Latvia hockey coach hopes to work a little magic

SALT LAKE CITY -- Curt Lindstrom has been a hockey coach for 40 years, winning Olympic bronze medals with Sweden and Finland.

Now he's tantalized by the possibility -- and it's a remote one -- of a medal with another country: Latvia.

"If we win bronze, it would be a bigger upset than the United States pulled off in 1980," he says of the "Miracle on Ice" victory over the Soviet Union that led to the gold medal.

Perhaps more realistic is a chance to make the quarterfinals.

"That would be fantastic," he says.

Latvia, which regained its independence during the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, is competing in Olympic hockey for the first time since 1936.

The hockey-mad nation of 2.5 million has some of the loudest and most loyal fans. Thousands followed the team in last year's world championships in Germany. About 10,000 are expected in Sweden for this year's tournament.

But first comes the Olympic preliminary round, and that could prove difficult.

Latvia opens against lightweight Austria on Saturday at the E Center, followed by games against Slovakia and Germany later in the week.

Only the top team from each of the two groups advances to the next round, where they are joined by the top six teams from the 1998 Nagano Games.

Slovakia, which relies on a strong contingent of NHL stars, is expected to move on.

Latvia is unbeaten -- five wins and a tie in six games -- since Lindstrom signed a three-year contract last summer, but the opponents were not among hockey's elite.

The NHL will shut down from Feb. 14-25 during the final rounds of the Olympic tournament. That's perfect for defending champion Czech Republic, Canada, Finland, Russia, Sweden and the United States -- teams that have already qualified.

But for players on the preliminary-round teams, the NHL schedule is troublesome.

Carolina's Arturs Irbe, who shut out the United States 2-0 with sparkling goaltending in the preliminary round at last year's worlds, will join Latvia's team on Saturday.

Defenseman Sandis Ozolinsh of Florida and Karlis Skrastins will arrive one day later. Center Sergei Zholtok wasn't released for the preliminary tournament by Minnesota.

Lindstrom was an assistant coach when Sweden won the bronze at the 1988 Calgary Games. Six years later, the Swede was head coach of the Finnish team that came in third behind Sweden and Canada at the 1994 Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway.

He stayed in Finland for five years and became a household name. He led the team to its first world title in 1995 following a win over Sweden in the final in Stockholm -- the biggest moment in Finnish hockey history.

Now his jump to Latvia presents another obstacle -- language. Lindstrom doesn't speak Latvian or Russian with the Latvian players.

"They're pretty good in English," he says. "I must admit they speak better English than the Finns."