Love those 'Lizards'

TERRY JONES

, Last Updated: 7:17 AM ET

HALIFAX -- You can't start the tournament without them.

"We're sitting on the bench before the game against Slovenia looking up in the stands and see that one whole end is made up of Latvians," Team Canada captain Shane Doan was saying yesterday.

"We're on the bench before the game and one of our guys says: 'Hey, the Latvians have made it here again.' "

Let the games begin.

There were supposed to be 700 Latvian fans showing up at the world championship here. Instead Latvian federation president Kirovs Lipmans predicts there will be 1,200 of them in the stands here this afternoon against Canada.

"It was amazing to see the group they had there the first night. They had two, three, sections filled and their team wasn't even playing," said Canadian defenceman Dan Hamhuis.

When the opposition players look forward to seeing the fans from the other team, like favourite cousins at a family reunion, you know there's something special involved.

And maybe more so this year with tourney in Canada for the first time.

"Hitch had been telling me since the start of this back in Quebec City: 'Wait until you see the Latvian Lizards!' " said assistant coach Pat Burns of head coach Ken Hitchcock.

"That's what he calls them. Latvian Lizards. We saw a bunch of them walking around after our practice this morning at the Halifax Forum. They already had their horns on and everything."

The Latvian fans arrived here in time to take their seats to watch Canada knock off Slovenia 5-1 in Friday's opener.

But it was the game later that night -- Latvia versus the U.S. -- when they made their presence felt and dialed up the volume. They banged their drums, blew their trumpets, chanted their chants while wearing their incredibly creative headgear and sweaters (one of which is made to accommodate six people) in the team's 4-0 loss to the Americans.

"We are very proud of our fans," said defenceman Krisjanis Redlihs. "I believe we have the best fans. It's not just one year, it's every year. Every year we're proud of them. They go everywhere. We play an exhibition game in Denmark, which is far away. We look up and, oh my God, they are even there."

Dang near every team in the world of sport claims to have the best fans.

But when the other teams talk about your fans and can't wait to play a game in front of them in Canada, that's something else.

"They've become the staple of the tournament," said Team Canada general manager Steve Yzerman. "They've become everyone's second favourite team. Maybe even favourite team."

"They're just incredible. They're such a marvelous story," said Doan, who points out that the Latvians usually give their fans one game to remember. "They usually beat somebody they're not supposed to beat. You want them to be successful but just not against you."


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