As Dynamo Riga’s ice hockey season ends in disappointment, and as VEF Riga’s United League basketball season rests in the balance, TBT’s chief sports contributor Victor Shestopalov extols the virtues of Arena Riga, the unique venue which both teams share.
As a sports commentator and writer, I’ve been to a lot of famous NBA and NHL arenas. Visiting places like Madison Square Gardens in New York, or Staple Center in Los Angeles, can give you goosebumps all night long. Stepping into these venues gives you a unique sense of excitement: a feeling of being in the front row of sports history. Those grand cathedrals of athletic excellence mean so much to the hardcore fans — just as they do to the teams playing in front of them.
What I love most about going to different sports venues is when they have their own unique character — whether that’s the old, history-filled, dilapidated gyms, or the glittering, modern neon-and-concrete structures.
And I’ve gotta tell you, of all the venues I’ve been to, even in comparison with the best American sports venues, in Riga, they’ve built one that’s just right.
Standing in the middle of a spacious parking lot, not far from the centre of the city, Arena Riga is everything a sports palace should be — and more: it truly is a “place to celebrate”, as they refer to it on the arena’s official site. And it’s a place to celebrate life in the finest way: by watching the best athletes compete at the highest level.
Being a culturally diverse city, Riga has a lot of different things to offer. Still, in my playbook, going to Arena Riga to watch Dynamo play hockey or VEF play basketball beats most of them.
Unfortunately, the most beloved of those two teams — the Riga Lions, as they are called — didn’t do much winning this year. In fact, the 2014-2015 Continental Hockey League season was one of the worst in modern Dynamo history.
Finishing the year with a track record of 22 wins and 30 losses, the Lions didn’t make the playoffs for just the second time in their 7-year CHL history. The troubling point would be that the early exit happened for the second time in the last three seasons. Nonetheless, visiting Arena Riga to watch Dynamo play hockey, even in these tough times, is beyond special.
When those passionate fans start chanting “Saraju Riga”, urging Dynamo skaters to move faster, you fear the ice will crack. Those cheers can be so booming and deafening that you can hardly hear the hockey fan sitting right next to you. The main recipient of the fans’ love this season was Sweden forward Linus Videll, who led Dynamo with 10 goals scored and 24 assists for 34 points. Other players who performed well over the course of the season were domestic athletes Mikelis Redlihs and Lauris Darzins with 32 points each. But even they couldn’t move Dynamo past the bottom of the league standings.
Interestingly, there may only be a limited number of the current squad around for next season. As for now, Dynamo has just five whose contracts continue past April 30 – with the rest of them you’ve got to negotiate anew. The sense that the team might be moving in a different direction was palpable during the closing gala of this CHL season, which took place on March 7 at the Arena Riga. It was a retiring ceremony for the 42-year old hockey warrior Sandis Ozolins, and not only celebrated the career of the best Latvian player ever but also symbolised the passing of the torch to a new generation.
It’s funny to mention, but you don’t forget about hockey even when you come to Arena Riga to watch VEF play basketball. The “Catch 22” is how they alternate the playing turf for both sports, sometimes on the very short notice. To minimize technical complications, the basketball parquet is bluntly put atop the ice rink, thus creating very interesting situation. Standing near the basketball court you can really feel the coolness of the ice beneath. Maybe it makes life miserable for everybody close by, but I imagine it urges players to run that much faster and jump higher during the game.
And, frankly speaking, VEF players don’t tend to move too slowly during this United League Season. In fact they regularly play solid basketball and still have a good chance to make the playoffs. How they do it this year under the guidelines of young coach Nikolajs Mazurs is another story that will certainly be told a little bit later. In the meantime, let us again marvel at the proud posture of the VEF and Dynamo home court – the beautiful Arena Riga.
Let’s just walk around its wide parking lot and appreciate its modern architectural ensemble, soak in the spirit of the friendly athletic competitions that regularly take place behind those walls. Now, let’s get inside – the game is about to begin.