Latvian Hockey News Report

By Didzis Rudmanis

Mustukovs: I don’t see myself playing for the national team

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Ervins Mustukovs is a 26-year-old Latvian goalie, who is one of the top Latvian goaltenders at the moment. He is currently having a tremendous season with the Sheffield Steelers of the EIHL. For the previous two seasons he served as the third goalie of KHL’s Dinamo Riga, but never managed to gain the trust of the head coach Julius Supler, only playing two games for the club. Earlier this year Mustukovs also made the Latvian Olympic roster at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, but, serving as the second goalie behind Edgars Masalskis back, failed to spend even a minute in the crease.

In this interview Ervins talks not only about the current season with Sheffield, but also touches the issues of Latvian national team, Dinamo Riga, his own future.

You signed the contract with Sheffield already in May, which somehow indicates that you had decided to leave Dinamo already prior the end of the season. Is it true?

– Yes, it is true. Even though I was willing to play for Dinamo Riga and prove myself, I did not manage to see that chance coming. I had no other options but to search for a new club where to play, as I did not want to stay as the third goalie of Dinamo Riga already for the third straight season. Clubs from several leagues (also Kazakh league and French Ligue Magnus) offered me contracts, however, I gave preference to the EIHL and the Sheffield Steelers.

What were the reasons which led you to playing abroad?

– Well, they were all well-known – despite the fact that I wanted to play for Dinamo Riga, I did not gain the trust of the coaching staff. I did not want to stay without playing anymore, and chose to try my luck elsewhere in Europe. Sheffield came up with an offer of decent wage, great city, arena, league and, more importantly, many shots on goals, as well as the ability to play regularly, which, in my opinion, are the most important issues for a goaltender.

When you signed the contract with Steelers, did you imagine that the season would turn out as successfully as it has done?

– To be honest, at that moment I did not really think about that. For me the most important part was to find a club where I could play regularly. Sheffield offered that. I hoped that I would be able to give a taste of my quality, but you could never know, how it would actually turn out.

How would you evaluate the level of EIHL, compared to the Belarusian Extraleague, where you played previously?

– The level is great, I am not complaining. I believe that for a goaltender it is way better and interesting to play in EIHL rather than Belarus – there are way more games, many shots on goals and it is always more breathtaking, when there is a solid Canadian goalie standing in the opposite net. I am not ready to judge the players, however, I know that the hockey is very much different than the one played in Belarus – here the game is more aggressive, all the players are rushing forward, shooting from every angle imaginable, playing with only three shifts. Yesterday’s game between Metalurgs Liepaja and Coventry Blaze [Continental Cup third round, Coventry won 6:1] was not the easiest one for Liepaja. Obviously, we can not evaluate two leagues out of this single game, but, clearly, people in England know how to play ice hockey.

Recently Ben Simon, the head coach of Steelers, announced that he would not trade you for any other goaltender of the EIHL. What does it mean to you? Also, do you believe you would maintain the trust of Simon, if you played several rather unsuccessful games in a row?

– Similarly to every other goaltender, it means a lot, when a coach trusts you. Despite that, I try not to think about that too much. I want to play hockey, and that is currently the most important thing. Coaches in this league avoid saying anything negative to their goalies, it was the same in the ECHL, yet I do not live in an euphoria because of that. After all, you can never know, how the season will develop. The attitude towards you can always change according to your performance.

In early October you had a chance to play against Boston Bruins. Why did the coach decide to  send you in the net just three minutes before the regulation?

– It was a decision made by him. Probably because I took the trip to Belfast and coach gave me a chance to appear on the scoresheet.

If the game was held in Sheffield, would you have started it in the net, not on the bench?

– If the game was held in Sheffield, most likely I would have been standing in the net. Still, it is only normal, as every coach in the most crucial games plays a goalie, who he trusts the most and who he knows the best. Why should a Belfast Giants coach send a Latvian goalie in the net, if he has a solid British national team player Stephen Murphy on the roster?

Sheffield has the largest arena in the EIHL – do they have also the best fans?

– No, I will not state it only because I play in Sheffield. Still, several EIHL teams have really great fans and Steelers is not an exception. Also Nottingham and Belfast have great fans. All these cities have wonderful arenas and a great support, where their fans follow to their team away tours even to the most distant cities. I would really thank them about that. It is always pleasant to play in front of overcrowded arenas.

You made the Latvian Olympic roster at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, however it was Martins Raitums and Edgars Lusins, who made the 2010 World championship roster. Where do you currently see yourself in the context of the national team?

– I am really not willing to recall Vancouver. I was glad that I made the roster, but right there the positive memories about the Olympic Games ended. As soon as the Olympics finished, I knew that Znaroks would not choose me for the World championship in Mannheim. Frankly speaking, currently I do not see myself in the national team at all. Nobody has ever talked to me about that and it does not seem that anything is going to change. I have played in QMJHL, SPHL, ECHL, which somebody might think requires no effort, however I will reveal a secret – for a Latvian goalie on his own it is not that easy – that is why I was never clear, when nobody from the national team took any interest in me. If any of the younger goalies played in any of those leagues, he would be on the national team already for some time now and made a national hero.

How do you evaluate the fact that the Latvian national team did not use the November break to play any exhibition games, in order to test the nearest reserves of the team?

– I do not believe that such tournaments or exhibition games are necessary at all, and they are the least necessary in November. Everything is decided already before these games anyway. If a game would be won, it would be forgotten easily, however if you let in some unfortunate mistakes, everybody would remember it and remember it for a long time coming. A great example – when I had a 1:0 shutout against the Danish team, nobody cared, as ‘they were only Danes – not that much of shots on goal, etc.’, however, when I let four goals in against the Germans [right before leaving to Vancouver Olympics], people were willing to send me home. People came up with the most unrealistic things, saying that I lack attitude, regular playing, that I do not talk to the teammates. After all, who cares in what form a player is in November, if he has to play in April? Until then everything can change.

Three years ago in an interview you said that the younger goalies should take any opportunity to move to the North American leagues. Now, when your North American career is at least temporarily finished and you have gained more experience, do you still think that way?

– I still believe the younger goalies should go to North America, however they should do it only if they actually have an opportunity to play there at a decent level. It is rather hard to make it even to the SPHL, as they really do not need a Latvian goalie, who they have never heard of. As long as you are not head and shoulders above, they will still prefer a native goalie.

I would like to think that EIHL is not the top of your ambitions? How do you currently look towards the future – where would you like to see yourself playing in three, four seasons?

– I would certainly love to play for Dinamo. That would be very joyful and a great honour, but you can never know, how everything will turn out. A top European league would be fine as well.

I wish you the very best!

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