International Ice Hockey Federation

Kenins has can-do attitude

Kenins has can-do attitude

Vancouver’s Latvian rookie a rarity in today’s NHL

Published 31.01.2015 17:13 GMT+1 | Author Lucas Aykroyd
Kenins has can-do attitude
A year ago, Ronalds Kenins played for Latvia's eighth-place team in Sochi. Now, he's trying to stick with the Vancouver Canucks. Photo: Jeff Vinnick / HHOF-IIHF Images
When Ronalds Kenins made his NHL debut for the Vancouver Canucks on January 30 against Buffalo, that doubled the number of Latvians in the league this year.

The other Latvian also played in this 5-2 Vancouver victory, but he was wearing a Sabres uniform: sophomore centre Zemgus Girgensons, fresh off his first All-Star Game appearance.

It’s a sign of the times for Latvia. Despite the world-famous enthusiasm of its fans, who voted Girgensons into the All-Star Game starting line-up in Columbus, the small Baltic state struggles to produce NHL talent nowadays.

Kenins, a 23-year-old energy forward who played at the Sochi Olympics and the last four IIHF Ice Hockey World Championships, was just called up from the Utica Comets. He had five goals and 12 points in 36 AHL games this season, his first in North America. He said his grandparents, mother, and sister stayed up late in Riga to watch him hit the ice in Vancouver, which hosted the 2010 Winter Games.

“It felt unbelievable,” Kenins told “I enjoyed every moment I was there. It’s good that we got a win. At the beginning I was a little bit nervous, but it felt good. And it’s great for our country.”

Nobody would confuse this Riga native’s style with that of Helmuts Balderis. Standing 182 cm and 91 kg, Kenins tied for the team lead in hits (three) while skating alongside fellow youngsters Bo Horvat and Zack Kassian on Vancouver’s fourth line.

“For sure, I have to compete every time,” said Kenins, who replaced injured winger Derek Dorsett in the line-up. “I’m a new guy and nobody knows me, so I have to compete every shift.”

Canucks coach Willie Desjardins was certainly satisfied with his rookie’s debut: “I thought he was great. I thought he played a really good game. I thought that line was really good for us early, got us going. He had a big hit there that kind of sparked us. He showed that he can play. He’s got good speed, he’s heavy enough, and he’s got good hands.”

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At this point, though, the upbeat Kenins remains a role player. Conversely, around the turn of the millennium, some Latvians moved beyond the old Soviet sports schools to enjoy NHL stardom.

Sandis Ozolins was among the league’s top offensive defencemen and won the 1996 Stanley Cup with the Colorado Avalanche. The late Sergejs Zoltoks peaked with 26 goals for Montreal in 1999/2000, and got a reputation for making big plays with the Minnesota Wild. Goalie Arturs Irbe – a legend in Latvia for his World Championship wins over neighbouring Russia – backstopped the Carolina Hurricanes to the 2002 Stanley Cup final.

Those are big skates to fill for anyone. Right now, Kenins is simply focused on doing what it takes to become an NHL regular. His coaches have played a big role in his development.

Most recently, he won his second Swiss NLA championship with the ZSC Lions Zurich, under former Canucks bench boss Marc Crawford. “Crow” also helmed the first all-NHL Canadian Olympic team that came fourth in Nagano 1998.

“He’s a great coach,” said Kenins, who also smilingly acknowledged that Crawford, 53, still likes to harangue his players at high volume. “He told me that Vancouver’s a great organization. Crow gave me a lot of good tips that I picked up.”

Suiting up at Rogers Arena was very different from the first time Kenins played in Canada. He was on the 2010 Latvian World Junior team that got pounded 16-0 by the hosts in their Saskatoon opener. Ironically, Canada’s head coach that year was none other than Willie Desjardins. The Canadians would settle for silver behind the United States, while Latvia got relegated.

“It was a tough start,” Kenins said with a wry grin

At the other end of the spectrum, Latvia gave a much more famous Canadian squad a much tougher battle in the quarter-finals of the Sochi Olympics. Outshot 57-16, Kenins and his gutsy teammates took inspiration from the brilliant goaltending of Kristers Gudlevskis. They finally fell 2-1, missing a chance for an upset that would have rivalled both the 1980 “Miracle on Ice” and Belarus’s 4-3 shocker over Sweden in the 2002 quarter-finals as the biggest in international hockey history.

“It just shows for us that a small country can compete against a big country like that,” Kenins explained. “We just went out and gave our all. We lost just in the last minutes of the game, so you never know: it can turn around and be different. I remember Shea Weber scored that [winning] goal from the blue line. That was pretty tough. But we competed and we almost won.”

In his first NHL game, Kenins got bragging rights over Sabres head coach Ted Nolan. But they were on the same side in Sochi. What did Nolan, Latvia’s coach since 2011, tell his players about facing the likes of Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews, and Drew Doughty?

“He said it doesn’t matter,” said Kenins. “We have our own language, so we’re just speaking in our own language on the ice. And nobody understands us. That’s good luck for us, because we understand English! He kept telling us that. He also said: ‘Guys, they’re humans like us.’ And we went out and played our game. Of course, they outshot us. That’s Team Canada.”

The Latvians, who finished eighth at the Olympics, will likely have to continue playing a rope-a-dope style in the imminent future. Having come 11th at the last two Worlds, they simply don’t have enough firepower to run and gun with the elite nations. Even in the KHL, currently bedevilled by the plummeting Russian ruble, the mostly Latvian Dinamo Riga roster has no scorers among the top 30.

Kenins, interestingly, honed his skills in Switzerland rather than Latvia. His mentor was Harijs Vitolins, a former national team forward who played almost exclusively for Swiss clubs from 1994 to 2005 after an eight-game stint with the Winnipeg Jets. After retiring, the huge centreman turned to coaching, and it was with Pikes Oberthurgau that Kenins came under his tutelage.

Continuing to play in Switzerland, Kenins became a “Swiss licence player,” meaning that he didn’t count toward the import quota (four per team) that NLA clubs operate under. Popular with teammates and known for his work ethic, Kenins modestly gives much of the credit for his success to Vitolins.

“He helped me a lot,” Kenins said. “He brought me to Switzerland. He’s a great man. He supports me. Whenever you need help, he’s always there.”

Those latter words could also apply to the on-ice presence of Ronalds Kenins. Certainly, just by donning a Canucks uniform, he’s already helped to heighten NHL fever in his native land.


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