RIGA - Latvia is about to go ice hockey crazy. Finally, after years of preparation and waiting, the 2006 IIHF Ice-hockey World Championship begins in Riga on May 5. When it was first announced that Latvia would host this year's tournament, few doubted that the Latvian Ice Hockey Federation, the government and the local business community would be able to work together and successfully finance and organize the tournament.
The Latvian capital now boasts two high-class stadiums - the revamped Skonto Stadium and the brand new state-of-the-art Arena Riga, which cost around 30 million euros to build. More than 90 percent of the 440,000 tournament tickets, which went on sale last year, have been snapped up, with demand so high for Latvia's games that it might have proven easier to get an audience with the Pope than successfully apply for a pair of seats at one of their matches.
Riga's hotel managers have been saying for months that all the rooms are fully booked in the city, as tens of thousands of sports fans from across the world prepare to descend upon Latvia. Where, exactly, all the regular weekend tourists are going to stay remains to be seen.
Meanwhile, the prices for food and beer are about to go through the roof as the local business community cashes in on hockey fever at the expense of those of us who live here. Some greedy bar owners have already upped their prices by around 60 percent in one swoop.
And then there is the hockey itself. Latvian fans learned last week that they'll be competing without one of their greatest ever players, Arturs Irbe, who has been forced to withdraw from the tournament with a knee injury. High profile withdrawals are not limited to Latvia, with the Czech Republic losing the talented Martin Rucinsky only last week, while Maxim Sokolov's withdrawal from the Russian squad means they have now lost their three first-choice goaltenders. In the last round of pre-tournament games, Russia beat the Czech Republic 7-5 in Stockholm, while the much-fancied Finns overcame Sweden by two goals to nil.