Hockey heroics spark pucking big party

  • 2000-05-11
  • Philip Birzulis
Politics, passion and patriotism mix as Latvia savor's sporting success, as Philip Birzulis reports.

Deserted offices, rising beer consumption and people acting a bit silly are normal symptoms of springtime in the Baltics. But this year Latvians have been going more batty than usual over something a world away from sunshine and budding blossoms.

While other Europeans head for the beach after months of cold and darkness, Latvians are fixated by ice. And not over a miraculously still-frozen pond in a picturesque corner of the countryside, but a small indoor patch in a distant city on which burly men whack a small piece of rubber, and sometimes each other.

As the earth defrosts Latvia is shivering with ice hockey fever. Their team is enjoying its best ever performance in the world championships currently sliding along in St Petersburg, giving a normally reserved people a chance to holler their hearts out.

Loud Latvians

Those unfortunates who have to sit at work during all the fun are finding it pretty hard to concentrate these days. With Latvia having now reached the home straight of the tournament, the singing and chanting of thousands of celebrating fans decked out in a mass of red and white paraphernalia is getting louder and louder.

Ten years ago, Latvians hit the streets in their hundreds of thousands to push for independence, but during the intervening years they have kept much more to themselves as the ambiguities and hardships of the transition period offer few chances to cheer. Now they are joined in one voice: "Let's go Latvia!", "Victory for Latvia!" and other mantras fill the streets of Riga.

Of course, the juice of jubilation is beer, and during match time bars and pubs are filled with people crammed around TV screens. One popular venue to watch the action was Paddy Whelan's Irish pub in the capital's Old Town, which was filled to capacity on May 4 to see Latvia take on Ukraine.

Bartender Valda Bernsone reported that Paddy's did indeed see beer sales rise steeply on hockey days, but she cares more about the atmosphere than profit.

"Its a chance to go for the country that I'm from and to cheer with my friends," she said.

By coincidence, the Ukraine game was played on the tenth anniversary of Latvia's pre-independence parliament voting to exit the USSR. But while official events modestly observed this landmark, the people's minds were almost exclusively on hockey. The young Paddy's revelers said that without the game they would still remember the meaning of May 4, but what it commemorates happened quite a while back compared with the excitement of the game at hand.

"I'm a patriot of Latvia and I support it in all ways," said Ingus, a 19-year-old student. "Its logical that when Latvia plays most people have part of their hearts out there on the ice."

For Dainis, a company director looking a bit more mature than most of >the throng, the national passion for hockey is not something recent. He remembers people avidly following Riga Dinamo, a team that did Latvians proud in the Soviet hockey league in the 70s and 80s.

"Hockey is more important now. A date is a date and independence was also decided at other moments not just on May 4," he said.

Armands Ozolins, a thirty-something dentist, denied that he was watching as a professional hoping to profit from the damage done by the sometimes violent play. Rather, he said he hoped the players all had mouth guards which would have turned a few bucks for his colleagues beforehand.

For Ozolins, the game is an exciting one to watch, and also symbolizes Latvia today. The fact that several of the team's best players are from ethnic minorities is all for the good, he thinks.

"It unifies the nation, but not just Latvians," he said. "I know plenty of Russians, Jews and others who are supporting the team."

If hockey cuts across ethnic lines its definitely a cross-gender phenomenon as well. Dressed just as patriotically and screaming as loudly as the men are many young Latvian women.

Ilze, a 22-year-old student sporting a jersey autographed by three Latvian players, thinks they are very attractive men. And she ridiculed suggestions that all they have is brawn.

"To play hockey you need brains too. Its the same nonsense as saying that a beautiful woman can't be smart. Down with stereotypes!" she said.

"Don't give me food or drink, give me hockey!" chimed in her friend Laura, 20.

Power plays

The tournament started off with a well-fought defeat by Latvia against a Swedish team rated one of the favorites to win the tournament. But a few days later, in what could have been designed as a sign of the country turning its back on the CIS, Latvia went on to score easy wins over Belarus and Ukraine.

But this was nothing compared with the result of the first game of the second round played May 6: Latvia 3, Russia 2. It was a rare victory over the Big Bear, on its home ice, and the fans went exuberantly mad.

About a thousand youngsters literally made the link between sport and politics by marching from the President's Castle in Riga, where the incumbent sent greetings through a spokesman to the revelers, to the Parliament, where they greeted the just-elected new government with cheers and flag waving. The next point of call was the Russian Embassy, but apart from a few rude remarks there was no trouble. In fact, police reported that on this wild and drunken night only one person was arrested. Things have been just as peaceful in St Petersburg itself where thousands of Latvian supporters have headed with all their chants and patriotic outfits.

And while in the West ice hockey is sometimes viewed as beer-guzzling, baseball cap wearing entertainment for the working class, in Latvia it excites interest at all levels of society. The Parliament's vote on the new government was scheduled for 5 pm, but the speaker was forced to delay the start of proceedings because there was no quorum; most of the MPs were watching the final moments of the Russia game, obviously more important than selecting national leaders. There were cheers and smiles all around by the deputies after the victory, and some felt like celebrating afterwards too. Valdis Birkavs, a former prime minister, foreign minister and most recently justice minister, spent the evening after the vote sitting in an Old Town beer garden signing fans' hockey shirts.

There are frequent allegations that Latvian politics is controlled by big business groupings, but when it comes to hockey they're all on side too. Parex Bank, Latvia's biggest financial institution and possibly the most politically powerful, paid each of the goal scorers and star goalie Arturs Irbe several thousand lats after they nailed Russia.

As the second round has advanced Latvia has found the going tougher, pulling off a tie with the United States and then going down to fancied Switzerland. But the team has advanced into the quarter finals, the last eight, and with a bit of luck added to its undoubted fighting spirit it may just make it to the semis. Or further...

But whatever the final result, it has already done a great service to its country.