collection this season when he became only the third Latvian to score a KHL hat-trick. He scored three times on Kunlun Red Star in a 7-4 victory to join Darzins and Aleksandrs Nizivijs.
“Of course, I knew it was my first hat-trick in the KHL,” he told the league’s website. “I’d done it for the national team, but not in this league, so I was especially happy. I’ve already collected the caps from the ice and I’ll be sharing them with my friends.”
The 2019-2020 campaign was Daugavins’ last with Spartak; next season he’ll suit up for Vityaz.