Petras Nauseda watches a game at the 2018 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group B on home ice in Kaunas, Lithuania. Photo: Sarunas Mazeika
Lithuania aims to capitalize on success
With an average of 7,368 watching its home favourites win gold in Div. IB, the host city of Kaunas is now in sharp focus as Lithuanian hockey targets growth.
Bernd Haake's Lithuanian dream team thundered through the 2018 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group B on home ice undefeated as Darius Kasparaitis and Dainius Zubrus enjoyed their swansong playing together on the Lithuanian national team before bowing out on an emotional high.
Having captured many curious hearts and minds during a successful week at the Zalgiris Arena in Kaunas, the Lithuanian Ice Hockey Federation (Hockey Lietuva) is now rolling up its sleeves to step up efforts to widen the popularity of the game beyond its hockey centres in Elektrenai and Vilnius.
A clear sign of intent saw the federation’s President Petras Nauseda relocate to Kaunas last summer. The 34-year-old, who played ten World Championship tournaments for his country, sees great potential for hockey in Lithuania's second city.
“Knowing how much work the local government is doing for hockey was a key reason for me to come and settle down in Kaunas. The city is doing a great job when it comes to hockey development and I would say that they are leading the way in Lithuania. We started a club here and the government is building a new rink with two ice surfaces, so it is a perfect example for other cities to take note and follow,” said Nauseda, who during this season also found time to play for both Kaunas and represented his country as a blueliner.
Kaunas, once a city with fine historical hockey traditions that hosted the first Lithuanian ice hockey championship in 1926, eventually saw basketball surpass all other sports in a city where Zalgiris Kaunas this season is one of Europe's top-four basketball teams.
“The hockey situation in Kaunas was not good during the last 20-25 years. When I was a student in the city I was driving back to Elektrenai where I was playing. Hockey in Kaunas has been a little bit lost, so that is why I am here now and together with my colleagues we will make hockey grow in this basketball city. But I believe we can all find our place here and we just need to put our passion into it,” said Nauseda.
A fine sign of coexistence and cooperation between hockey and basketball in Kaunas was on display during the 2018 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group B. A historic first saw two sports sharing the same venue during an IIHF event. As the basketball club Zalgiris advanced further than in the last few years, two EuroLeague playoff games were contested when the Division IB had days off requiring a gargantuan effort by the hosts. In the end, it turned out to be a great success with Lithuanian national team hockey players being present when Zalgiris stepped out on the court and beat Olympiacos Piraeus from Greece in two games to advance to the final four while in return local basketball greats cheered on the national ice hockey team as they beat Estonia 4-1 to win a place in Division IA.
Also making a visit during an intensive week of action inside Zalgiris Arena was IIHF Council Member Franz Reindl and Anders Larsson, chairman of the Swedish Ice Hockey Association, during a World Championship event which could set Kaunas off for a prosperous hockey future.
“Organising the championship of such level in Kaunas was the best possible gift for the city. Kaunas is a city for sports and this championship was our biggest sports event this year. Kaunas doesn’t have deep ice hockey traditions, but the number of spectators at Zalgiris Arena shows that we have very optimistic perspectives for the future,” said Visvaldas Matijosaitis, the Mayor of Kaunas.
When Vilnius hosted the 2014 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Division I Group B it became an important milestone for Lithuanian hockey. Zubrus, then at the New Jersey Devils, made a long-awaited return to represent Lithuania as the hosts won bronze. In average 6,032 fans turned up in a tournament that had a major impact on the sport, especially in Vilnius.
“The 2014 World Championship started to make hockey become more popular in our country and since then the number of kids taking up hockey has doubled in Vilnius. I hope that with the attention we have got in Kaunas and with our new rink it will be the same here,” said Nauseda, who now hopes other cities will follow in the footsteps of the host city.
“The biggest challenge we have are lack of ice rinks,” said Nauseda. “We need new some in our bigger cities, like Vilnius and Klaipeda, where we already suffer from lack of ice time. Without those rinks, we are unable to continue our growth,” he said.