For the LOVE of the game

  • 2006-03-15
  • By Jody Yurkowsky
They have been called the Brazilians of hockey; the fans that never stop smiling; the maroon and white wave. They follow their team anywhere, often spending their hard earned money (the lowest wages in the EU) on holidays to follow their team to tournaments and championships. They are wild and crazy, loud and rambunctious, inspiring and motivational. They are the Latvian hockey fans. They add colour to the game and their passion has been noted and reported world-wide. But what is it about Latvian fans that make them the best in the world?

As a Canadian, I thought I knew what it was to love the game. I grew up with a mother whose magazine subscription of choice was The Hockey Digest and the theme to Hockey Night in Canada was probably the most played song in our house when I was a child. I remember nights at the local arena cheering on whatever team was playing. A major rift occurred between my mother and I around the time when I turned 13. Not because of puberty, but because at that age, I decided I was no longer an Edmonton Oilers fan like my mother, but, oh the sin of it, a Calgary Flames fan. We fought like cats and dogs as a result and I suspect that she has yet to really forgive me.

So when I got to Latvia, it was natural to think that I knew what it took to be a loyal hockey fan. I was, after all, Canadian and Canadians, as a certain Latvian once told me, teethe on pucks, don't we? But in this country, which despite precious few ice arenas has had considerable success on the world stage, I learned what being a fan really means. At the mere mention of their national hockey team, even the most mild mannered of these generally reserved people shows that gleam in their eye. It is the gleam of hope and pride that Latvians have for their team.

Now, I have to say that the loyalty of Latvian fans is tempered with a certain critical eye. One false move and a Latvian hockey player will receive the wrath of his fans. Unlike Canadian fans who tend to be unmovingly loyal, a Latvian fan will place blame where needed. And fast if things are going wrong. But they always bounce back. Perhaps this is in part due to the fact that although the fans are steadfast, their team doesn't always live up to their hopes. The best they have ever placed is 7th overall.

But the Latvian team has at times heeded the call of its fan and pulled off victories worth cheering for. One moment which will always stand out is the 2000 World Championships in St. Petersburg. That night, the Saiema even had to delay proceedings 's they didn't have quorum because everyone was out watching the game. And the team did not let them down. In the brand new 18,000-seat Russian arena, the Latvian team and their beloved "Wall", goaltender Arturs Irbe, shamed the likes of Pavel Bure, Alexei Kovalev and Alexei Yashin to win the game 3-2. I suspect that there isn't a Latvian out there who can't tell you where they were when that game was won. The moment was poignant and more than a little political 's the Latvian anthem playing in the Russian arena while burly Latvian hockey players and their fans cried with joy. After the game, hundreds, maybe even a thousand, marched to the Saeima where the vote on a new government had just taken place. Flags waved. Cheers sounded throughout Old Town and throughout the country. It was like independence all over again.

But despite the significance of this particular game, there is something similarly celebratory about every game the Latvian team wins. Maybe this is because of how hard this small country has to work to be among the best. Consider this: complete hockey equipment'sskates, pads, stick, helmet and the team uniform will cost a young player approximately 250-300 lats. This is the equivalent of the average monthly salary in Latvia. And until recently, hockey rinks were few and far between outside of the capital. Clearly, any family that makes the decision to sign their kid up for hockey is making not only an extra-curricular decision but a financial one as well. Some people believe that a young person with talent is better off going to Sweden or Finland or even Russia to train - if they want to make something of their game. To be a hockey player in Latvia 's a great hockey player 's means sacrifice. This may be the case all over the world, but perhaps even more so here.

Every Latvian fan believes. One day their team will be even better than it is now. The next game will be another sweet victory. Maybe this is what makes every game so important- every win so vital. Maybe the fact that, despite the odds, Latvia can pull off wins against national teams whose potential draft pools are larger than the population of Riga lends something to their enthusiasm. This is what delineates the Canadian fan from a Latvian one. Canada is a powerhouse in hockey. We know that our team will eventually win the gold again. We have and we will. But for Latvian fan, the dream also rests in what has yet to be achieved. The dream of that gold, the pride of making it so far and knowing that there is more to come.

They are loud and colourful. Dressed in maroon and red -faces painted -horns of their mythical hero Lacplesis on their heads. They will do anything to get to a tournament 's sleep in the tour bus if need be. The most important thing is the game. Sometimes their team wins, sometimes it loses, but they never falter. They are the heroes of the game. They are the Latvian fans. My mom would be proud.