BOWLING GREEN — Ralfs Freibergs has always associated the Olympics with one thing: Not getting much sleep.
“I remember when I was little, I would wake up at 4 a.m. to watch the Olympic games,” said Freibergs, now a member of the Bowling Green State University hockey team.
A few weeks back Freibergs and his Falcon teammates had just finished a nine-hour busride from Huntsville, Ala., when the Olympics awakened him once more.
“The assistant coach [of the Latvian hockey team] called me around 1 a.m.,” he said. “That night, I didn’t sleep — I called my parents and a couple of friends, and I was so excited.”
The reason for the excitement was Freibergs earning a spot on the Latvian hockey team that will play in the Olympics in February. The sophomore defenseman will represent his home country in the Sochi, Russia games.
“I can’t really say it is a dream of mine, because I didn’t dream about it — it’s so big,” Freibergs said. “Knowing I’m going to be on the [Latvian] roster is unbelievable; the feeling is indescribable.”
Name: Ralfs Freibergs
Birthday: May 17, 1991
Home: Riga, Latvia
Ht./Wt.: 5-11, 190
Family: Parents are Ralfs & Ina Freibergs; brother, Renars
Career highlights: Came to the United States in 2009 and spent two seasons with the Texas Tornado of the North American Hockey League. … Recorded 73 points in 79 career games with Texas, including eight goals and 65 assists. … Ranked third on Tornados with 55 points in 2010-11 (including 48 assists). … Spent the 2011-12 season with the Lincoln Stars of the United States Hockey League. … Led all Lincoln defensemen in scoring with eight goals and 34 assists in 58 games.
BGSU highlights: Was ruled ineligible for the first 33 games of last season by the NCAA after playing in a Latvian professional league while with the Latvian World Junior Team in 2009. … Played in eight games at the end of last season and had one goal and six assists. … Also was plus-three for the Falcons last year. … This season he ranks second on the Falcons and in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association in assists with 16. … Also is tied with Matt Prapavessis of Bemidji State for the WCHA lead in points by defensemen with 17.
Latvian team: This will be just the fifth time Latvia has qualified for the Olympics in hockey. The team has never finished higher than ninth. ... Freibergs is the second-youngest player on the team behind only Zemgus Girgensons. … Girgensons, who plays for the Buffalo Sabres, is the only NHL player on the Latvian team. … Former NHL players Sandis Ozolinsh, Oskars Bartulis, and Kaspars Daugavins also are on the Latvian team. … Nine of the 25 players on the roster play for the same team, Dinamo Riga in Kontinental Hockey League. ... Current Sabres coach Ted Nolan is the coach of the Latvian team.
Worth noting: Freibergs graduated from Marupes High School in Riga, Latvia. One of his Classmates, Kristaps Zvejnieks, also will compete in the Olympics as a downhill skie
Here is a list of players with BG ties who have participated in hockey at the Olympics:
■ Dan Bylsma, USA (coach), 2014
■ Rob Blake, Canada, 1998, 2002 (gold medal), 2006
■ Kevin Dahl, Canada, 1992 (silver medal)
■ Bob Dobek, USA, 1976
■ Ralfs Freibergs, Latvia, 2014
■ Pierrick Maia, France, 1994
■ Ken Morrow, USA, 1980 (gold medal)
■ Greg Parks, Canada, 1994 (silver medal)
■ Doug Ross, USA, 1976
■ Brian Stankiewicz, Austria, 1988, 1994
■ Mark Wells, USA, 1980 (gold medal)
While the Latvian team is not expected to be a medal contender, BG coach Chris Bergeron said Freibergs’ opportunity to play in the games still is an achievement.
“I know how important it was for him to at least be in the conversation for the Olympics,” Bergeron said. “For him to reach that goal and get that phone call, I’m really proud of him and happy for him.”
Freibergs is expected to leave the Falcons following a home game against Michigan Tech Feb. 1, which now is less than three weeks away.
“It really hasn’t hit me yet,” Freibergs said. “The only thing I’ve thought about is going home: seeing my parents, what foods I’m going to eat, who I’m going to see.
“I haven’t thought about the Olympics yet. … I’m looking forward to it. It’s going to be exciting.”
Freibergs is an offensive-minded defenseman who ranks third on the BG team in points (17 in 26 games). His 16 assists is second-best on the team and in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association, and he leads all WCHA defensemen in points.
“He sees plays before they happen — he sees plays maybe two or three moves [ahead],” Bergeron said. “I think their focus for him is the power play.
“Because he’s coming from college and will have to defend NHL guys, I’m not sure they view him as one of their top defenders. … But they see him helping their power play.”
As the only NCAA hockey player who will take part in the Olympics, Freibergs views the event as a valuable learning experience.
“I’m going to be with the best players in the world,” he said. “One of the teams we will play is Sweden, and they have half of the Detroit Red Wings on their team.
“I want to see all the little things that they do.”
That learning experience includes what happens off the ice.
“That’s what I’m really the most excited about,” he said. “One of the players on our roster is Sandis Ozolinsh, a seven-time NHL All Star.
“I’m thinking about taking notes on the questions I’m going to ask him. I want to learn as much information as I can from him.”
This trip from Bowling Green to Sochi, which covers more than 5,600 miles, is just the latest step in a journey that Freibergs hopes will help him reach his ultimate goal.
“I’m in the United States because one day I want to play in the NHL,” he said. “College hockey has been the toughest level for me, because every game and every practice is such a grind.
“I’m not a grinder, so it’s hard to play that role. So I’ve learned a lot from coach Bergeron about playing hard every day, every practice, every drill.”
Bergeron said BG has benefited, both on and off the ice, from having Freibergs on campus.
“We brought Ralfs into this program because he’s a really good player,” Bergeron said. “But from the first breakfast I had with Ralfs on his recruiting visit, it was [the start of] a relationship based on trust.
“We are trying to change the perception of our program in the college hockey world. And this helps that. Having high-profile players put in high-profile situations like the Olympics only brings good things to your program.”