At 19, Latvian forward Rodrigo Abols was one of the youngest players participating at the 2015 IIHF World Championship the past three weeks in the Czech Republic. Although he didn’t get on the scoreboard, he did dress for all seven games and gained valuable playing experience.
This past season, Abols played predominantly for Dynamo Riga’s junior club in the MHL, where he scored 20 goals and 38 points in 35 games, but also saw time in 14 KHL contests with that organization, putting up a goal and five points in the process. Having just turned 19 during the tournament, the 6’3”, 180-pound forward has quite a frame and can move well for his size.
After his team lost 3-2 in the shootout against France to complete the preliminary round, a game that saw Latvia avoid relegation, Abols talked to Hockey Future.
Hockey’s Future: A tough OT loss today to France, but Latvia avoids relegation by pushing the game to overtime. Your thoughts on the performance?
Rodrigo Abols: It’s good to retain the class and stay in the top group. But you play to win, so it’s bittersweet. We started the game well and gave up a 2-0 lead in the third. So it was tough not winning this game.
HF: This was your first World Championship at the senior level. You played seven games in 11 days. What are your thoughts on the tournament?
RA: It’s a bit of a different level from the KHL. It’s some of the top guys from the top countries. It’s a big difference from a playing standpoint, and it was tough at times, but it’s been an unbelievable experience that I won’t soon forget. It’s not every day that someone my age gets this experience.
HF: Certainly, you’re one of the youngest players in this tournament. What has your role been with this team?
RA: I just do what the coach says. I have to work real hard and keep things simple. I didn’t keep things simple at the beginning of the tournament. We talked things over, saw some video, I got some instruction and then went out there and did things better. This allowed me to enjoy progress as the tournament went on.
HF: Speaking of progress, this is your draft year and you had quite a winter. Tell us a bit about your development during the season.
RA: Everything began last summer with an earlier start to my training. I worked with a physical fitness coach and got into the best shape I’ve ever been in. Then I had a strong year in the MHL and then got called up to Dynamo and made use of my opportunity there. I worked hard and things fell into place.
HF: What would you say are the biggest strengths of your game?
RA: Oh, I don’t know. I’d probably say it’s probably my shot. I scored 20 goals in the MHL and I have the ability to create space. I also pride myself in setting up my teammates and always keep my eye open for that.
HF: Even at a tournament like this, there are a number of scouts up in the stands. Do you have any thoughts on the NHL Draft?
RA: I haven’t thought about it during the tournament, but if it should happen for me this summer, that sure would be good. If a player gets drafted, it’s a small reward for what he’s done to that point, but then it’s up to him to work real hard to take the next step. The draft is just one little step in getting to the NHL.
HF: The Latvian men’s team is staying in the A group. The U18 team just managed to stay on top. I believe Latvia is playing at the WJC next winter. What can you say about the state of Latvian ice hockey?
RA: Our toughest hurdle is that we don’t have many players. We don’t have enough who can play at the top level in their respective groups. There’s not a lot to choose from. Take this men’s team for example. A lot of guys were injured and now we’re taking eight guys for the first time. I’m one of them. Once a few guys get injured, it’s tough to replace them. For us it’s important that we keep on developing our own home league so that we can get a bigger pool of players and then get better results.
HF: You’re part of the famed Dynamo Riga club and there’s talk of it maybe not remaining in the KHL. Do you think this is the right league for the team?
RA: I like it there. A lot of our national team players play for that club and it’s good that they play together in the KHL, which is probably the second best league on the planet. I think there are only positives in staying right where we are.
HF: Will you be with them next season?
RA: Well, I do have one more year on my contract with them, then we’ll see where the future takes me.
The giant 6’7”, 230-pound Oleg Yevenko is a special case on the international scene, and not just because of his impressive size and mobility. The Belorussian just completed four years of NCAA hockey at UMass-Amherst and got a taste of pro play with the Adirondack Flames, where he put up 14 penalty minutes in just five games. At the conclusion of this tournament, a 9-0 quarterfinal loss to eventual gold medalist Canada, he took a few minutes to speak with Hockey’s Future.
HF: You just completed your NCAA career and got a few games of pro hockey in before coming over here. Now you just played against some of the world’s finest NHL players. What are thoughts on this game?
OY: Sure, it’s something you get excited about, because of all the names in the line-up, but we came into the game not wanting to think about that. At the end of the day, the game didn’t work out for us and we didn’t play as a team. The result was dissatisfying, but staying positive, every experience is a good experience.
HF: Just making the playoffs has to be seen as a success by the organization. How happy is the team with coming as far as it did?`
OY: We as a team had pretty high expectations for ourselves. We knew that we as a team could play with the bigger name teams if we just went with the game plan. That wasn’t the case tonight against Canada. We had some good games along the way and showed our ability to play some pretty good hockey. We battle and when we did what the coaching staff asked of us, we basically enjoyed success.
HF: What was most satisfying for you in this tournament?
OY: Well, we played a lot of good games. The Finns have a very structured team and we played real well against them. It was very satisfying beating the U.S. and the game against Slovenia was huge for us. As a team, the game against Finland was probably the best game for us, but every game was huge for us at this tournament.
HF: You mention the game against the U.S., a 5-2 win. How special was that victory, especially for you after having studied there?
OY: You know, it was historic for the country. It was a big deal representing our country and making your people and family happy. It was a special win and very emotional. It was also a big confidence booster. It shows that anybody can win any one game. That was the attitude we had heading into the game against Canada today as well.
HF: A Belorussian in the NCAA. You don’t see that every day. What led you to college hockey?
OY: I had a lot of influences. I spoke to some hockey people, coaches, and my family about it. Everyone thought the most rational thing would be to finish my career there and get a degree. It’s an opportunity that not every person gets. So you never know what comes next. I plan on playing hockey as long as a I can, but you never know when you might need to be doing something else. This is a physical game and a mentally demanding game. It’s good to have a back-up plan.
HF: Your time at college is finished. What’s on tap for you next?
OY: Honestly, I don’t know yet. I’m going to try to stick to North America, because that’s the dream and the path I’ve started out on. I want it to work out over there and now we’ll see what happens. I got some feedback from the Adirondack Flames after the season and it was good.
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