AARON VICKERS – 05.28.2023

TAMPERE, Finland – Kristians Rubins. National hero.

Has a nice ring to it, no doubt, but it’s not something the Flames farmhand could’ve imagined when he woke up this morning.

Fast-forward a dozen hours and Rubins is just that, however, after playing the most critical of roles in lifting Latvia to bronze at the 2023 IIHF World Championship, the first ever medal in the country’s history.

“Probably wouldn’t have believed you,” a radiating Rubins said shortly thereafter. “I would’ve tried to. But I don’t think I would’ve believed you.

“It’s unbelievable. I don’t think we truly know what really happened tonight. We did our best. We worked hard. We played hard to win. But when they put the medal around your neck, you can’t describe the emotions. You want to cry. You want to laugh. You want to smile. It’s insane. No words, to be honest. Just happy to help the team win and do our best.”

A slapshot from the point as the equalizer to knot the game at three apiece, a low snipe blocker side that beat Pittsburgh Penguins goalie Casey DeSmith with just over five minutes remaining to eventually forced overtime.

A slap shot high short-side, just over a minute into the extra frame, to end it and send a country into hysteria.

Two goals.

When the needed it the most.

From the unlikeliest of sources.

“At the end of the day I just tried to do my best and the fans gave us the emotions,” he said.

Rubins was a late addition to Latvia’s squad, an injury replacement who arrived from Calgary, battled jet-lag, and dressed for his country’s round-robin finale – a win against first-place Switzerland.

They won out the rest of the way with Rubins, who had all of two regular-season snipes with the Belleville Bulls of the American Hockey League, and none in three games with the Flames’ affiliate.

In fact, he hadn’t had more than two dent the net in a single season since his junior days with the Medicine Hat Tigers of the Western Hockey League in 2017-18.

But Rubins found two Sunday.

The hero.

“He came late and we knew we needed him,” said Latvia captain Kaspars Daugavins, who played three years and 91 games in the NHL with the Ottawa Senators and Boston Bruins.

“He’s one of those guys who has always been hard out for the national team. I’m just super happy for him because he had a tough season. He probably expected to play games in the NHL. Battled through in the American league and then he comes in for the last game in the group stage against Switzerland.

“Comes in and scores probably the two biggest goals in Latvian hockey history.

“Wow…what a day for him.”

A day indeed.

And the 25-year-old reacted appropriately.

“Celly hard,” he said. “That’s truly it. I truly realized what happened just later, not at the start. Just at the start I wanted to celebrate a little bit. Then the guys came in over and I couldn’t breathe in the corner. I was just like ‘get me out,’ and then you truly realize it…you see guys crying and enjoying themselves.

“It was really good.”


The crying wasn’t reserved for the guys on the ice.

The arena, tucked in the heart of Tampere, Finland, was pro-Latvia, with the near capacity crowd filling up the majority of the seats with citizens from the country of 1.884 million.

They made the trip, and Rubins and the rest of the Team Latvia squad didn’t disappoint with the history-making affair.

Rubins knows what it means back home, a nation of just 19 indoor arenas, three outdoor rinks, 5,229 male players, 223 female players, and just over two-thousand junior players.

“Everything. Everything,” he said. “We did it for the people, for the honour of representing our country. It’s everything. It’s easy to say right now, everything and anything, but you’ve got to bring it back home and throughout the years hopefully younger guys are going to play more hockey and are going to look at this team as something special and something that they want to achieve.

“Everything is possible for everyone and I think we just proved that.”

The city of Riga, which served as a co-host for the World Championship, will grind to a halt when the plane touches back down on Latvian soil. For perspective, the sheer appearance in a semifinal was important enough for President Egils Levits to take in the game live.

That’s just a precursor to what will surely be thousands set to celebrate.

“The crowd is great,” Rubins said. “The fans have been amazing for us. I don’t think we would’ve done it without them.

“It’s going to be a hell of a party for a bit.”

And Rubins is now the guest of honour.