International Ice Hockey Federation

Latvians have plenty to prove

Latvians have plenty to prove

Players from all over, Cukste only one from NCAA

Published 25.04.2017 09:17 GMT-4 | Author Andrew Podnieks
Latvians have plenty to prove
Defenceman Karlis Cukste (pictured against Kazakhstan’s Kirill Panyukov) helped Latvia last year earn promotion to the top division where the country wants to stay. Photo: Werner Krainbucher
Latvia's U20 team has players from all over the world, but only three have been NHL-drafted. Karlis Cukste is one, and he has helped the nation get this far.

The Latvian roster at the World Juniors is chock full of names of players who are draft eligible for NHL teams but who have yet to receive any interest. In fact, only three players have had their names called, all in 2015—the local Maple Leafs selected Martins Dzierkals 68th overall; San Jose took Rudolfs Balcers 142nd overall; and, the Sharks drafted Karlis Cukste 130th overall. 

Even more interesting about the Latvian roster is the variety of leagues and teams represented this year. Players are here from Latvia, Norway, Switzerland; from the three Canadian major junior leagues; from the USHL, NAHL, and NCAA.

This poses an interesting challenge for coach Eriks Mulins, who is tasked with putting together a team with such disparate experience is so short a time.

“Latvia is a small nation,” Cukste noted, “so we’ve all known each other since we were kids. You either played with them or against them, so when we get together like this, it’s not as difficult as it may seem.”

Cukste, a defenceman, is the only NCAA player on the team. He is in his first year with Quinnipiac. The Bobcats are a Division I team in the ECAC, competing alongside Boston College, Harvard, and Dartmouth.

“Quinnipiac had some departing players and the coaching staff contacted me,” he explained of his journey from Latvia to Hamden, Connecticut. “I did some research into the school and liked the way they played in the Frozen Four, so it was an easy choice for me.”

Cukste had been playing for the Chicago Steel in the USHL, but after the Sharks drafted him he was ready for the next step. “This is only my freshman year, but I feel if I keep improving I can make the NHL one day,” he enthused.

Not known for his offence, Cukste still has nine points in 19 games this year with Quinnipiac and leads the team with a +5 rating and in blocked shots. 

Internationally, he has been an important part of Latvia’s junior program. He played the U18 Division I-A in 2014, helping them earn promotion to the top level the next year. He also played at the U20 in Division I-A in 2015 and 2016, earning promotion to Toronto/Montreal for this year.

An assistant captain on the 2017 U20 team, Cukste will have to be at his best if the Latvians hope to stay in the top pool for Buffalo 2018, but he has the experience and know-how to play within his means and do just that. He’s only 19 years old but mature beyond his years, and his size (6’2”/1.88m & 216 lbs./98kg) gives him an edge over much of the competition.

Nonetheless, Latvia's U20 history has been spotty. After achieving independence, it started in the C-pool in 1994, worked up to B-pool two years later and played in the top level for the first time only in 2006. In all, this is only the nation's sixth appearance among the top ten World Juniors nations, and if it is to qualify for Buffalo 2018, it will have to finish in fourth place in the group stage or win two games from a fifth-place opponent in the Montreal group.

"Our goal is to stay up, of course," Cukste noted, "but we know it won't be easy."


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