SUN Hockey Pool

It's a barnstormer!

TERRY JONES -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 7:32 AM ET

RIGA, Latvia -- Maybe it was the horde of photographers and cameramen who met the plane. Maybe it was the team bus painted with Worldstars logos for a 44-hour visit. Maybe it was the police escort.

But it wasn't long after the biggest barnstorming tour in the history of hockey landed here after 14 hours of plane time that you figured out this was something special.

"This is the biggest sports event - not hockey game, but sports event - in the history of Latvia," declared HK Riga 2000 president and owner Viesturs Koziols.

Maybe it was Latvian Prime Minister Aigars Kalvitis showing up at practice, happy to be slapped on the back by Tie Domi after his kid had wrestled Domi to the ice in a session involving kids and the team.

Maybe it was the big press conference and the shopping-mall appearances scheduled for the players. Maybe it was finding out they'd brought the band 'The Zambonis' from New Haven, Conn., for the post-game party.

But the two goalies, nine forwards and six defencemen of the Worldstars who start the 10-game, 14-day, 17,600-mile odyssey here tonight, found out fast that in a year without NHL hockey this was more than just another hockey game.

FLOWERS ON THE GRAVE

And there's another compelling aspect to this. By the time you read this, the team will have made a morning visit to the cemetery to place flowers on the grave of former Edmonton Oilers player Sergei Zholtok, who died in the uniform of HK Riga 2000 earlier this year.

"I didn't know," said Alexandre Daigle, Zholtok's teammate in both Ottawa and Minnesota. Daigle became choked up about the plan.

"I thought something would be done at the game, but I didn't know we'd be going to his gravesite."

It was HK Riga 2000 president and owner Koziols who proposed the trip to the grave of the Latvian star who left the ice with a few minutes to go in a game in Minsk earlier this year and died of a heart attack in the hall.

"Sergei was the best-ever forward in Latvian hockey history," said the owner. "There will be no service. Just the laying of flowers on the grave and a minute of silence. Sergei's mother will be there."

The scene at the game tonight, it's guaranteed, will be one which Zholtok should look down upon with warmth.

Anyone who has ever covered the event knows that Latvian fans are the world's greatest fans at the IIHF World Hockey Championships. Every year they travel to the World Hockey Championships wearing their distinctive burgundy hockey sweaters, camping out and staying four-to-a-room in the most reasonable accommodations available, using all their holiday time and savings to cheer for their team.

SUCH AN IMPACT

The Latvian fans have made such an impact that the IIHF has awarded the 2006 Worlds to Riga and an 11,000-seat arena is being built.

Former Oiler Anson Carter, who would score the gold medal-winning goal at the Worlds two years ago, made a pre-tournament stop here that year with the team.

"It was awesome," he said. "The building doesn't even hold 5,000 but it felt like there were 20,000 in there. The passion and the pride was incredible. It was an eye-opening experience for a lot of guys.

"Even on the street, walking around town, you could feel the energy. People recognize the players and treat you with respect. To come back here and experience this ... life is pretty good all of a sudden to be a hockey player again."

There's no NHL hockey at home, but to be able to watch Martin Brodeur, Dominik Hasek, Rob Blake, Sergei Fedorov and the likes tonight is the stuff dreams are made of here. That's the idea, says HK Riga 2000 coach Julius Supler.

"It's a special time for us. The biggest sports event in Latvian history? I think it is true. It will be awesome to play against all-NHL players, especially for our young players. Everybody has the same dreams - to one day play in the NHL. And it will be a special time to remember Sergei Zholtok."

There's no downside to this game, or financial upside for the owner.

"This game, in many ways, is a gift from the owner of the team to Latvian hockey fans," says Kevin Albrecht of IMG, the sports marketing firm which organized the tour which will put the 291st to 313th NHL players on European ice this season.

"We're sold out," said Koziols of the 3,800-seat rink built half a century ago. "Ticket prices ranged from $30 to $160 U.S."

That may seem normal in North America. But the average weekly salary in Latvia is about $150 U.S. Still, Koziols will lose lots by buying the game from IMG and televising it nationally.

"It's for the good of the people and the good of hockey," he said. "This event is perfect for the promotion of Latvia's hockey dreams."


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