Photos Courtesy of Jeff Vinnick - Hockey Canada
It only took about two hours to realize that the City of Riga, in the country of Latvia (formerly the USSR) is a beautiful community on the banks of the Baltic Sea, steeped in history. Buildings and churches hundreds of years old line narrow cobblestone streets. It seems an unlikely site for 46 NHL hockey players from Canada and the USA to try to wrangle the 2006 Men's World Hockey Championship gold medal from European countries like Russia, Sweden, Finland, Czech Republic and Latvia.
This annual tournament means as much to European players as the Stanley Cup does to a kid from
Duluth or Saskatoon. Unless they have been injured in the Stanley Cup playoffs, nearly every healthy NHLer whose team has been eliminated from the post season in North America wants to be here playing in his country's national team uniform. And play with pride they do! It is a three weeklong event that sees hockey fans come from all over the world to cheer their country on. Often players from the same NHL team find themselves playing AGAINST each other. Saturday night, two Coyotes, Mike Comrie (Canada) and Zbynek Michalek (Czech Rep) will go head to head.
We have already completed the preliminary round and only Canada and Russia remain unbeaten, untied after 4 games. Team Canada, led by the talented 18-year old, Sidney Crosby, has the youngest team in the tournament. The USA is also very young and has 17-year old Phil Kessel, who plays at the University of Minnesota with Coyotes prospect Blake Wheeler, and will be a top selection in next months NHL Entry Draft. Both scored in Canada's one goal victory earlier in the tournament.
The Latvian fans are as fervent as there are in the entire hockey world. They scream and sing and blow their air-horns from pre-game warm-up to the end of the matchÃ¢â‚¬Â¦then they take the noise outside! When Latvia TIED the Czech's 1-1 in an early game, their fans where driving through downtown Riga honking their horns until early hours! Last night we played them in a game that was billed as " the biggest in Latvian hockey history ". They were tailgating outside the arena at lunchtime! Unfortunately their scouting staff misread the Canadian team's style, thinking they would be playing the typical physical brand of Canadian hockey that has become synonymous with Canada internationally.
This year, however, somewhat similar to what has happened in the NHL itself, Team Canada has iced a very fast, skilled, smaller and exciting team that can burn you pretty quickly.
The Latvians tried to bang Team Canada, but they couldn't hit what they couldn't catch, and subsequently took a series of hooking, holding and interference calls. Canada, with its quick-skilled forwards like Crosby, Jason Williams (Detroit), Jeff Carter and Mike Richards (Philadelphia), ate up the man advantage situations, and scored an impressive 9 goals on the power play en-route to an 11-0 victory. How would you like that kind of power play percentage in the NHL?
Team USA plays Latvia on Saturday nightÃ¢â‚¬Â¦we'll see if the Latvians learned anything.
The top teams appear to be Canada and the USA along with Russia (who have Alexander Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin), Sweden (with Red Wings' Henrik Zetterberg, Mikael Samuelson, Niklas Kronwall etc.), Finland and the Czech Republic.
It's a great tournament for the fans that travel from all over Europe to attend in their national teams jerseys and sing their anthems, particularly at the end of each game when the winning country's flag is raised.
Today was an off day for Canada, but I'm going to see two games anyhow. The USA-Czech's will be a good one! Being here with Team Canada is also letting me scout all the other countries for possible additions to the Coyotes.
We're also watching the NHL playoffs (Live!) from over here . How, you will probably ask? Well, the games come on in the middle of the night and it's not by way of European television, thanks to Steve Peters, the Coyotes video-coordinator. I'll let you in on a technological secret when I report in from Latvia next.