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[edit] Ice hockey Ice hockey is the most popular sport in Latvia. It has one pro hockey league, there are also several amateur hockey leagues. Ice hockey has been played in Latvia since the 1920s. Latvia is a member of the International Ice Hockey Federation, its national team has participated in several World Championships and the 1936 Winter Olympic Games. After Latvia was occupied by The Soviet Union in 1940, its membership in the IIHF was interrupted. Latvians had a significant role in establishing ice hockey in The Soviet Union. Latvia's Dinamo Rīga team was one of eleven teams which played in the first Soviet championship tournament in the winter of 1946/1947. The Latvian Harijs Mellups was the goalkeeper for the Soviet Union National team in its first international game in 1948. Latvian hockey experienced a decline in the 1960s, with Dinamo Rīga being relegated from the Soviet High League (vysshaya liga) to the first league and then even to the second league. It began a comeback in the 1970s, under the coach Viktor Tikhonov who would later go on to coach CSKA Moscow and the Soviet national team. In the 1973/1974 season, Dinamo Rīga returned to the Elite League where it stayed until the end of Soviet Union in 1991. In 1975, Viktor Hatulev of Dinamo Rīga became the first ice hockey player from the Soviet Union drafted by the National Hockey League but never had a chance to play, as Soviet players were not allowed to play for foreign teams. Helmuts Balderis was the brightest Latvian hockey star of 1970s and 1980s, and achieved all-time scoring records (scoring 333 goals in Soviet championships) for Latvian forwards. He was the leading scorer in the Soviet Elite League twice (1977 and 1983) and the Player of the Year once (1977). Balderis also played for the Soviet National team, being on the losing side of the Miracle on Ice game in 1980 but winning the World Championships on other occasions (1978, 1979 and 1983). Balderis was named the best forward of the 1977 Ice Hockey World Championship. Despite his continuing high scoring results, he was not selected for the Soviet National team for the 1984 Winter Olympics, possibly because of political or national reasons (in those years the Soviet team consisted of sportsmen only from Moscow ice hockey teams, any other Soviet cities or Soviet republics were not represented). Thus Balderis became the all-time top scorer among those Soviet ice hockey forwards who played for the national team but had never been awarded the Olympic gold medal. Goalkeepers Vitālijs Samoilovs and Artūrs Irbe also starred for the Soviet team in the 1980s, Irbe was the best goalkeeper of the 1990 Ice Hockey World Championship. Samoilovs was the backup goaltender on the gold-medal winning Soviet team at the 1988 Winter Olympic Games. The best season for Dinamo Rīga came in 1987/1988, the first season when the Soviet Elite League instituted an NHL-style playoff system. Dinamo Rīga finished third in the regular season and upset Dynamo Moscow in the semi-finals, before losing to CSKA Moscow, the perennial Soviet champions of the 1980s, in the finals. After Latvia regained independence in 1991, Latvia restored its membership in the IIHF and the Latvian national team returned to international competitions. As a new team, they were initially placed in the C Pool (third division) of the World Championships and had to qualify for the higher level competitions. They debuted in the B Pool in 1994 and the top-level A Pool in 1997. Latvia has played in the A Pool championship since then. The best result was 7th place in 1997, 2004 and 2009. While not a medal contender, the Latvian team has produced some upsets over the top teams in World Championships, defeating the USA twice (in 1998 and 2001) and arch rival Russia twice (in 2000 and 2003). Latvia competed in the 2002 Winter Olympics, the 2006 Winter Olympics and the 2010 Winter Olympics. As of 2008, fifteen Latvian ice hockey players have played in NHL. The first of them was Helmuts Balderis, who came to play in Minnesota North Stars team at the age of 36 in the 1989–90 season . Sandis Ozoliņš, Artūrs Irbe, Sergejs Žoltoks and Kārlis Skrastiņš have been the most successful ones. Ozoliņš is the only Latvian to win the Stanley Cup, in the 1995–96 season with the Colorado Avalanche. Ozoliņš and Irbe have played in NHL All-Star Games. The other Latvian players who have played in NHL are: Aleksandrs Kerčs, Grigorijs Panteļejevs, Pēteris Skudra, Viktors Ignatjevs, Herberts Vasiļjevs, Kaspars Astašenko, Raitis Ivanāns, Jānis Sprukts, Harijs Vītoliņš, Mārtiņš Karsums, Oskars Bārtulis, Artūrs Kulda, Kaspars Daugaviņš. The 2006 Men's World Ice Hockey Championships was held in Latvia.


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