HK Riga’s bench boss Raimonds Vilkoits has been picked by fans as one of the Team West’s coaches at the upcoming 2022 JHL Challenge Cup in Chelyabinsk. Just recently, Vilkoits had an active career as a player. He became the first coach in history who not only played at the JHL level, but also played himself at the JHL Challenge Cup – back in 2011. Moreover, he gathered some serious experience behind the bench in the latest years – he’s also an assistant coach Team Latvia at the IIHF U20 WJC Division 1A, while in the JHL his team often defeated higher touted clubs.
“It was very pleasant,” he firmly says after being asked about being selected as one of the coaches at the JHL Challenge Cup. “The procedure was perhaps a bit strange but watching how the fans were voting was exciting. Everything was built on emotions, we felt a lot of support, and I’m sure that it will be a remarkable event.” Moreover, differently from the usual All-Star Games, the JHL Challenge Cup will be a real game, not just an exhibition. “It was always like that,” he explains. “When I played myself, it was the same. You know, it’s a unique chance that players have at their disposal to showcase themselves, to get people talking about them. I remember that when I played, it was clear since the first shift that it would have been a real game. Younger players are always super motivated for this kind of events.”
Vilkoits was one of the top players in the league in 2010-2011, when he piled up 48 (25+23) points in 56 regular-season games for HK Riga. He doesn’t hide that the league changed a lot since those days. “In ten years, the league has evolved a lot,” Vilkoits says. “It has rejuvenated a bit, but the game has remained just as fast and exciting. The fact that many games now take place on small rinks gives even more speed and excitement to the clashes. I see more well-trained hockey players right now. But when I played myself, it also seemed to me that the level was top-notch. Now, I am a coach, and I see the situation a little differently. But the excitement and intensity have not disappeared, on the contrary, they have even increased.” Moreover, according to Vilkoits, the league now features more personalities. “The league has grown a lot in terms of media exposure. Take social media and match reviews, for example. These seem to be small things, but they exhibit the league’s best players and are an excellent content for the fans. New names emerge. You see a lot, hear a lot, get to know hockey players more.”
In his playing career, Vilkoits was a real globetrotter, having played in his native Latvia, then in Slovakia, Belarus, Finland, and Sweden. “In Sweden and Finland, I played in the second pro leagues, which is similar to the VHL,” the coach explains. “Belarus has a very serious league; Slovakia also maintains a good level. But if you compare by age, the JHL has a lot to offer. A lot of chances for a young hockey player to grow and progress. Everything is serious here. The travels, the games, the training sessions – everything is close to pro hockey.”
The Latvian, who also lined up for Dinamo Riga in the KHL and even scored a goal in 2010-2011, retired aged only 27. “I had already been working as a coach with kids for two years,” he says. “I played, or rather, finished playing in the Latvian championship. I played more for myself. At that time, I graduated from the Latvian Academy of Sports, studying and playing at the same time. I started working as a coach and was playing in the Latvian championship at the same time. It was easy to do both, because everything was happening at the same place. Gradually I got caught up in it, I began to get more and more interested in coaching. I studied the specifics, the details, as I was always looking for information. I truly enjoyed it. It seemed logical to continue in this vein. Now, I only play as an amateur, for myself. I go out to chase the puck, I mostly do it for fitness purposes.”
Differently from other players, it wasn’t too hard for Vilkoits to become a coach after playing. “I only partially agree with the phrase about killing the player in you,” he explains. “Somewhere you want to show the excitement that you had as a player. I think all coaches have this. For me, the transition to coaching was easy enough. I just felt it was hard to develop further at the point where I was as a player. I worked with kids while I was still playing, so it was easier for me. I just moved step by step.”
Hockey is popular in Latvia, and junior hockey is no exception. “Here, junior tournaments are interesting to people, but mostly just to those who are close to hockey. The World Championship is not just a hockey event, people go there not just to cheer, so to speak. But people keep an eye on the youngsters and know their own guys who have shown something. Maybe junior hockey is not as popular as the national team, but they follow it.” HK Riga plays in the JHL since its inception, and in different moments there have been talks about having a second Latvian team in the league – earlier the country was represented in the JHL’s second division. “It's hard for me to say whether we’ll have another team,” Vilkoits says. “It all depends on the situation. At the moment I think that having one team is good, but I don’t know what will happen in a couple of years. We don’t have that big of a players’ pool. There are guys that go overseas. For those guys who want to play in the JHL, there’s HK Riga.”
In the most recent IIHF World Championship, Vilkoits was an assistant to the team’s head coach, Bob Hartley. “Just an unreal feeling! Of course, I missed the fans in the stands. But for me it was still a big event, I am very glad that I was given the chance to work at this level. The opportunity to see it all, to dive in was incredible. In the last few days, they started letting fans into the stands, it was great.” At that tournament, Latvia achieved a historical win over Canada. “I remember all the preparations for the match,” he recalls. “And then somehow everything flew by so quickly... We were getting ready, then the game started, and we were like, ‘ok, it’s Canada’. Then the game started with its emotions and excitement, and then boom, 2:0, and it was all over. And just then you realize that it’s incredibly cool, as we defeated Team Canada.”However, any coach must live in the present – no matter what his teams achieved in the past. “This year we have a renewed team,” he says about this year’s campaign. “The goal is to give our best in any game. We would really like to make the playoffs, but we’re going step by step and look at the situation. We need to be more consistent and get points on a regular basis. And for me personally, I want to gradually get better, get smarter, develop, and progress as a professional.”