International Ice Hockey Federation

On the move

On the move

Building blocks in place for Kurbads Riga

Published 17.10.2017 20:46 GMT+5 | Author Henrik Manninen
On the move
Kurbads Riga’s Janis Straupe fully focused ahead of playing host to the Continental Cup. Photo: Romans Koksarovs
With a shiny new home and a thriving hockey academy now in place, Continental Cup progress is next in line for Latvian champion Kurbads Riga.

The paint has just about dried and the last bolt been firmly put into its place at the Kurbads Ledus Halle in the southern suburbs of Latvia’s capital Riga. With its doors opening to welcome GKS Tychy of Poland, Ukraine’s HC Donbass, and Narva PSK of neighbouring Estonia in Group B of the second round of the Continental Cup, the hosts will be fully geared up to turn on a show.

“This is the first time HK Kurbads plays in the Continental Cup and it is probably the biggest club competition we as a Latvian team can take part in, so we are getting seriously ready for this tournament and it means a lot to us,” said Kurbads Riga’s Janis Straupe ahead of the three round of games played from 20th to 22nd October.

A vital cog on and off the ice in Kurbads Riga’s ascent to the top, 28-year-old Straupe describes his various roles within the club as “PR man, manager, and player”. Signing up for the club ahead of the 2014/15 season, Straupe is part of a core of players who stayed loyal to the club despite enduring heartbreak during three consecutive seasons.

Following Kurbads Riga’s domestic play-off final defeats between 2014 to 2016, the taste of victory tasted even sweeter when it finally arrived this year. Getting past the finishing line in dramatic fashion in April, Kurbads Riga overturned 0-3 in games during the final series against Mogo Riga. Latvian hockey hailed a new domestic champion in Kurbads Riga in what had been the club’s fifth season in Latvia’s top division.

Formed in 1996, it coincided with the year Latvia celebrated the national team’s promotion to the top division of the IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship. As the club diligently climbed up their leagues, plans were put in place to be more than just a club team. Bankrolled and named after a transport company, the club is spearheaded by a hockey-mad president Andis Pikans, who was the driving force behind the ambitious plans which now has come to fruition.

“With the senior team getting better, the next logical step was to open up a hockey school and that’s what we’ve done. Now in our first year, we have more than 90 players involved and we are hoping to become the best hockey school in Latvia,” said Straupe.

The club’s sign of intent has not gone unnoticed. Arturs Irbe, the legendary Latvian goaltender, signed up for the club to coach the club’s netminders of all ages with Kurbads Riga eager to show that there is far more to Latvian club hockey beyond its flagship in the KHL, Dinamo Riga.

While Latvian clubs have fought constant battles to remain competitive and staying afloat, Straupe’s own personal experiences during his playing career exemplifies this roller-coaster ride that is Latvian top-division hockey.

“Before Dinamo Riga played in the KHL in 2008/09, the Latvian league was of a high level with six teams, a lot of spectators and sponsor money. But as soon as Dinamo Riga got a team in the KHL, our domestic league became like a third-tier division,” said Straupe, who around that time signed up as a player with the Dinamo Riga organization for two seasons.

“While some teams decided to play in the Belarusian league, the interest for the Latvian league was lost and basically was played on amateur level,” said Straupe, who has noticed a gradual shift to the better since returning from stints abroad in Finland, France, Norway and Ukraine.

“When I came back to Latvia four years ago the regular season was much easier than now,” he said. “These days every game is a hard battle and you cannot relax so the level has grown a lot,” said Straupe as his team now has five to seven pros on its current roster playing hockey full time while with another three to four players help out at the club’s hockey academy.

With a strong team spirit going through its close-knit roster like a red thread, the appointment of Aleksandrs Macijevskis as head coach ahead of this season goes well in line with the club’s outlined philosophy. Macijevskis, a long-serving national team player, who also played his final three seasons at Kurbads Riga, appears to have got his team full steam ahead. Undefeated in their last six league matches and bolstered by the recent signing of Janis Sprukts, Kurbads Riga emphatically overpowered HS Riga 9-2 in their dress rehearsal ahead of the Continental Cup.

With a place in the third round up for grabs at Group D of the Continental Cup played in Rungsted, Denmark, 17-19 November, Straupe singles out their Polish visitors as their main challenger to stand in their way for further progress.

“The game against Tychy will probably be the deciding match,” he said of their opening-day opponent on Friday evening. “We think Tychy will play a physical game and be fast, so we will have to move the puck around well and be quicker. If we make good and fast decisions I think we have a good chance. We are playing at home and they are coming a long way,” said Straupe.

 

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