For the first time in a long time, Great Britain’s ice hockey team will be taking on some of the best nations in the sport at the World Championships, after earning back-to-back promotions from Division 1B to 1A and now to the top group for the first time since 1994.
In May, the final squad will fly out to Slovakia for the tournament where they’ll face the likes of Canada, USA and Finland.
Preparation for the tournament will be key to help GB defy expectations and avoid relegation, and tonight the first preparation game gets underway in a big fixture as Great Britain take on Kontinental Hockey League side Dinamo Riga of Latvia.
The original Dinamo Riga team was founded in 1946 and went by several different names before the team ceased to exist in 1995, then reforming in time for the inaugural season of the KHL, where the team has competed as one of six current teams in the league based outside of Russia.
While they enjoyed early success, making the playoffs in five of their first six seasons, they haven’t had a post-season appearance since 2014, consistently finishing near the bottom of the standings, but this year as the season is nearing its end they’re still in the hunt for a playoff berth, just two points behind HC Sochi who are eighth in the Western Conference and occupy the final playoff spot.
But who exactly is there to look out for on this Riga side?
For the past two seasons the side has been coached by Latvian Girts Ankipans, a 43-year-old from Riga who began his coaching career in 2013 with Dinamo as an assistant coach before moving on to Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod as an assistant, earning a head coaching job in the 2017/18 season as he returned to Riga.
He had a lengthy playing career from 1991 to 2013, featuring heavily for the national team and across many of Europes top leagues, and while he didn’t win many accolades as a player, he’ll be hoping to change that as a coach.
Collectively the team which is made up of predominantly Latvian players has 328 games of NHL experience, mostly coming from Canadians Brandon McMillan (171 games for the Anaheim Ducks, Arizona Coyotes and Vancouver Canucks) and Colton Gillies (154 games for the Minnesota Wild and Columbus Blue Jackets)as well as Latvian goalie Kristers Gudlevskis who made 3 appearances for the Tampa Bay Lightning, as well as numerous AHL and ECHL games before the 26-year-old returned to his home country this season to balance the starts for Riga with 23-year-old Russian Timur Bilyalov who finished last season with AK Bars Kazan.
Linus Videll is the key man to watch for the Latvian side. He leads the team in points and is currently 14th in league scoring with 44 points in as many games, while Mathew Maione joins him in the top 20 in the league for points with 42, the second most amongst defensemen behind Darren Dietz of Barys Astana who leads with 51 points.
Swedish forward Videll is a bit of a journeyman in his career, back for his second stint for Riga at the age of 33, having amassed no less than 343 KHL games for 6 different sides since the 2011-12 season, with his first appearance for Riga coming in the 2014-15 season where he led the team with 34 points.
A dual threat as both a playmaker and a goal scorer, Videll will be a handful for the British defence especially given his size and ability to play as a hard hitting power forward to create more time and space for himself. At 6’4” and 218lbs, he’s a big body who can play both on the wing or down the middle, while team captain Lauris Darzins will also prove difficult to manage as predominantly a set up man that will be effective if utilised in special teams situations.
The team have a good goaltending duo of Gudlevskis and Bilyalov who have split the starts during the season, both impressing with a .910 and .929 save percentage respectively, while 17-year-old prospect Arturs Silovs is joining the squad for the trip to England after impressing for MHL side HS Riga and is expected to be the starter for Latvia at this springs World U18 tournament.
Dinamo Riga on paper should be at a standard that will test but not overrun GB, giving them a competitive game to start out their lengthy World Championships preparation. While Head Coach Pete Russell experiments with systems, combinations and gives a look to players who could compete for a spot on the final roster, these games are crucial to build momentum going into the tournament in May, and while it is sort of going into the unknown in terms of what to expect from this GB V KHL series, a good team performance and some stand out performances from individuals on the cusp of making the squad will arguably be more important than the final score, as tonight is just the first of many steps towards continuing to develop the national team to a level that they can say they deserve to share the ice with the best nations, and can stay there or at least go out with one hell of a fight if they are to suffer relegation back to Division 1A.
Fun fact, it’s not the first time a Russian side has played in the UK. In 1955, the Soviet Union side played three British teams, winning each game.
Firstly they took on the Harringay Racers and demolished them 11 – 1, and then in a rematch where the Racers has bolstered there roster with some players from the Wembley Lions, the Soviets took a 5 – 4 victory, and followed that up with a 3 – 2 win over the actual Wembley Lions days later.
Then they faced the Brighton Lions in Paris, France and skated away with a 2 – 1 victory.
A year later in the 1956 Winter Olympics, the Soviets won their first ever gold medal in Ice Hockey in their first appearance, with all 16 players who faced the British sides on the roster, starting the dominance of the Soviet side who won seven Gold medals between 1956 and 1988, earning a Bronze and Silver in the years they didn’t win Gold.
Harringay were invited to the Soviet Union for a two game series as well, losing both games 7 – 1 and 4 – 0.