Situation 'normal'

TERRY JONES -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 8:20 AM ET

RIGA, Latvia -- There was no horde of photographers and cameramen to meet the plane. No team bus painted with their logo. No high-speed police escorts through the streets.

The prime minister didn't show up for practice. No kids were brought on the ice to skate with them after their workout.

Only one minor hockey team and a few fans were in the stands. No shopping mall appearances. No luncheon at city hall with the mayor of Riga. No team visit to the grave of Sergei Zholtok.

And it isn't being called "The biggest sports event - not hockey game, but sports event - in the history of Latvia," by Latvian hockey head Viesturs Zoziols .

They haven't flown in the hockey band 'The Zambonis" from New Haven, Connecticut, for the post-game party. The top ticket isn't $160 US - more than the weekly wage of the average Latvian. It's half that.

"That was pretty neat. This is pretty normal," said Martin Brodeur.

Brodeur, Kris Draper and Robyn Regehr experienced all of the above here in December on the IMG Worldstars first stop on a 10-game-in-14-days tour against club team Riga 2000.

"It's a little more low-key affair than flying down the street behind police cars," said Regehr.

A TWO-HOUR DELAY

Draper said they were telling their Team Canada mates about it during a two-hour delay when they sat in Frankfurt waiting for Lufthansa to get a bigger plane to accommodate the equipment of both the Canadians and Latvians, who happened to end up on the same flight, returning from a game they played the night before in Germany.

Brodeur laughed.

"That tour was crazy. We came here to start and ended up in Poland with the same kind of thing, like we were the greatest thing ever to hit the place, and then went to other places like we weren't there.

"When we were here it was a big event. Now it's a pre-tournament game and the big event is in Innsbruck."

Latvia is the most hockey-crazy country per capita in the world. There will be more Latvians in Innsbruck, where Latvia opens against Canada at the world hockey championships Saturday, than the 3,800 they'll cram into the old barn, which was built by the communists over a half-century ago.

And, there's no question, again it'll be a scene. Tonight will be the only home pre-tournament game of Latvia's national team.

This is back to what it was like here two years ago when Canada came to Riga for a pre-tournament game and used the place to bond, en-route to winning the first of two world titles in a row.

Dany Heatley, Shane Doan, Kirk Maltby and Roberto Luongo played in that game, a 3-1 win by Canada.

"I think coming here that year helped us win the gold. I don't think we could have found a better place to really bond as a team," said Luongo.

"They all wore those burgundy national uniforms and they all had horns," remembers Doan. "It was pretty neat."

"That was the first time I played for Canada in Europe," said Maltby. "This old, small building, but the horns and whistles and all that energy in the crowd ..."

RICKETY RELIC OF A RINK

All of this talk and experiencing this old, rickety relic of a rink - which will be replaced by a new 11,000-seat state-of-the-art building in time for next year's world championships here - made for a fun exchange in the dressing room after practice.

"This rink reminds me of so many minor hockey rinks around Alberta and Saskatchewan I played in as a kid," said Regehr.

"Melfort and Tisdale. The old Brickdale Arena near Prince Albert where they put pie plates on top of the lights to help make them brighter. Aberdeen, Sask. where we played in an old airport hangar."

Doan picked it up ... "Castor. Coronation. Consort. Veteran. Stettler. Killam. Hardisty. Czar. Hanna. Oyen. Three Hills. There was a rink my dad played in which had a pillar in the middle of the ice to hold the roof up."

Ryan Smyth piped in.

"Rocky Mountain House, Salmon Arm, B.C. ... and Moose Jaw," he said of the 'Crushed Can' where he played junior.

Halfway around the world in a Baltic nation most couldn't place on a map - and they don't need a police escort and all the other stuff to feel strangely at home.


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