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Latvia is the Little Team that Could at World Juniors

Latvia pulled off a major upset at the World Junior Championship, beating Czechia to advance to the quarterfinal for the first time ever. And they weren't even supposed to be in the tournament, either, creating the ultimate feel-good story.
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EDMONTON - "We just made history!"

You did indeed, Martins Lavins. 

After going 0-27 all-time before this in the round-robin, Latvia won its first preliminary round game in the top division with a major 5-2 win over Czechia on Sunday, the team's final game of the opening round. That meant they were off to the quarterfinal for the first time, too, sending Slovakia home a month after the team produced three first-round NHL prospects -- all who elected to stay home.

Defenseman Ralfs Bergmanis was the hero for Latvia, with the University of Vermont captain scoring a hat-trick to lead the way. Lavins and Rainers Rullers scored the first two goals of the game on just four shots for Latvia early in the going.

Latvia needed to win the game in any fashion to advance over Slovakia, who beat Latvia in a shootout earlier in the week. Had the Slovaks won in 60, Latvia's win tonight wouldn't have had the same impact.

This is all incredible, and it's even more incredible given the context.

When Latvia beat Kazakhstan on Dec. 18, 2021 to close out the Division IA World Junior Championship, it looked like the end of the road for most of the team's older core. 

A total of 13 2002-born players skated in what looked to be their final junior tournament. They won silver, so they just missed out on promotion. That honor went to Belarus, who had a perfect 5-0 record, highlighted by a 2-1 win over the Latvians on the third day of the tourney.

That's it. It's over. Try again next year.

And then, a few months later, everything changed drastically. Russia was kicked from the top tournament due to the invasion of Ukraine, and Belarus wasn't permitted to act as a replacement. Latvia was headed to the 2023 World Junior Championship, wherever it was going to be held.

But hold on. The 2022 tournament still had to be replayed, and they were headed there too.

So, for the first time ever, a team participated in two different World Junior Championship tournaments in different divisions in the same year.

Holy moly. And with no expectations -- there's no relegation this year -- they pulled off the unthinkable.

"It's a dream come true," Lavins said post-game. "We knew we just did something special, and it's an amazing feeling to share something like that."

The win wasn't a fluke, either. The Czechs had more shots, but Latvia took advantage of every opportunity. And that's exactly what they did all tournament, giving Canada and Finland -- two gold medal favorites -- some fits along the way. They even scored the first goal against Slovakia, too. In all four games, the Latvians were outmatched and outskilled, but they worked hard, had some promising moments and got good goaltending from Bruno Bruveris -- the goalie of record on Sunday -- and backup Patriks Berzins.

"I'm very proud to be part of this special moment for us; it's amazing," Bruveris said. "We're like a family in the locker room, and that's the most important thing you need to play hockey because this is a team sport."

The "family" mantra was evident in the press mix zone after the game, with a few players gathering together for a big hug while taking questions in English.

"We're playing as hard as we can, we know we don't have as much skill as other teams. We're just playing our hearts out," Lavins said with a big smile.

Latvian fans have always been known for being some of the best in international hockey, traveling to events no matter the location. Riga hosted the 2021 men's World Hockey Championship, but without fans due to COVID-19. That year, though, Latvia pulled off one of the biggest wins in team history when they beat Canada to open the tournament off the heels of an incredible effort from promising young goaltender Matiss Kivlenieks. 

Kivlenieks was tragically killed in a fireworks accident a few months later, and fans have been dedicating tributes ever since, with some wearing jerseys with his name on it during Sunday's historic victory.

Latvia will co-host the 2023 World Championship with Finland, so they'll have another chance to show just how dedicated of a hockey market they are.

"We heard them in the stands, they were so loud," Lavins said. "It drives us forward. It's amazing. All of the positive messages from fans back in Latvia, it's a joy to play for them."

But back to the junior team, it's hard not to crack a smile when watching these young men celebrate. Multiple players said they felt no pressure in this tournament, so it was all about going out, playing their game and learning for the future. A total of 16 players -- including all three NHL picks and potential 2023 selections Rodzers Bukarts and Niks Fenenko -- are eligible to return for the next tournament later this year. Six players can return for 2024, and Peteris Bulans can even re-join in 2025, should Latvia still be in the top division by then.

This group truly believes they can accomplish anything with hard work.

Latvia will be in tough in the quarterfinal, facing off against either Sweden or the United States, two gold medal favorites. But the team feels like it can take on anyone and isn't afraid of the challenges ahead -- nobody picked them to beat Czechia, after all.

And, hey? Why not? Part of the beauty of this tournament is that anything can happen. Just ask Lavins.

"We're not done yet, there's a lot of fight left in us," Lavins said.

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