In some countries, sports are religion. Football in Brazil, basketball in Lithuania, and another football (the one with the oval-shaped ball) in the USA. And while ice hockey itself does not have such a holy stature in Latvia, IIHF World Championships are indeed sacred here. Latvia have never been relegated since gaining promotion to the top division in 1996, and every year since then May is the time when office employees take a vacation, beer sales hit the roof and life stops as team Latvia take the ice.
But where there is holy, there is a confession. Here goes mine. Forgive me reader, for I have sinned. Although born and raised in Riga, I was sceptical about the celestial nature of the tournament this year. With all that COVID-19, with all that war in the very heart of Europe, I was not so excited about hockey any more. I washed my hands. Lord, was I wrong...
Just like one rediscovers the love for life when the bright green leaves start to pop up in spring, every roster news in Latvian media, every Hockey World Championship banner on Riga streets, every hockey-related interview on the radio show co-hosted by me, brought excitement to life and made me eagerly wait for May 12.
And here I am, choosing which jersey to wear for the Latvia v Canada match in Arena Riga, which is just a 20-minute walk from where I live. Is it the new one? From 2021 when Latvia beat Canada 2-0 in their opening game? Or should I wear the one from 2006 when Riga hosted the Worlds for the first time? It is cool and vintage, but then Canada routed us 11-0. I still remember the boos of the sold-out arena. Coins rained on the ice, and some particularly frustrated fan even took off his shoe and threw it onto the rink.
To honour that, one of the big sportsbooks even offered a bet on whether a boot would be thrown onto the ice again tonight at the odds of 50!
Māris, a hefty Latvian fan with his face and beard painted in carmine red and white, is in a philosophical mood you rarely encounter in a hockey fan zone. “Hope is a fool’s consolation”, he tells me. “I have never hoped for anything in my life. But everything will be fine for team Latvia this year. It’s all down to how the players perform and how we support them.”
Latvian fans hoped for a bright start given that team Canada have just gathered several days ago. But it were the visitors celebrating as early as after 52 second when Punnenovs conceded a soft goal between the pads. Inside five minutes it was 2-0, and Punnenovs made way for Šilovs. Latvia sprung to life but were unable to convert, and Weegar made it 3-0 with a precision wrist shot on a power play midway the second period.
Again, the hosts showed spirit to take the game to Canada’s goal but when Blais scored with a deflected shot off of Šilovs’s back, even the most optimistic Latvian fans knew it was over. Veleno and McBain made it 6-0 late on and left Latvia wondering how they would fare with Šilovs between the sticks from the scratch.
In the name of all that is hockey, this is not what Latvia prayed for. At least, no boots on the ice this time.