Widnes Wild star Vlads Vulkanovs has gone from playing university level ice hockey to Division One in just a few years.
He’s had a career spanning across two continents, beginning in his home country of Latvia.
“I started playing in my hometown; Ventspils in Latvia, I played there for maybe 10 years, then I moved to the capital city in Riga where we had a better team.
“I lived there with all the hockey players and we went to school and then I moved to the US for one year where I played in the Junior Bruins organisation.”
With his VISA not able to be renewed he was forced home again playing with Riga and spent two seasons playing in the MHL.
It was then he experienced an injury which put his career on hold.
“I had a really bad injury with my back, I had dislocated discs and I thought that I’d have to call it quits from hockey and then I started studying here in the UK doing engineering,” he said.
“I then started again as a hobby in a university hockey team (Manchester Metros) and I moved from there.”
Vlads spent two years playing with the Metros and caused absolute chaos scoring 65 points in 15 games his first year.
The second year was a little quieter with just the 27 points in seven games.
Having a former Latvian U17, U18 and U20s player was obviously a huge advantage for the side.
He spoke about how this spurred him back into the sport again.
“At the start it was kind of like a hobby, just spending some time, meeting new people on the weekends and obviously I still had some pain in my back.
“Then as I played the two seasons there one of the guys who played for the uni team, who also played in Division Two for Altrincham Aces asked if I wanted to join for a practice or two.
“So, I said, ‘why not’ and moved there, joined for a couple of practices and then they asked if I wanted to come for a season.”
NIHL Division Two
Vlads again impressed at Altrincham and iced 20 times for the side, scoring 51 points in those games.
It was here he met Richard Haggar, currently playing for Hull Jets at the time who would later become Vlads’ new Head Coach.
Haggar has said before he instantly knew once he started working with Widnes that he needed the Latvian in his side.
Now after playing together for the season Haggar believes the 24-year-old is a special talent.
“People like him don’t come around very often, that can score goals from pretty much anywhere on the ice, it doesn’t matter where he’s stood, he just seems to manage to score.
“You can’t really describe it or put it into words how good he is on that ice or what he does, that’s why we work pretty well together.”
“He plays a different type of game to me, we seem to have that connection and it seems to be we can work well together, from day one we’ve hit it off.”
Division One Step-up
Being picked up by Widnes Wild, he could be forgiven for needing time to settle in.
However, this was not the case as he stormed into action providing some key goals for his new side.
He spoke about the leap up from uni level to Division One.
“For me it wasn’t a big transition, because many players maybe don’t know that I almost played professionally at home for a pro club—In the university team some of the guys had just started playing hockey so it was pretty easy for me to score a few goals.
“In Division Two some guys have jobs so they just do it (hockey) in their free time, so this transition to Division One may have been harder, but obviously Richard and all my teammates and the management at Widnes have really helped me.
“I was struggling a bit, I hadn’t played hockey for almost a year when the pandemic hit, so obviously I needed some help to get back on track.”
A man in form
He’s gone on to be one of the best around scoring 59 points in 26 league appearances, despite these issues.
He replicated this form in the cup with 27 points in 10 games, proving himself capable at this level.
His determination to succeed in the sport dates back to his time in Latvia where his passion was first ignited.
“Hockey’s the most popular sport at home in Latvia, so every kid watches hockey and the World Championships, where the Latvia team play.
“I found it was pretty cool to represent your team in any sport, like when I was a kid I played football and tennis and I don’t know something stuck with me like the physicality and it was interesting to play hockey rather than other sports.
“So, that’s when I was like ‘I’m stuck with this’.”
Vlads Vulkanovs: “It was pretty special.”
A standout memory he has from his time in Latvia is representing his country at a youth level.
He went with the Latvia U18 team to compete at the Junior World Championship in 2016.
“It was pretty special, we played in the top division against Canada, Russia and the US and to stay in that top division we had the last game where we had to win against Denmark,” he said.
“We were down 3-1 and then we tied the game in two minutes and won it in the shootout, so it was a pretty special occasion as the championship was in the US, so it was pretty cool.”
The Latvian is now just 24 and has just finished his first season with Widnes, becoming the top goal scorer in the division.
Not to be, in the Play-offs
Unfortunately, they experienced an early play-offs exit to Billingham Stars.
Vlads added: “Obviously, it’s not the result we wanted, but I think it’s a really good lesson for me and for the other players and the coaches that you can lose concentration for one game.
“You can see we beat Billingham four out four in the league, so what I’m thinking is that we lost concentration and they outscore us by a lot and then it’s really hard to get anything in the next game.”
Widnes lost the first leg 8-1 away at Billingham and then won the second leg 3-2 back at home.
It was an unfortunate loss after a strong season, but it has been good for Vlads personally.
His 38 goals in 26 games in the league put him five clear of Solway Sharks’ Peter Gapa.
Add on 16 goals in a successful cup campaign for the Wild and he’s been extremely impressive all season long.
Vlads was keen not to take all the credit for this.
“I don’t want to underestimate the whole teams support, the practices and the games have been the most fun, this season was really fun and the support has been great from the guys and Richard as well.
“He’s (Haggar) been playing on my line for the whole season and as you can see he’s one of the top players on assists, so you can see the connection there and without him it’d be really hard.
“Also without other partners it would be really hard to achieve what I have.”
He also credits his coach for teaching him to play without the puck a little more and know his role.
“You need to understand your position, you need to defend properly, I think that’s the main thing I got from him.
“Also, the passion, not for beer, but also for hockey as well, it’s kind of infectious and you get passionate too.”.
A message for the fans
Finally, he wanted to give a message to the fans of Widnes and the organisation themselves, saying: “I just want to say thank you, to the organisation of Widnes and the management and the coaching staff and all the fans.
“I’ve never seen it even playing at home (Latvia) where all the fans on a Sunday afternoon go somewhere like from Widnes to Whitley or to Solway.
“They go with the team and support them, so obviously we couldn’t win the cup and finish third without our fans so, thank you to them.”