13 KHL players, shortened roster and focus on studying. HK Riga head-coach isn’t afraid of anything anymore

Interview
11.04.2021 в 14:30
13 KHL players, shortened roster and focus on studying. HK Riga head-coach isn’t afraid of anything anymore
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Latvian team didn’t make the playoffs but did pull off possibly the biggest upset of the season.

HK Riga spent most of the 2020-21 season with a shortened roster. Missing the playoffs was almost inevitable but Latvian side managed to get a few sensational wins. For instance, they beat SKA-1946 St. Petersburg having dressed just ten skaters for the game.

Alexei Shevchenko sat down with HK Riga head-coach Valery Kulibaba to talk about the problems his team faced this year. There were plenty of them. From locking down junior hockey schools all across Latvia to players giving priority to getting higher education and Miks Tumanovs who might be saved from injuries only by church. After this season Valery Kulibaba isn’t afraid of anything anymore. That’s exactly what he says and explains in depth.

— This season HK Riga forfeited four games. Could that have been avoided?
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I believe, we have done everything we could to postpone the games. We were ready for every option. For instance, we managed to reach an agreement with SKA-Varyagi [St. Petersburg]. We played at their rink. As for Dynamo St. Petersburg and Russkie Vityazi [Moscow Region], we were unable to find common ground.

- This season as many as 13 Riga players were called up to KHL. However, JHL team often had vacant spots on the roster going into the games. Why didn’t you call up players from junior hockey school?
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Due to pandemic restrictions in Latvia the entire process of developing players in junior hockey school, who haven’t reached the age of 18, was halted. We simply had nowhere to call up players from. Nobody practiced. We could rely only on players who competed in Latvian championship. But those, who were of eligible age, played key roles on their respective teams and couldn’t join us.

- Nevertheless, you were able to dress players who were born in 2004. Sandis Vilmanis played 22 games, scoring two goals and four points. How did you like his performance?
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He’s a very talented kid. He’s well developed physically and he was able to hold his own in Junior Hockey League. Sandis needed very little time to adjust to the level. I am very satisfied with his work ethic. I’m not surprised at all that Vilmanis scored his first points in Junior Hockey League. Now everything is in his hands.

- It’s unlikely you were satisfied with Arturs Brikmanis, who finished the season with minus-31.
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Artur had a heavy workload. We regarded him as the leader of this team from the beginning of the season. We appointed him our captain and he was able to play on his level throughout the season. But we had only a few defensemen and when our players began getting called up to KHL, it was really tough on us. We spent the lion’s share of the season with just five defensemen. The workload for Brikmanis-Spilva and Brinkmanis-Anzans was unbelievable. Artur almost never left the ice. He had to kill penalties, get out there for the power plays and even strength situations. So I wouldn’t criticize him for his statistics.

- You played five defensemen even when you dressed more for the games. Alisher Mubarashkin joined your team. He used to play for a Chinese team. He had averaged about half an hour a game the season prior due to lack of players on the team. But he didn’t play on Riga at all, despite the fact that you lacked players.
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Towards the end of the season, when we had only a few players available, his ice-time went up. But I do understand what you’re talking about. Perhaps, we didn’t manage to make him live up to his full potential. Alisher is a great guy but we didn’t think that we could heavily rely on him. I believe, Mubarashkin could have played better for a player of his age.

- This season Nikita Mateiko, Ernests Osenieks and Miks Tumanovs played a lot for Dinamo Riga in KHL. All of these defensemen began the year in Junior Hockey League.
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We saw very little of Ernests but he did help us out in difficult moments. But since he really got himself a regular spot on KHL team’s roster, we are all very happy for him. But Osenieks wasn’t a junior hockey player this season. As for the others, I would single out Nikita. It’s well developed defenseman with great potential and he is ready to play in the big league. His only problem is that he’s unlucky. He gets injured in awkward situations. Sometimes I even thought he might have been jinxed. I even offered him to go to church. Just as our season ended, players gathered in Riga for national team’s camp. And Mateiko got injured on the first day.

- And it happens all the time?
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It does. He got injured in a harmless situation in his first game with Dinamo. His lace got untied, he stepped on it, fell awkwardly and banged up his shoulder. And that happens all the time. He would get hit by the puck in the leg or something like that. Something always happens to that. But he’s a hockey player with great potential. That’s true for Miks Tumanovs as well. He’s a pretty big-framed player but he needs to bulk up a bit. He’s very good for Junior Hockey League but to get to the next level he needs to improve on his physical conditions. If Miks is going to smarten up and do the necessary work, he can play at a high level.

- Harijs Smits could have really helped your team but at a certain point he fell out of the lineup.
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Harijs got a serious shoulder injury. He underwent a surgery. He’s currently recovering.

- What’s your take on your goaltending this season? The save percentage is decent but they allowed a lot of goals on average.
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The boys were affected by the fact that they kept falling out of rhythm. Due to roster problems on KHL team, two or three of our goaltenders kept getting called up to Dinamo. As a result, they didn’t see a lot of ice-time and fell out of game rhythm. When they returned to Junior Hockey League, they needed time to get back in game shape. And when our top goaltenders were called up, we had to dress others – those who struggled to compete at this level.

- Marcis Gluzda finished the season with a 15.79 goals against average. It’s a stat to retire with.
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He played just one game and he didn’t start it. It happened when our goaltenders got called up to Dinamo and we had to call him up from Lijepaja. He didn’t have a lot of game experience in Latvian championship to begin with and then he found himself at this level all of a sudden. But Marcis is a promising player with great work ethic. We expect him to be a part of our team next season. It’s a question of easing him in. If he’s going to practice with the team consistently, he’s going to improve his game.

- The greatest feat HK Riga pulled off this season is the home series against SKA-1946 St. Petersburg. Technically, you dressed just two defensemen but instead of getting blown out of the water you played two decent games and managed to get an overtime win in one of them.
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That day we dressed just ten skaters. We got hit by a coronavirus wave, many players were called up to KHL and we just returned from a tough road trip. We got to Riga late at night and the next day we had to play St. Petersburg. We had to come up with something to motivate the boys. Besides, we kept swapping goaltenders throughout the game so they would have at least some time to recover. The boys pulled off a sports heroic. They realized they had no place to fall back on and everyone played at his best. Everyone did exactly what they were supposed to. It’s amazing that we couldn’t get the boys follow our demands as precisely when we dressed full roster.

- What was going on in the locker-room after the win?
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It was overemotional. The funniest thing is that we could have gained points in the first game as well, even though we lost it 4-2. We just got a bunch of silly penalties, had to kill off 5-on-3s and St. Petersburg made us pay for that. We managed to avoid such mistakes in the following game. We stunned the opposition with the way we played.

- This season HK Riga allowed a lot of goals while having a power play. How would you explain that?
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Loss of concentration. We made mistakes in those situations that are common for junior hockey. We played 1-4 format on the power play but no forward will ever get back on defense faster than a defenseman. And if turned the puck over, we had to face trouble.

- Times of crisis are a great opportunity for some hockey players. But Karlis Bucenieks definitely struggled this year. What is the reason behind his drop in production? Last season he scored 12 goals, while this year he potted just two.
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It’s the case of when a player should look for an answer within himself and find a reason behind that. Certainly, he did play with Janis Svanenbergs and it’s a lot easier to be productive with such center. But this year Janis got himself a regular spot on Dinamo in KHL and Karlis had to take over leader responsibilities. He didn’t manage. He lowered the bar of demands for himself. We discussed that with him and tried to talk sense into him but we were unable to.

- Even though, he was also called up to Dinamo.
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This season such call ups weren’t really special. It’s not like the times when players who show progress earn a chance to prove their worth on KHL team. At certain times players were called up simply because there wasn’t anybody left to dress. At a certain point getting called up to Dinamo became a routine but I always reminded the boys that they had a unique opportunity to prove their worth. In the future the opportunity may not be there. They had to seize the day. Actually, many heeded to these words.

- Rihards Ligis can’t be happy with the way the season went for him either. In his last season in Junior Hockey League he scored four goals and had no assists. It was a different story last year.
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It’s a different situation with Ligis. Rihards realized that he doesn’t have a future in professional hockey so he focused on getting an education. He wasn’t motivated this season and it showed in his play.

- How did you react to the fact that a player of yours decided to focus on studying rather than playing hockey?
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There’s nothing wrong with it. There are a lot of guys like that in Latvia. They played junior hockey and realized that a successful career in professional hockey wasn’t in store for them. So they made a decision to focus rather on their studies and getting into another trade. It’s just the way it is. Why travel around lower European leagues to play for little money when you can get a decent job in another industry?

- You have a few names that stand out on your team – Denis Fjodorovs and Antons Sinegubovs. Both of them won’t be able to play in Junior Hockey League anymore. The former was called up to KHL’s Dinamo and in any case he has a future in professional hockey. Do these players have a future on another level?
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As far as I have heard, they have already received a few offers. Denis will definitely get a chance on Dinamo. At least, he’s going to be invited to the pre-season camp. His future is in his own hands from then on. I keep telling my players that after they get to professional level, everything is only in their own hands. In Junior Hockey League we develop them only to a certain point and then there’s nothing we can do for them.

- Fjodorovs spent four seasons in Junior Hockey League. That’s a lot.
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I agree. If he wasn’t given chances on Dinamo, he had to go somewhere else in Europe to play at men’s level.

- Why did HK Riga finish the season with a long losing streak?
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We lost motivation. But that’s just one reason behind it. As the matter of fact, after the botched pre-season, I was hoping we would have a chance to get in shape through playing regular season games. But then Latvia was hit by the second wave of the pandemic. We had to be quarantined again and everything went off the rails. We definitely lacked energy and then again we lost all hope of making the playoffs. After all, we rolled just three lines most of the season and we had nothing left in the tank. Besides, we faced pretty decent opponents over that stretch.

- Last summer you were considered for Dinamo Riga head-coach position but later you were named HK Riga head-coach. Were you disappointed you agreed to coach the junior team?
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Not in the slightest. Work is work. It was exciting for me to get a good feel of Junior Hockey League level. I got a great and unforgettable experience. I’m not afraid of anything at all after this season. I believe, every coach in this league learned a lot this year.

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