Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Vilnis: Lucky left wing from Latvia

Sun Valley Suns skater Vilnis Nikolaisons is 2004

Express Staff Writer

Sun Valley Suns left wing Vilnis Nikolaisons. Photo by Willy Cook

"I'm always trying to find the open guy, and I've been lucky to play with guys who get open. It makes my game easier."

Vilnis Nikolaisons, Sun Valley Suns left wing

By any measure, 2004 was a very good year for Sun Valley Suns left wing Vilnis Nikolaisons from Latvia.

Nikolaisons won his second Suns scoring title in his six years with the men's senior amateur hockey team. Characteristically, the unselfish winger from Riga had more assists (20) than goals (16). He now ranks seventh on the all-time Suns scoring list. In the four winters he didn't win the team's scoring title, he finished second on the list.

Back on April 3 Nikolaisons single-handedly won a Suns game as the final marksman in an overtime shootout against the Connecticut Camels at Sun Valley. Afterwards, Suns coach Chris Benson called Nikolaisons "our best player," and got no argument from anyone.

Benson said, "He's one of the most gifted players I've ever seen—small in size, but big in heart. The epitome of a team player. His hands and rink sense are unbelievable. Vilnis sees things happen before they happen."

Vilnis' linemate and friend Jamie Ellison said simply, "He's the best hockey player I've ever played with."

Later in April, Vilnis and his new wife Cathy bought a new house in the Woodside section of Hailey. About the same time Vilnis started his own painting business, called Lucky Painting. His frisky dog, a combination of Golden Retriever and Australian Shepherd, is also named Lucky.

On Nov. 13, Cathy gave birth to the couple's first child, named Jake Edgars Nikolaisons. The boy's middle name comes from Vilnis' father, Edgars, who encouraged Vilnis to play hockey back in the early days, in the city of Riga.

Edgars Nikolaisons, who died of cancer in 2003, would be happy to see what his second son has done with his life since leaving the northern European Baltic Sea country of Latvia for North America in 1998.

Vilnis knows he's lucky.

He came to North America to learn the language and play hockey. With typical determination Vilnis has done both.

Suns coach Benson said, "He is level headed, works hard and has made a name and life for himself in the community."

Ellison said, "Vilnis gives full commitment to whatever he does. He's like what America used to be, when it was filled with hard-working people."

It's an immigrant's tale, all the way from Riga to Winterhaven Drive in Hailey and designation as the Idaho Mountain Express "Athlete of the Year," for 2004.

"The last year has been like a dream to me," said Nikolaisons. "It shows if you want it, you can have it, because I start from nothing. Hockey gave it to me, the character. I don't like to quit. But I couldn't do it on my own. It's all about people around me."

Giving Vilnis his start in the Wood River Valley work world was Steve McCoy, the towering winger from Minnesota who employed Nikolaisons and his Latvian friend Ivars Muzis for five years in McCoy's Painting.

"Vilnis came here with one duffel bag," said McCoy. "Now he's somewhat Americanized, but he's still who he is.

"On the ice he's fast, unique, clever and swift. He's a crafty little individual who has played with some of the best in the world. He'll probably break all the Suns records in another three years.

"It wasn't just me, though. Everybody helped him out. But he has an awesome work ethic. I'd have to remind Vilnis and Ivars to stop for lunch. Villie had never painted before he came, but now I'd put he and Ivars up against any painter in the valley. And they are quick."

Quick is the operative word with Nikolaisons.

Quick to learn, quick to laugh, quick to respond to whatever happens on the ice, quick on the soccer field and quick to remember what the 2004-05 hockey season means.

"It will be my 26th season skating," said Nikolaisons, who will be 31 on New Year's Eve—the day the McCall Manchester Mountaineers visit Sun Valley Skating Center for the first game of a huge New Year's weekend series on resort ice.

'Hockey was our life," said Nikolaisons about growing up in Latvia. "It helped me. It made us strong, mentally and physically and kept us away from crime. It kept us going after everything fell apart."

The Soviet system

You could say Vilnis Nikolaisons has lived three lifetimes in his 30 years.

He grew up in Latvia under the Soviet Union and its enormously successful state system of hockey. He lived there after the Soviet break-up and Latvia declared independence in 1991. And he has made his way in North America since 1998.

Remember the year Vilnis was born, 1973. In the Boston area those were the Bobby Orr years for the Bruins. And just about every kid was influenced by the player considered the best defenseman ever.

Same thing with Latvia.

That was the beginning of what is called the golden age of hockey in Russia, which ran from 1972-79. Those years coincided with the battle for world hockey supremacy—a 15-year clash of rival systems that centered on the titans of men's ice hockey, Russia and Canada.

Canadians had been playing hockey since the late 1800s. They dominated international hockey from 1920-52. The Russian Red Army hockey team didn't pick up the sport until after World War II. But they quickly became dominant. After 1963 the Russians were invincible in world action, except for that wonderful U.S. week at Lake Placid back in 1980.

The stage was set for the antagonists in hockey war, just as the Cold War between East and West was still raging during the Vietnam conflict.

Handcuffed by its adherence to amateurism for world hockey, Canada couldn't get international officials to agree to its use of National Hockey League pros until Team Canada was assembled for a cataclysmic eight-game series in 1972 between Canada's best NHLers and Soviet Nationals.

It was called The 1972 Summit Series—probably the greatest hockey series ever played.

Eight games, played on two continents, that boiled down to the final period Sept. 28 in Moscow. Canada, winner of only one of the first five games, captured the final three dramatically. Canada stormed back from a 5-3 third-period deficit to claim the series 4-3-1 on Paul Henderson's rebound.

Canada's national pride had been temporarily salvaged, but the Soviet Nationals dominated the 1974 Summit Series renewal 4-1-3. The wild success of the series led to six more clashes. In eight meetings over 15 years, the Soviets won more games, 13-12-5, but the Canadians won more series, 4-3-1. Dead even.

All this was happening while Vilnis Nikolaisons was growing up in Riga, an 800-year-old trading capital in the sea-level country of Latvia, which had been part of the Soviet Union since 1940. Hockey was everything to local kids.

"Hockey was the biggest sport in town," said Nikolaisons.

His idol was Helmut Balderis, a Latvian right wing for Dynamo Riga. Other Russian stars idolized by Soviet kids were left wing Valery Kharlamov, goalie Vladislav Tretiak and right wing Boris Mikhailov. They were like gods.

Vilnis' father was a railroad mechanic and his mother was a shop manager. From the time he was five they lived in Riga, a city of 700.000. They lived in a five-story apartment building that didn't have private bathrooms. Vilnis' older brother Karlis was gifted with his hands. He eventually became a carpenter. And Vilnis played every sport imaginable.

"I grew up with sports," Vilnis said. "I would skate nine to 10 months a year, five or six times a week. My father didn't even skate, but he loved the game and helped me learn it. He was my biggest supporter—didn't miss a game. Plus, it was really respectful to become a hockey player at the time."

As a teenager Nikolaisons played on a series of Latvian junior teams that competed in Russian national championships. It wasn't easy to make those teams. There might have been two Latvian junior teams, 20 players on a team, out of all the kids in the hockey-crazed country of 2.5 million.

They were weaned in the rigid but efficient Soviet hockey system that produced some of the world's best players from 1960-90. Their circling style was well suited for the larger international ice surfaces.

Nikolaisons said, "The puck is always quicker than any skater. Nobody can catch the puck—that's the way we were taught. Pass, shoot, skate. I'm not the biggest, fastest guy, but do I ever stop skating? Not really."

Stick-handling has always been another way Vilnis has gained the upper hand against bigger players. Ellison said, "He plays hockey in a phone booth. Vilnis can stickhandle with lightning speed. It's like the puck is one end of a magnet and his stick is the other."

In part because of his size, 5-6 and 160 pounds, Nikolaisons always found himself on the second or third forward lines. It wasn't until his final year in juniors, at age 17, that he earned a spot on the first line.

Being on the second and third lines, he skated with younger, more talented goal scorers who aspired to first line status. He set them up. Handing out assists is his nature.

Nikolaisons said, "I'm always trying to find the open guy, and I've been lucky to play with guys who get open. It makes my game easier. Sure, I like to score goals—who doesn't? But there are other things besides scoring."

To hockey players like Nikolaisons, the Soviet system was generous and catered to their needs. It would take care of you if you could play the game. Vilnis said, "It was free. Free ice, free coaching, The government would take care of it."

The high point of Latvian hockey within the Soviet system came with the Dynamo Riga team of 1987-88, silver medalist in the 14-team Russian championships. It produced super goalie Arturs Irbe. But times were changing. The team played its games as massive demonstrations for civil rights were taking place in Latvia.

Everything changed in 1991 when Latvia regained its independence after a half century under Soviet rule.

"It was hard to find money when the split came. Nobody had money and that's why everything stopped," said Nikolaisons, then 18 years old and in his hockey prime at the time.

The next seven years were tough times in Latvia and for its hockey teams.

"A lot of guys quit after that. There was no future. Nobody would let us play in Europe. A few guys left the country, but everybody else got lost," said Nikolaisons, who said that only seven or eight players on his final junior team are still playing competitive hockey.

Player development stopped because parents were forced to pay for hockey, and they couldn't afford $250 for goalie equipment or $300 for a skater's gear. That was more the average monthly wage. Today, privatization is nearly complete and Latvia is developing a dynamic private sector as a new European Union member, friendly to the West. But the average annual wage is $3,400.

Vilnis' mother was thrilled when he visited her in September and bought her a new mattress, McCoy said.

While hockey was languishing in Latvia in the early 1990s, Nikolaisons kept himself in shape and did what many Soviet-bloc people did after the split—learn to take initiative. He went to carpentry school. Then he had to decide whether to make furniture or stick with hockey. It was a no brainer.

"It was hard for everyone back then," he said. "But it was also hard to quit hockey. I'd done it my whole life and was always around it. So, for me, hockey took over again."

He played for a semi-pro hockey team while working as a manager of a pool club. It was a tiered system. Players on the first two lines would get paid full time. Those on the third and fourth lines would have to find extra work.

Not surprisingly, many of the leftover Latvian hockey players started to leave the country and play in nearby Finland and Sweden. Some would drop everything and travel to North America and take their chances here.

"It was everybody's dream to play in the NHL (National Hockey League)," said Nikolaisons. "They would come here on the blind. A few made it, like Peter Skudra, the Vancouver goalie from Latvia. But for most, the dream ended in the East Coast League or in the farm leagues."

Nikolaisons came to a crossroads and didn't hesitate about making his decision. "I never thought I'd stay home," he said.

He was 25 when he first came to North America in October 1998. Two of his friends played for the Tacoma Sabercats in the West Coast Hockey League. He and his pal Ivars Muzis got an invitation to try out for Tacoma. They had gone to different schools in Riga but had played each against each other for about 10 years.

They flew to Seattle and met up with then-Tacoma coach John Olver, who is now the fourth-year coach of the Idaho Steelheads minor league hockey team in Boise. "I didn't know anyone," said Vilnis. "My first goal was to come here and learn the language."

During the hockey preseason, Oct. 10-12, 1998, Olver's Tacoma team practiced for three days at Sun Valley Skating Center and had an exhibition game there with the Idaho Steelheads. Nikolaisons, Muzis and another Latvian newcomer skated for Tacoma.

The Sabrecats flew back to Seattle afterwards and Olver, whose team eventually won the Taylor Cup championship at the end of that season, pulled the Latvians aside at the airport and gave them the news.

Nikolaisons said, "I was the last guy he cut. He kept Ivars and another Latvian and I came back here to Sun Valley by myself."

At the time Tim Jeneson was the Sun Valley Suns coach, coming off a National Senior Open championship earlier in 1998. "We lost quite a few guys from that national team, and we weren't a very good team at the beginning of our season," Jeneson said.

Jeneson added, "John Olver called me up and said he had a guy who could help us out. He suggested to Vilnis that he should show up in Sun Valley, and he gave him my phone number. You have to remember that Vilnis couldn't speak much of the language then. He just showed up, sight unseen. And he called me.

"I picked up the phone and heard someone say, 'Coach?' So I said, 'Yeah." And then he said, 'Me at rink,'" Jeneson laughed. "That's about all Vilnis knew how to say then."

Nikolaisons recalled that showed up at the Sun Valley rink during the Halloween on Ice skating celebration, a night of silliness that should have spooked anyone away from staying in this town. But he stayed, and followed up on introductions made by Jeneson.

"I drove over to the rink and met Vilnis and showed him around," Jeneson said. "Then Ivars was traded from Tacoma and released by Colorado and he showed up here. But what a joy it's been to have both of them the last six years. They have good attitudes and are passionate about the game!"

Although Nikolaisons went on to win the team's scoring title that first season with 21 goals and 21 assists, he had a rough introduction when the Suns opened the 1998-99 campaign with 7-5, 9-1 losses to the Jackson Hole (Wyo.) Moose at Snow King Center.

Vilnis scored a goal in the first game, but he was also knocked unconscious. Jeneson said, "Some Jackson player stood him up and knocked him into next week.

"But right away that first season, he was our best forward—quick, shifty and smart in the classic European style. He told me, 'I need no luxury. I just want to play hockey.'"

Nikolaisons got work right away, as a plasterer for a Russian-born contractor from Boise who was finishing an apartment house in the Wood River Valley. Then he painted briefly for former Suns skater Brian Watts, and finally landed with big Steve McCoy, a job Vilnis held for five years.

McCoy and Nikolaisons, a Mutt and Jeff combination if you ever saw one, were a good match. Vilnis watched closely and learned the ropes from McCoy, better known as Hugey.

"He would watch me tip the bartenders, and he'd pick up that if you take care of the bartenders, they'll take care of you," said McCoy.

In his big truck, McCoy would drive Vilnis across the country. They'd go fishing and duck hunting. McCoy learned that Vilnis had quite different eating habits. "He loves pickle and mayonnaise on toast in the morning with his tea. He fries all his food. And he never wanted ice in his drinks."

A year later his arrival, in October 1999, Vilnis tried out for the Idaho Steelheads. He and Muzis were put on waivers and didn't make the team—but Vilnis came very close to making the minor league squad.

McCoy said, "In the last scrimmage Vilnis scored the game-winning goal in overtime. He's very proud of that." If not for his unresolved immigration status at that time, Nikolaisons would have made the Steelheads, McCoy added. "His skills were right there with those guys on the Steelheads."

Benson said, "I think they overlooked him because of his size."

Nikolaisons' best seasons with the Suns were back-to-back 17-6-2 and 28-2 campaigns in 1999-00 and 2000-01.

In that first great winter, Nikolaisons had a Suns career high 23 goals along with 48 assists. For the season's homestretch, he teamed with center Ellison and right wing Luke Smith to become one of the Suns' all-time formidable lines.

They teamed for an incredible 81 points in seven games—and Ellison ended as the Suns all-time single-season scoring king with 28 goals and 49 assists for 77 points in 25 games.

Never before had the Suns had two 70-plus point scorers.

"We understood each other and were on the same page," said Nikolaisons about the great forward line. Ellison added, "We know where each other are. Vilnis is as heads-up as they come. And he always steps it up when we need him."

The next winter, Nikolaisons was the second-leading scorer again, with 19 goals and 38 assists for the 28-2 Suns team coached by Benson.

Entering this season Nikolaisons has 102 goals and 164 assists for 266 points in just six Suns years. If he ended up playing as many seasons, 18, as all-time leaders Bobby Noyes (408) and Glenn Hunter (362), he'd finish with 792 at the same scoring pace.

But you'll never find him among the team leaders in penalty minutes.

He's logged only 72.5 penalty minutes in 141 games—and only 18 total in the last four seasons. "I've never had many penalties," said Nikolaisons. "I'm not going out to hurt people. If I have a chance to check, I will. But I'm always trying to be clean. I don't want to be the guy who breaks somebody's jaw or somebody's leg."

Nikolaisons' toughness is of another kind, McCoy said.

"For a little guy he's strong. It's tough to take the puck from him. He's got great hands and quickness. One minute you think you have the puck, the next he'll take it away from you. He's such a great passer—a playmaker from the beginning," said McCoy.

Added Benson, "He'd rather make a pass so someone else can score."

Nikolaisons celebrated Latvian Independence Day last Nov. 18 and then made his biggest score when he gave up his independence four days later and married Cathy, a former flight attendant, at Dean's Restaurant in Ketchum. His best men were Ellison and McCoy.

Like all weddings, it came with its share of bad jokes, one of them made by Ellison when he referred to the 1984 cold war cautionary movie "Red Dawn," which had Russia's Evil Empire invading the U.S. and clashing with the Wolverines.

Ellison said about the repartee between the friends, "When I call Vilnis a Communist, he says, I'm not a Communist, I'm a former Communist. But he's my best friend." And Jamie and his wife are Jake's godparents.

With all these attributes, and considering the year Vilnis has enjoyed, you'd think Sun Valley and McCall players would all tap their sticks on the ice in salute of Nikolaisons' inspiring success story this coming Friday night—Vilnis 31st birthday, in fact.

They won't, of course. It's hockey after all. The Mountaineers, many of them ex-Steelheads, are just as likely as to smash Vilnis and his teammates into the side boards as do something fitting and nice.

It's okay with Vilnis, though. He wouldn't have it any differently, earning his way with hard work and effort.

He said, "I've never been a star. I'm a team player and have never put myself above the team.

"And I'm living my dream right now."

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