Lithuania's long-time NHLers Darius Kasparaitis and Dainius Zubrus will for the first time play together for their native country at the 2018 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group B. Photo: Sarunas Mazeika
Lithuania’s Dream Team aiming upwards
Following four straight bronze medals, Lithuania and head coach Bernd Haake now raise their stakes considerably at the World Championship Div. IB on home ice.
Two years ago, on a balmy spring evening in Croatia's capital Zagreb, an experimental and youthful Lithuania came within a regulation time goal from winning a sensational gold at the 2016 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championships Division I Group B. With the 13,500-seater Zalgiris Arena in Kaunas now ready to open its doors for the 2018 edition of the tournament, hopes are high for Lithuania to achieve home glory and claim that much-coveted top spot.
In a year when their nation celebrates 100 years since first regaining independence, the Lithuanian Ice Hockey Federation is marking the grand occasion in high spirits. With the Lithuanian roster being labelled as 'dream team' and the faces of Dainius Zubrus, Mantas Armalis, Nerijus Alisauskas, Tadas Kumeliauskas and the 45-year-old debutant Darius Kasparaitis adorning the posters promoting the event, Lithuania certainly hasn't shied away from raising the expectations.
Boosted by impressive ticket sales it is now up for the big-name players to rise up to the occasion in front of a home support expected to beat the average attendance of 6,032 dating back from four years ago when Lithuania's capital Vilnius hosted the tournament.
"This is the biggest sporting event in the Baltics this year and held in the largest sports arena in the region. If everything goes right we look to finish first. There is no question about this unless we get a lot of injuries," said Lithuania's head coach Haake ahead of a festival of hockey awaiting in the country's second city as Estonia, Croatia, Japan, Romania and Ukraine awaits between 22-28 April.
Optimistic while still doing his bit to keep a lid on expectations, the man Lithuania puts their faith in to guide them up the promised land of Division IA comes with vast experience within a game he first picked up on frozen lakes in Western Germany in the 1950s.
Bielefeld-born Haake's international coaching career started as a 28-year-old assistant coach of what was then West Germany's U18 national team at a European Championship in France 1974. After spending an eye-opening 18 months in Canada where he also first got to know Lithuania's current assistant coach George Kingston, Haake returned to Europe where his first international appointment was as assistant coach when Spain's senior national team made its IIHF World Championship debut in 1977.
With an eclectic coaching resume that includes working for Windhoek Cazadores in Namibia, Australia's Sydney Allstars, Portogalete in Spain to that of winning the Italian league as head coach of Bolzano and assistant coach of top-level German teams Kolner Haie and Iserlohn Roosters, Haake has never shied away from relishing a challenge which seen him coach on four different continents.
The opportunity to acquaint himself with Lithuanian hockey arose when the affable Haake struck up a conversation with the President of the Lithuanian Ice Hockey Federation, Petras Nauseda, in Helsinki during the 2012 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship.
Fresh from having staved off relegation at the 2012 World Championships Division I Group B, Lithuania was then in the hunt for a new head coach to replace Sergei Borisov. They found their match in Haake, who jumped at the opportunity to try and reverse the waning fortunes of a national team that in 2006 had been one victory away from winning a place at the top-division of the World Championship.
"I became the first coach from a western country to coach Lithuania's national team. In the past, they always had coaches from Russia, Belarus or Latvia. My first World Championship was in Donetsk 2013 and this is now my sixth year," said Haake who also during three of those seasons worked as assistant coach of Lithuania's U20 national team as well as the country's top club Energija Elektrenai.
While greatly admiring the hard graft put in by the growing Lithuanian hockey community with its limited resources, he also readily points out some of the challenges he feels is holding back further progress in the Baltic nation.
"When you have the power you don't want to lose it. To translate this into Lithuanian context, teams are not cooperating at youth hockey level and instead look after their own interests. We need strong teams from U12 to U18 level and have them come together once a month to play in tournaments, but it is not possible. We should look at Slovenia and what they do with their resources. Instead in Lithuania, we now have three to five good players in each team, but as they are not being challenged their level is now going down instead of up between the ages of 12-16," said Haake, who also has started to feel the effect of this in certain positions at a national team level.
"The problem for Lithuanian hockey for the near the future is that we don't have defencemen. We have the four veterans, Kasparaitis, Rolandas Aliukonis, Arturas Katulis and Mindaugas Kieras, all of them over 35. For the young players to continue their development they have to go abroad but it is not easy as a Lithuanian player to find a team to play for," said Haake, who hopes the star-studded roster and wins out on the ice can add exposure to the Lithuanian game at home and beyond.
"People in Lithuania like hockey. We saw that already at the 2014 World Championships in Vilnius. This time around we will be helped by Kasparaitis who is playing for his own country for the very first time at a World Championship. Born 1972, like (Jaromir) Jagr, he is on the ice three times a week during the season, he played for us already in November and he is still in unbelievable good shape," said Haake, who also has high hopes for another troika of big-name returnees ready to turn on a show in front of their home audience and offer that extra bit of edge that got them so tantalisingly close of getting their hands on the gold medals two years ago.
"Zubrus plays with together with Kasparaitis during the season in Miami and just as in 2014 he will be very good for us. Armalis is back in goal after two years and for the first time in many years, Tadas Kumeliauskas will play for us, so it looks like we will have a strong team," said a hopeful Haake.