By Taylor Raglin
BU News Service
On a crisp autumn day in 2007, Paul Dzintars Kalnins flicked a tennis ball from the webbing of his lacrosse stick, watching his German shepherd Ministrs bound after it. Raised in Brookline and a college lacrosse star at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in the 1970s, he’s since reclaimed his grandfather’s farm in a rural section of midwestern Latvia and moved to the Baltic country.
A decade later, current Latvian national team head coach and Boston University men’s assistant coach Max Silberlicht would label him the “godfather of Latvian lacrosse.”
Later that fall, Kalnins received a phone call from his wife. A neighbor, who learned of Kalnins and his lacrosse background, had come by to gauge his interest in the local lacrosse club.
“I said, ‘Wife, you’ve been drinking.’ When I played, only four countries played in the World Championships,” Kalnins said. “I had no idea that lacrosse had come to Europe.”
After he attended a practice of the local club, one of three in the country, he began assuming the role of instructor and coach. That winter, he attended a meeting of board of directors for the national lacrosse federation. Indicative of the program’s ragtag state at the time was the gathering’s location—a local bar.
While there, he offered his services as a coach for the national program as it prepared to send a team to the 2008 European Championships in Lahti, Finland. They accepted.
“When I saw the enthusiasm—they were young kids—I just wanted to help them,” said Kalnins, whose grandparents fled Latvia for the Boston area during World War II. “I wanted to give back something to the sport that gave so much to me.”
Kalnins is admittedly old-school, a product of the 70s. Hall of Fame coaches Jerry Schmidt and Dave Urick had instilled in him that the game was to be played physically, with technically sound fundamentals. What they lacked in skill, the Latvians made up for in size and aggression. The bare-bones style suited them well.
The program was coming together, and Kalnins had set it on a path toward admission into the fraternity of international lacrosse. However, he began to realize the game had left him behind somewhere along the way.
Enter Max Silberlicht.
A goalie and member of the Hobart class of 2010, he traveled with a U.S.-based team to the 2010 Berlin Open. There, Kalnins recognized Silberlicht, whom he’d first heard about through college connections.
After being slowly roped in by a constant barrage of emails and phone calls from Kalnins, Silberlicht began traveling to Latvia in 2011. That year, he organized a team to play in Jelgava against the Latvian and Polish national squads. From there, he assumed the role of assistant coach for the national team, providing an injection of modern strategy while staying true to Kalnins’ aggressive style.
“He’s in the midst of developing the thinking for today’s game,” Kalnins said. “He’s on the cutting edge of it. My game was 30 years in the past, and I had been completely away from the sport for that time. My thinking had not developed, and he brought a fresh approach.”
That approach was noticeable in the subtle way the Latvians played the game. Where Kalnins had instructed his team to stop a defender advancing the ball at all costs, Silberlicht introduced a system that allowed for a decision to be made based on the defender’s skill. If he was a poor ball handler, Silberlicht’s defense allowed him room to make a mistake.
Silberlicht was committed to maintaining the Latvian’s physical presence—his players’ size was still their biggest equalizer. However, he tuned the program’s style of play to match up with the best teams in the world.
“There are teams at the international level that we could press the crap out of and score a bunch of easy goals, and they’d never be able to clear the ball,” said Silberlicht. “But the Latvian lacrosse program has elevated itself to a place where we don’t want to compare ourselves to those teams anymore. We want to find ways to beat the upper half and the upper third.”
In 2016, the club tested its mettle against the perennial powers of England and Germany during group play at the European Championships. It lost 11-9 to eventual champion England, a far cry from the 26-4 drubbing it suffered in the teams’ meeting at the same event in 2008. In the process, the Latvians earned the respect of the international lacrosse scene.
Silberlicht, who assumed the title of head coach in the fall of 2016, said his short-term goal is to lead his team to the podium at the next European Championships in 2020. Even more important, though, is his desire to grow the game in the country and help the players who gave him a second family.
“They play lacrosse for the right reasons,” Silberlicht said. “They play lacrosse because they love to play it, they love being around each other and they love representing their country. They have been so good to me, allowing me into their homes when I’m over there and basically bringing me into their family, because it’s been a really, really tight-knit group of guys playing for that national team since before I got involved.”
Each summer, his lacrosse family welcomes Silberlicht back to Latvia when the coach conducts a training camp for the national team. On those trips, he looks forward to visiting the summer home of the Stabulnieks family. The Stabulnieks brothers, Kaspars and Miks, each play midfield for the national team. Nestled a short walk from an untouched beach on the Baltic Sea, the farmhouse-style home offers an idyllic backdrop for team bonding.
Silberlicht’s commitment to the Latvians is highlighted by the little things he does, from team bonding on the Baltic Sea to learning as much as he can about his adopted country.
“Any time we go, he’s got his notepad on his phone and he’s constantly writing down words so he can remember how to say certain phrases and stuff like that,” said Chris Zarnins, an American of Latvian heritage that plays attack for the team. “He’s really taken to the culture, big time, and I think that’s another thing that the guys really like about Max. He’s not doing this for something on his resume or something beneficial for him. He’s doing it because he genuinely wants to be there helping.”
When Silberlicht is with the Terriers in the U.S., he works remotely to fundraise for the Latvian team and plan grassroots initiatives to highlight the program and his Latvian-born players. He also hopes to provide training opportunities for the country’s next generation of players.
“[Lacrosse] has given so much to this group of players over the last eight to 10 years that I think they need, and I need, to do everything that I can to help spread it and develop it,” Silberlicht said. “If we can find a way to put sticks in kids’ hands over there and find another group of 40 to 50 kids that can develop on their way up through and use lacrosse as a medium to get somewhere in life or have a different life experience that otherwise they wouldn’t, awesome.”