Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Sandis Ozolins: Hockey veteran's journey from Soviet army to Sochi

By James Masters and Olivia Yasukawa, CNN
February 12, 2014 -- Updated 1341 GMT (2141 HKT)
Sandis Ozolins: The soldier returns
Sandis Ozolins: The soldier returns
Sandis Ozolins: The soldier returns
Sandis Ozolins: The soldier returns
Sandis Ozolins: The soldier returns
Sandis Ozolins: The soldier returns
Sandis Ozolins: The soldier returns
Sandis Ozolins: The soldier returns
Sandis Ozolins: The soldier returns
Sandis Ozolins: The soldier returns
  • Sandis Ozolins carried the Latvian flag at the Sochi Games
  • Won 1996 Stanley Cup with Colorado Avalanches
  • Played in a total of 875 NHL games, scoring 167 goals
  • Will captain the Latvian team at his third Olympic Games

CNN's Human to Hero series celebrates inspiration and achievement in sport. Click here for times, videos and features.

(CNN) -- Sochi has been preparing for an Olympics invasion -- but perhaps it didn't expect a former Soviet soldier to be leading the charge.

At least on this occasion, Sandis Ozolins wasn't armed with a Kalashnikov rifle when he marched into Russia.

This time, the 41-year-old skated into Sochi holding the Latvian flag and an ice hockey stick -- not to mention the memories of a Stanley Cup triumph in his bag.

Not bad for a man who only realized he'd been given the opportunity of a lifetime to become a star in the glitz and glamor of the National Hockey League while serving in the Soviet army back in 1991.

"Somebody came with the newspaper and showed me," Ozolins tells CNN's Human to Hero series of his time in the barracks.

"I had no idea I was going to be drafted -- I didn't know what the draft was. That came as a big surprise again and the team was the first-year team in the NHL, San Jose Sharks.

"I didn't even know where it was! I thought it was somewhere in Latin America -- my association was completely off!

"Then afterward when I found out what the draft meant and I found out who the team was, I started realizing, 'OK, this is something happening.'

'Jumping Jen' spins on ice
Sochi skier smiles through the pain
Snowboarder survives avalanche

"What's going to happen? How is this all going to work out? I had no clue but it worked out pretty good for me."

To say it worked out "pretty good" would be an understatement given Ozolins' achievements.

During a 15-year U.S. career, he won the NHL's biggest prize -- the Stanley Cup -- with the Colorado Avalanche and played in seven NHL All-Star Games.

Ozolins scored 167 goals in 875 NHL appearances and made 397 assists with franchises also including Carolina Hurricanes, Florida Panthers, Mighty Ducks of Anaheim and New York Rangers.

It was at Colorado where Ozolins enjoyed his most successful time.

Top of his achievements was helping the Avalanche defeat Florida Panthers in the 1996 final of the Stanley Cup -- a series which his side won in emphatic fashion 4-0.

Even now, some 18 years later, the memory of that day remains fresh, although his memento of the day, his winner's ring, has since managed to disappear.

"That was the peak of the whole thing and, of course, I was young and I thought it's going to continue like that for many, many years," recalls Ozolins.

"I thought I was going to have a whole collection of these Stanley Cups but in reality, it worked out a little bit different."

Ozolins suffered heartbreak the following year when the Avalanche was defeated in the Conference playoff final by Detroit Red Wings.

After starting skating at the age of five, it was not until he was 15 that the lure of ice hockey become irresistible.

A number of appearances for the Soviet junior national side followed before army service intervened.

From there it was on to America, where his early success ended up earning Ozolins a $25 million deal with Carolina Hurricanes in 2000.

However, he failed to shine in Carolina and moved on to Florida Panthers in January 2002 before ending up at Anaheim Ducks 12 months later.

Gerard Pique: Shakira is on my iPod
Fearless marathon runner defies MS
Footballer fights back after cancer

He reached the 2003 Stanley Cup Finals but the Ducks lost 4-3 to the New Jersey Devils, then a serious knee injury wrecked his time in California and he was traded to the New York Rangers in March 2006.

Read: Snowboard 'addict' cheats death

It was there that his off-rink problems began -- he was forced to enter the league's substance abuse program after being found guilty of driving under the influence of alcohol.

After taking a year out to deal with his demons, he took up a 12-month deal in a return to San Jose -- but after that rejected the chance to play a further season with the Los Angeles Kings, and instead returned to Latvia in 2009.

But that was not to prove the end of his career -- far from it.

"I took a year off in hockey and basically, I thought I was retired," he recalls.

"That's how I understood it but it turned out that I only took a year off and then the general manager of Dinamo Riga gave me a call and asked when I was thinking about coming home and playing for the team.

Read: Skating's 'insane' evolution

"I told him, 'Give me two weeks, I'll let you know.' So during those two weeks, I started training again and I wanted to see if I wanted to play.

"I wanted to play on a level where I wouldn't just be a mascot on a team but able to contribute on the ice.

"After two weeks I said, 'OK, I can do it,' and it was like coming home. That's where I began my career, my professional career. It's my childhood, this is my home."

Now back playing in the Kontinental Hockey League with Dinamo Riga, Ozilins is hoping to help his home country impress on the international stage.

Climbing champ takes on toughest rocks
Daredevil skydiver breaks speed of sound

Read: Ski cross champion defies odds

As a true veteran of the game, this may be the final time he gets to compete in front of billions watching across the globe.

Latvia is not expected to challenge for a medal at the Sochi Games but the opportunity to appear at the Olympics for a third time is something which Ozolins says he will relish for the rest of his life -- especially after being Latvia's flag bearer at last week's opening ceremony.

"For us to go to Sochi, I only realized when we qualified how much it meant not just to us but also for the people that were at the arena and the whole country," he says.

"We're going to have all these experiences, Olympic experiences. It's indescribable how much energy you get from that.

"Being with the best winter athletes in the world at the time, in the same village, eating lunch next to figure skaters, skiers or bobsled teams, it's -- especially for younger guys but even for me -- it's so much.

"If winning trophies and cups on a club level is one thing, then Olympics is more of a national pride. It's more being there for your country and representing your country."

Read: The fastest men on ice?

Read: 'The John McEnroe of curling'

Read: The importance of being 'gorgeous'

Read: A marathon a day made me stronger

Follow us at @WorldSportCNN and like us on Facebook

Part of complete coverage on
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1445 GMT (2245 HKT)
Hurtling down a mountain side at 50 mph on a bike isn't everyone's cup of tea. But for Rachel Atherton it's a zen-like experience.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1357 GMT (2157 HKT)
Rachel Atherton is a world champion in downhill mountain biking, one of the most extreme of all the cycling disciplines.
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 1519 GMT (2319 HKT)
In the twinkle of an eye, Israel Folau has accomplished what most athletes would be happy to achieve in an entire career in not one, but three sports.
December 5, 2014 -- Updated 1514 GMT (2314 HKT)
Helgi Sveinsson was a promising handball player until bone cancer forced his left leg to be removed. Undaunted, he picked up a javelin.
November 26, 2014 -- Updated 1935 GMT (0335 HKT)
Nguyen Van Chieu has fostered the growth of the Vietnamese marital art since the 1960s, helping the sport go from strength to strength.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 1809 GMT (0209 HKT)
Carissa Moore is a double world champion and she's still only 22 years old. Her exploits on the ocean are making waves both in and outside surfing.
November 12, 2014 -- Updated 1832 GMT (0232 HKT)
Playing pro ping pong is a bit like running the 100m while playing chess, says Ai Fukuhara.
November 5, 2014 -- Updated 1658 GMT (0058 HKT)
Guor Mading Maker's story makes most sporting tales of triumph over adversity look like a walk in the park.
October 29, 2014 -- Updated 1544 GMT (2344 HKT)
The comparison might irk Michael Jackson purists, but it's easy to see why Kilian Martin's fans liken his fancy footwork to the late "King of Pop."
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 1341 GMT (2141 HKT)
Olympic hero Kosuke Kitajima is hoping to inspire a new generation of Japanese swimming stars ahead of his home 2020 Toyko Games.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0935 GMT (1735 HKT)
Much may have changed in post-Communist Romania, but its production line of gymnasts continues to generate champions.
October 8, 2014 -- Updated 1453 GMT (2253 HKT)
Taking time out to eat a homemade chocolate cake is hardly the conventional way to win a mountain race, but don't tell Emelie Forsberg.
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 1959 GMT (0359 HKT)
He grew up in a surfing party town on the U.S. "space coast" and has conquered waves in the world's most exotic locales.
September 24, 2014 -- Updated 1241 GMT (2041 HKT)
Christian Taylor knows all about putting his best foot forward -- but the Olympic triple-jump champion has had to rewire his muscle memory.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 0142 GMT (0942 HKT)
It's a surfer's paradise -- but Diah Rahayu is out on her own when it comes to professional women's wave-riding in her native Bali.