IIHF – Lithuanians ready for history
Lithuania is on the verge of winning a medal at the 2022 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship, Division I, Group A. It would be one of the Baltic nation’s greatest successes in IIHF play. .
If the Lithuanians beat Romania in regular time, they will have secured third place (as well as second place and promotion for Hungary) and bronze medals. They would rank 19th overall in the 2022 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship program.
The men’s national team has only reached such heights once before when they played second in the old-fashioned Division I with two horizontal groups and missed out on promotion to the top division by one place in finishing second after a 5-3 loss to Austria after leading 3-2 until the end of the second period. This year’s feat would be on a similar level with already a 5-3 victory over Korea on their own but defeats in hard-fought games against Slovenia (4-2) and Hungary (2-1).
16 years later, it’s a completely different team with a new generation of players. With more players and leagues in Lithuania and players trying their luck abroad. 14 national team players are registered with foreign clubs. They also include players who play in Europe’s top leagues, including goalkeeper Mantas Armalis, who plays for Djurgarden Stockholm and also grew up in Sweden as the son of Lithuanian immigrants, striker Emilijus Krakauskas at Lausanne HC in Switzerland and defender Nerijus Alisauskas, who has spent most of the past five years with Latvian KHL club Dinamo Riga.
“We are delighted to be here. We try to do our best,” Alisauskas said. “The games against Korea and Romania are the most important games to still fight for a medal and we want to win and get the bronze medal.”
Dinamo Riga’s time in the Russian-based KHL came to an end with Russia’s war in Ukraine. Jokerit Helsinki also left the league and withdrew from the playoffs. To continue the season after the season came to an early end in Riga, Alisauskas joined Swedish second division side Vita Hasten from Norrkoping in February. Earlier in his career, he spent six years in junior and senior hockey in Latvia with Metalurgs Liepaja as well as professional years in Germany, Kazakhstan and Slovakia.
At Dinamo Riga, he was fifth in ice time among defensemen, but third in hits.
“Dinamo Riga was the highest level I played at and I speak Latvian because I played many years in Latvia so it felt like home and my home country is nearby, it was good for me and my family,” said Alisauskas, who will be looking for a new contract for the upcoming season. “Probably somewhere in Europe. I just want to sign with a good team in a good league.
This week, his focus is on the national team and is happy to be back with his compatriots for his tenth IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I tournament with the Senior Men’s National Team.
“Things have changed in recent years, but what doesn’t change is our group of friends. We feel good together and we are always happy when we get together during these weeks,” said the 30-year-old team captain.
“We also have some good young players coming up. Maybe that’s a difference from when I started. That there are more young players who can be part of the team.
Alisauskas rose through the ranks from the small Lithuanian hockey town of Elektrenai, which former NHL players Dainius Zubrus and Darius Kasparaitis also call their hometown, in Latvia, Germany’s third-tier league, to top-tier hockey in the KHL – and a role model for future generations of Lithuanian hockey. He followed a path that he recommends to any junior player with ambitions in professional hockey.
“There are a lot of good hockey countries. I think they need to go where hockey is a number one sport and where they develop young players very well,” he said. “It’s the only way if you want to become a professional player. You have to get out of your comfort zone. »
Sports like hockey or even football are sometimes in the shadow of the Lithuanian national sport. It is in basketball that Lithuania produces Olympic medals, three European championships and several NBA first-round picks. Top-level league ice hockey on the other side is usually played in front of a few hundred fans at the rinks of Elektrenai, Kaunas, Klaipeda and Vilnius, sometimes in the playoffs as well more. But interest has increased in recent years and it is also thanks to the reception of Division I in these large multifunctional arenas where the best basketball events usually take place.
In 2009, up to 8,700 spectators filled the Siemens Arena in the capital of Vilnius for Division I matches and the success story was repeated when the event returned to the same arena in 2014. 2018, Lithuanians chose the second largest city of Kaunas with the largest indoor sports complex in the Baltic countries. As many as 10,170 fans came to watch Lithuania’s games at Zalgiris Arena and their team was promoted to Division IA with both former NHL players Zubrus and Kasparaitis on the ice. This does not go unnoticed by the media and the population and such tournaments have helped to raise the profile of Lithuanian ice hockey.
“When we have world championships in Lithuania, everyone is interested in hockey and people notice us. It was good every time in Lithuania and we want to do it again,” said Alisauskas.
“We also have more hockey academies, more arenas. And we need more so more kids can come onto the ice and fall in love with these games.
With victories here in Ljubljana and bronze medals, Lithuanian players can add to the success of recent years and help develop hockey.