Latvian team like family
By Barry Rusnell, Special to The StarPhoenix
December 26, 2009
Good morning and Merry Christmas.
This is the first in a series of columns in which I will try to give you a behind-the-scenes look at the world junior hockey tournament. As Team Latvia host, my job is to be the liaison between them and everything else. So over the next few days, I will help you see what it is like to be 19 years old, hockey royalty and about to step onto one of hockey's biggest stages.
For the Latvians, the tournament's unofficial start was Saturday, Dec. 19, in Regina. I picked them up at midnight. They had been travelling for the better part of two days. Latvia is half a world away nestled between the Baltic Sea and the Russian border. I don't ever recall seeing a group looking as exhausted as they did. We got them to the hotel as quickly as we could. By the time check-in was over it was 2 a.m.
We practised Sunday and Monday morning in Regina and then left for Swift Current and an evening game with the Russians. The fans were stunned when we beat them 3-2 in overtime. The speed and skill level was something you do not get a chance to see very often. It is remarkable how good these kids are and, when you see it from ice level, you realize these are truly gifted athletes even though they look like normal 19-year-olds sitting next to you on the bus. It was Latvia's first win ever against the Russians and a major step in their hockey program.
Tuesday and Wednesday brought us to Unity and a hockey celebration these players should never forget. It started with a jam-the-gym pep rally with students dressed in team colours or in a hockey-themed costume. There was throbbing music, wild cheering, pyrotechnic explosions, introduction of the players and videos, all of which was covered by a live screen feed. Then there was an autograph session downtown, then a team practice, then a minor hockey skills team camp and finally a pizza party at the rink. For the Wednesday game against Austria, 1,300 tickets had been sold for an 800-seat rink. It, too, was covered by a screen feed so it could, for example, be watched back in Latvia. In spite of the hero worship, we couldn't seem to stay out of the penalty box and lost 6-4.
Thursday and Friday had us back in Saskatoon preparing for the tournament and celebrating Christmas. We gave each room a box of oranges and a box of granola bars at supper on Christmas Eve. Then, on Christmas Day, each player received a monogrammed robe.
Today we are privileged to play in the tournament's opener against Canada. The players are very excited and so am I. It is nationally televised on TSN and with Canada playing, it will be a celebration but also a very good test.
It has been an extraordinary week. We have gone from strangers to being an extended family. They are terrific kids -- polite, respectful and well-balanced. Their English skills are reasonably strong. About four or five are fluent and the rest know enough to get by. But you can see that 19-year-olds are pretty much the same. They are electronically connected with MP3s, laptops and cellphones. They like the same clothing styles and music. The only thing that makes them different is they have this ability at night under the lights to transform themselves into exceptional hockey players and perform at an extremely high level. Then they change back again into the guy who sits next to you on the bus. Wish us luck against Canada.
Saskatoon's Barry Rusnell is the local host for Team Latvia at the World Junior Hockey Championship. He'll file dispatches throughout the tournament.
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