Ice hockey is once again bringing international attention to Bowling Green as former Falcon standout and current Pittsburgh Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma is in Sochi, Russia, to lead the U.S. Olympic men’s ice hockey team. In addition, sophomore defenseman Ralfs Freibergs is on the Latvian national team as the only NCAA men’s hockey player taking part in the 2014 games.These two Olympians are the latest in a string of outstanding BGSU student-athletes to represent their countries at the pinnacle of international ice hockey competition, going back to the 1970s. Falcons Ken Morrow and Mark Wells played on the “Miracle on Ice” team that defeated the formerly unbeatable Soviet Union team at the 1980 Olympic Winter Games in Lake Placid, N.Y. More recently, BGSU and NHL great Rob Blake played on the Canadian squad at three Olympics, including on the gold-medal-winning team in 2002.
According to head coach Chris Bergeron, BGSU’s presence in the 2014 Olympic Winter Games is emblematic of Falcon hockey’s resurgence and a strong reminder of a tradition that is alive and well: “Our Olympic history is so much deeper than I even realized, and we’re very proud to add two more great Olympians to that history.”
Freibergs, who hails from Riga, Latvia, is an offensive-minded defenseman who ranks second in assists for the Falcons and in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association (behind teammate Dan DeSalvo), and is tied for second among WCHA defensemen in points. He came to Bowling Green after playing two seasons with the Texas Tornado of the NAHL, and one season with the Lincoln Stars of the United States Hockey League. But then he was contacted by BGSU’s coaching staff and saw intercollegiate hockey as a way to get a great education while also stepping up his game, with the goal of playing in the NHL some day.
His decision to move from junior hockey to college play was not an easy one. “I didn’t know anything about college hockey in the U.S.,” said Freibergs. “But then BGSU called me and showed a lot of interest, and they were ready to help me with the transition.”
Part of the initial challenge was that he had played with the Latvian national team in the World Junior Championships in 2009 and 2010, and team officials arranged for the team to play in a Latvian professional league as part of its preparation. This resulted in the NCAA requiring Freibergs to sit out most of his freshman year.
“We went through a lot with the NCAA Eligibility Center, and our compliance staff did a great job,” Bergeron said. “While we were all disappointed that Ralfs had to watch for 33 games, in hindsight that may have been the best thing because it allowed him to get his feet wet from an academic and time-management standpoint.”
Last year, the talented defenseman had the opportunity to play with the Latvian national team at the World Championships in Finland. “It was an unbelievable experience,” Freibergs said. “I got to play with guys I never thought I’d play with … who I had watched on TV over the years.”
While Freibergs was in the mix with far more experienced players, Latvian head coach Ted Nolan of the Buffalo Sabres liked what he saw — enough to invite him to compete in Sochi. “I’m not sure what the coaches have in mind for me yet,” Freibergs said. “But I’m really happy to get a chance to be on the team at my age and I’ll be ready to contribute in any way I can.”
This is just the fifth time that Latvia has qualified for the Olympics in hockey, so Freibergs believes it is already a great honor for his country to be among the 12 teams competing in Sochi. “For me it’s very special to represent my country. Latvia is not very big, and my goal is to prove that a small country can do big things.”
Freibergs is also looking forward to spending time with some of the best players in the world. Among them is his teammate Sandis Ozolinsh, a seven-time NHL All Star and a national hero in Latvia, where hockey is the number one sport. “I have so many questions and so much to learn from him,” Freibergs said.