An exhibition of real hockey

AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:40 AM ET

RIGA, Latvia -- In the West, we tend to equate worth with wealth.

But Latvia is one of the poorer nations in hockey's upper echelon and the game yesterday against Canada was played in one of the last old-time buildings in use at this level.

Even so, the ambience was nothing short of superb. Although Canada won 3-1, at no point did the enthusiasm of the Latvian fans fade.

It was a most entertaining spectacle, and many a wealthy team often finds itself unable to make that claim.

At the beginning of every period, the stands were packed. No one was on his cellphone in the concourse, or hanging around a corporate bar finishing off his plate of sushi.

Those lower seats were full of attentive fans, but then again, when the glass is only 6 1/2 feet high, it makes sense to be attentive. With glass that low, Bryan Marchment could go through an entire season and never once get the puck out of his end.

NO GLASS

And while we're on the subject of the Maple Leafs, how would Tie Domi behave in the Riga Sporta Pils? There is no glass between the penalty benches. If you want to continue hostilities, you just walk down to the other part of the box.

Granted, there's a small table and a couple of announcers in the middle, but they wouldn't be much of an impediment to an enraged enforcer who thinks he absorbed a cheap shot. In fact, that table could make a handy weapon.

Leafs fans also will remember a few occasions when coaches have tried to get at each other over the glass. In the Riga Sporta Pils, they could go right at it. There is no glass.

Most of the so-called improvements that North American fans have had foisted upon them, whether they wanted them or not, do not exist in the Riga Sporta Pils.

The ear-shattering sound effects, for instance. In Riga, the music is limited to a couple of organ riffs, an appalling cover version of Doo Wah Diddy and the international hockey-arena standard, Queen's We Will Rock You.

That does not mean that the Sporta Pils is quiet. Far from it. Air horns, banned from most North American arenas, are certainly not banned here. Fans arrive with drums, whistles and trumpets. But mostly, they just use their own lungs.

It's no-frills hockey. The pucks are black with no fancy decals promoting either the league or the team.

The centre-ice scoreboard is functional and nothing more. It gives the time, the score and the period.

There is no room to spread out on the players' benches. In fact, backup goalie Roberto Luongo had to stand for the first period, but after that a chair was found for him.

The Canadian flag produced for the occasion appeared to have been handmade. The red and white segments were out of proportion, and the Maple Leaf looked as if it had been copied from one of those marijuana-legalization websites.

"It was fun," goaltender Martin Brodeur said. "You get so used to the NHL when a guy comes back and you shout, 'Okay, you've got time,' or, 'Reverse!' Here, it's like you're talking to a wall because it's always so loud that no one can hear you. You can't talk to your players. I rely a lot on talking to my players. I had to make some adjustments and start making signals."

Brodeur had to get used to the net as well. It had no pegs. All it took to move it was a slight push, as Brodeur demonstrated to the referee.

"I said you've got to do something," Brodeur said with a laugh afterward. "He just put it back on. It would have been so easy all game to just push it off."

But he didn't. Many of the Canadians developed their craft in rinks like this and enjoyed it. Now they play in arenas that are homogenized, sanitized and income-maximized.

But you can't avoid "progress." Next year, the world championship will be played in Riga -- in a brand new building.


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