They are boffo in the Baltics, the Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux of their native land. In the U.S. they are smaller celebrities—smaller but growing. Arturs Irbe and Sandis Ozolinsh are two major reasons that the San Jose Sharks are playoff-bound for the first time in the franchise's three-year-old history. As the only citizens of their country playing in the NHL, they are also the pride of Latvia.
But heritage is all they have in common. Irbe (ER-bay), the Sharks' sage, 27-year-old goaltender, ranges easily in conversation from the Molotov-Ribbentrop Non-Aggression Pact of 1939 to Russian ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky. Defenseman Ozolinsh (OH-zoe-lynsh), 21 going on 15, can quote you rental rates—five laps, $12.95—-for go-karts at the Malibu Grand Prix in nearby Redwood City.
The sawed-off Irbe is 5'8" and has lightning reflexes, an acrobat's flexibility and—helpfully, on this polyglot team—a linguist's gift for tongues. He speaks Russian to the team's three Russians, Latvian to Ozolinsh and English to everyone else. This season he has conjugated and contorted his way to 30 wins for the 33-35-15 Sharks, who are already assured of the biggest one-year improvement for a franchise in NHL history. Following a 3-1 home victory over Vancouver on Sunday evening, with one regular-season game to play, these San Jose Sharks were 57 points better than the Sad Jose Sharks who went 11-71-2 in '92-93.
If Irbe has been the most valuable Shark, the 6'2" Ozolinsh has been the most surprising. As a boy in Riga, Ozolinsh was forced by his mother to take up figure skating. "White skates," he says, sheepishly recalling those days. Now, in only his second season in the NHL, Ozolinsh is among the league's most breathtaking skaters, a fellow who can make plays and finish them. Through Sunday he had 26 goals, the second-most by a defenseman in the NHL this season and 19 more than he scored last year.
What price, offense? Ozolinsh's maverick rushes up ice have meant many a Maalox moment for rookie coach Kevin Constantine, who is often torn between rebuking the young defenseman and embracing him. During the final minute of a 0-0 game against the Chicago Blackhawks on Feb. 13, Ozolinsh boldly carried the puck into the offensive end and buried the game-winner. Constantine's running commentary went like this: "No! No! No...way to go!"
That victory gave Irbe his second shutout this season. His netminding skills, though, are not always his first priority. After earning the goaltending job for the Soviet national team in 1990, Irbe quit the squad early in 1991 to protest Moscow's decision to send troops into the restive Baltic states. Fourteen people were killed by Soviet paratroopers in Vilnius, Lithuania, in January '91, and Irbe and thousands of others took to the streets of Riga in sympathetic response, erecting barricades in front of local government buildings. Soviet hockey officials warned Irbe that if he did not return to the team, he would never play for it again. The danger was not just to his career. During that bloody January at least five people in Riga were killed by the hated Black Berets of the Interior Ministry. "It was a scary time," says Irbe. "If that group in August had succeeded"—it was a reference to the plotters of the 1991 failed coup against Mikhail Gorbachev—"I don't know where I end up. Maybe Siberia."
But Boris Yeltsin gained power, the Baltics were granted independence, and Irbe landed in the NHL for the '91-92 season. He remains fiercely proud of his country. Last Saturday on a team flight home from Calgary, he pointed out that the Latvian national team had just beat Romania 12-0 the day before. This followed an Irbe disquisition on the failures of communism and preceded his discourse on the world's major religions. Three rows ahead, Ozolinsh was kneeling on his seat, facing backward, engaged in a slap fight with teammate Vlastimil Kroupa.
Thus did the multinational Sharks head into their first-ever postseason, with 11 Canadians, four Yanks, three Russians, two Swedes, two Czechs—and two Latvians, as unalike as they are invaluable.