Emerging power

AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 10:11 AM ET

Now, it's starting to get serious. Team Canada is still a long way away from the do-or-die stages of the 2005 world championship tournament, but it has moved away from North America and left behind all the comforts that accrue to a team playing at home.

Team Canada 2004, the one that won the World Cup last September, never went further afield than Columbus, Ohio, and played all of its meaningful games in Montreal and Toronto.

But Team Canada 2005 had the luxury of only two exhibition games in Canada and now is preparing for the first of two European friendlies -- this one in Riga tomorrow.

The Latvians are not yet a hockey power, but they are one of the game's emerging nations and Canada, after splitting a pair with Team USA, should face a useful test.

After a trans-Atlantic flight, a seven-hour time shift and a move to the larger European ice surface, the Canadians didn't want to face a powerhouse.

Instead, they will face the Latvians who are good enough to give them a battle, but aren't likely to do any major damage to their confidence.

Like many of the former Soviet satellites, the Latvians benefitted from the rigorous standards of athleticism that were an integral part of the Soviet Union's approach to sport.

But there was no love lost between the Soviets and Latvians, especially when the so-called Evil Empire started to crumble.

In the 1991 Canada Cup, the absence of a key Latvian may have been the reason that the final featured Canada against the United States and not Canada against Russia.

The previous spring, the Soviet Union had crumbled, and when some of the satellite states tried to express their independence, there was bloodshed.

Latvian Arturs Irbe was supposed to be the starting goalie for Russia, but under the changing political climate, Irbe viewed the Russians as an invading force and refused to play for them.

He collected his family and tried to leave for the U.S., but could get no further than the airport. However, in the succeeding weeks, when a degree of political stability was established, Irbe did manage to get out of Latvia.

WENT TO SHARKS

He went to San Jose and joined the Sharks and has been in the National Hockey League ever since.

In the meantime, the Russians faltered, the Americans played the Canadians in the Canada Cup, and Gary Suter delivered his infamous check on Wayne Gretzky.

By 2002, Latvia had improved to the point that it was expected to advance past the preliminary round of the Olympic competition and move into the medal round with the established hockey powers.

Instead, the Latvians were beset by problems -- not the least of which was NHL commissioner Gary Bettman's decision that the Carolina Hurricanes could not release Irbe to play in a preliminary-round game -- and the spot in the medal round that had been expected to be theirs went to Germany.

Still, buoyed by the success of nearby Belarus in that medal round, the Latvians have continued to develop as a hockey power and have now risen to the point where they can be considered a reasonable test for Team Canada.

Furthermore, they have qualified for the world championship and will provide the opposition in Canada's opening game in Innsbruck later in the week.

And even though Canada should win both meetings, the Latvian fans will be strongly behind their team, especially in tomorrow's game in Riga.

This is genuine hockey country here. The people love the game and they support their teams. It has been a long time since a Team Canada played in front of a crowd that wasn't solidly supportive.


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