BG Hockey continues Olympic tradition
Bylsma and Freibergs bring Falcon pride to Sochi
By Pete Fairbairn
Ice hockey is once again bringing international attention to Bowling Green State University as former Falcon standout and current Pittsburgh Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma ’92 is in Sochi, Russia, to lead the U.S. Olympic men’s ice hockey team. (See the story below for details on Bylsma’s impressive accomplishments that led to this honor.) In addition, sophomore defenseman Ralfs Freibergs is on the Latvian national team as the only NCAA men’s hockey player taking part in the 2014 games.
These two Olympians are the latest in a string of outstanding BGSU student-athletes to represent their countries at the pinnacle of international ice hockey competition, going back to the 1970s. Falcons Ken Morrow ’79 and Mark Wells ’79 played on the “Miracle on Ice” team that defeated the formerly unbeatable Soviet Union team at the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, N.Y. More recently, BGSU and NHL great Rob Blake ’90 played on the Canadian squad at three Olympics, including on the gold-medal-winning team in 2002.
According to head coach Chris Bergeron, BGSU’s presence in the 2014 Winter Olympics is emblematic of Falcon hockey’s resurgence and a strong reminder of a tradition that is alive and well: “Our Olympic history is so much deeper than I even realized, and we’re very proud to add two more great Olympians to that history.”
Freibergs thrives as intercollegiate athlete
As a member of the Latvian national hockey team, Falcon defenseman Ralfs Freibergs is the only current NCAA men’s ice hockey player taking part in the 2014 Winter Olympics.
Freibergs, who hails from Riga, Latvia, is an offensive-minded defenseman who ranks second in assists for the Falcons and in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association (behind teammate Dan DeSalvo), and is tied for second among WCHA defensemen in points. He came to Bowling Green after playing two seasons with the Texas Tornado of the NAHL, and one season with the Lincoln Stars of the United States Hockey League. But then he was contacted by BGSU’s coaching staff and saw intercollegiate hockey as a way to get a great education while also stepping up his game, with the goal of playing in the NHL some day.
His decision to move from junior hockey to college play was not an easy one. “I didn’t know anything about college hockey in the U.S.,” said Freibergs. “But then BGSU called me and showed a lot of interest, and they were ready to help me with the transition.”
Part of the initial challenge was that he had played with the Latvian national team in the World Junior Championships in 2009 and 2010, and team officials arranged for the team to play in a Latvian professional league as part of its preparation. This resulted in the NCAA requiring Freibergs to sit out most of his freshman year.
“We went through a lot with the NCAA Eligibility Center, and our compliance staff did a great job,” recalled Bergeron. “While we were all disappointed that Ralfs had to watch for 33 games, in hindsight that may have been the best thing because it allowed him to get his feet wet from an academic and time-management standpoint.”
Taking the stage in international competition
Last year, the talented defenseman had the opportunity to play with the Latvian national team at the World Championships in Finland. “It was an unbelievable experience,” Freibergs said. “I got to play with guys I never thought I’d play with … who I had watched on TV over the years.”
While Freibergs was in the mix with far more experienced players, Latvian head coach Ted Nolan of the Buffalo Sabres liked what he saw — enough to invite him to compete in Sochi. “I’m not sure what the coaches have in mind for me yet,” said Freibergs. “But I’m really happy to get a chance to be on the team at my age and I’ll be ready to contribute in any way I can.”
His BGSU coaches believe Freibergs will be an asset to the Latvian team: “I think their focus for him will be the power play,” predicted Bergeron. “Ralfs has the rare ability to see plays two or three moves ahead, and that’s one reason he is such an effective player.”
For his part, Freibergs is ready to bring to his game what he has already learned from the veteran players. “They are really smart … not necessarily faster or that much stronger, but they are calmer and are ‘hockey smart,’” he said.
His experience at BGSU has also helped him evolve and mature as a player, teaching him how to play with greater intensity “in every game and at every practice and during every drill.”
This is just the fifth time that Latvia has qualified for the Olympics in hockey, so Freibergs believes it is already a great honor for his country to be among the 12 teams competing in Sochi. “For me it’s very special to represent my country. Latvia is not very big, and my goal is to prove that a small country can do big things.”
Freibergs is also looking forward to spending time with some of the best players in the world. Among them is his teammate Sandis Ozolinsh, a seven-time NHL All Star and a national hero in Latvia, where hockey is the number one sport. “I have so many questions and so much to learn from him,” Freibergs said.
“In this world where Olympic hockey players mostly come from the NHL, it’s a big deal to have a Falcon as the one current college player in this year’s games,” said Bergeron. “People are seeing that and it’s out there especially strong with the help of social media. With Dan Bylsma coaching the U.S. team and Ralfs playing for the Latvian national team, this year’s Olympics are very special for Bowling Green.”
"...this year’s Olympics are very special for Bowling Green.”According to Bergeron, the timing couldn’t be better. “We’re trying to make Bowling Green Hockey relevant again in the college hockey world. We’re trying to change perceptions.”
It is no small thing to be able to present the virtues of BGSU and Falcon Hockey with the help of one of the highest profile sporting events in the world. “It’s time to put new, more positive perceptions to work for us,” said Bergeron. “That will help us to get more people on campus to experience all that BG has to offer, and that is how our program will continue to grow.”
The 2014 Winter Olympics are scheduled to take place Feb. 6-23, with ice hockey set to begin on Wednesday, Feb. 12.