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Latvians for sale? Canadians admire little country's lovable fans @NHLdotcom

HALIFAX - There aren't many things more lovable than a Latvian hockey fan.

They're loud. They're always smiling. And they really bring a festive atmosphere to the IIHF World Hockey Championship.

It's clear that the Canadian team has taken note of all the visitors from the small hockey nation because the main topic of conversation after practice on Saturday was the passionate Latvians.

"I think they're amazing," said assistant coach Pat Burns. "I wanted to call (Devils president) Lou (Lamiorello) and say, 'Can we buy them and bring them to Jersey with us?'

"It's their Super Bowl."

Latvia has been a world championship staple since earning its way back to the top level in 1997 and finishing a surprising seventh. That really got folks excited back home and they've been travelling in droves to watch the team ever since.

The Latvian Hockey Federation says that 1,200 fans have made the trip to Canada for this event. Many of them have set up shop in a downtown bar that is co-owned by a Latvian.

During games the fans all wear the team's maroon jersey and sit in the same section, cheering and banging drums throughout. It should make for a great atmosphere on Sunday when Latvia plays Canada at the Metro Centre (TSN, 3:30 p.m. ET).

"There's a rumour that instead of getting an income tax return, they get a jersey," said Canadian captain Shane Doan. "I don't know if it's true but they all have jerseys. It's incredible.

"They're just awesome. You see them walking around Halifax and they've got their jersey on. It's such a neat story."

Even though hockey is the top sport in the country of roughly two million people, there are just 2,600 registered players. For a nation that small, Latvia has had remarkable success at the world championship.

The team's biggest victory came in St. Petersburg in 2000 when Latvia upset the rival Russians 3-2.

"They always beat somebody that they're not supposed to," said Doan.

Canada will do all it can to make sure it doesn't become that team.

Los Angeles Kings tough guy Raitis Ivanans is the only NHL player in a Latvian lineup that also features Kaspars Daugavins, a 19-year-old draft pick of the Ottawa Senators. Of course they also have the extra man in the stands.

"It's almost like playing back home," said forward Juris Stals. "It's a wonderful feeling."

There will be no shortage of support for a Canadian team that is coming off a 5-1 victory over Slovenia in the tournament opener. The top line of Dany Heatley, Ryan Getzlaf and Rick Nash accounted for four of those goals and could very well develop into the best unit in the entire event.

The talent spread among this Canadian team is pretty impressive - even to a veteran like Burns, a scout for the Devils.

"Craig MacTavish and I were saying, 'Imagine having a practice like this every day?"' he said. "You see the pucks snap around bang, bang, bang. There's no little floaty passes.

"When you're on the ice with them you realize these guys are good."

The last time Canada and Latvia met at the world championship was in 2006, when Canada beat the host Latvians 11-0 before an emotional sellout crowd at Arena Riga.

American referee Rick Looker called 16 minor penalties during the game, which was twice delayed by angry fans who littered the ice with coins. One guy even threw his shoe.

Defenceman Dan Hamhuis is the only Canadian player here who was part of that game and remembers it well. He was lucky to have avoided being hit with anything.

"I think I must have been standing near the boards," said Hamhuis. "You could have got rich picking up all the coins that were on the ice."

It was a rare angry outburst from the Latvians but demonstrates just how passionate they are about their team.

The world championship is the biggest sporting event of the year for people in the country and many save up all year long so that they can attend the event.

"It's a tradition and you can't stop it now," said Ivanans. "If we go to Australia they'll be there. Even Africa."

Everyone else appreciates it.

"They have so much enthusiasm," said Canadian GM Steve Yzerman. "They're having a good time win, lose or draw.

"I think everybody appreciates them being here. They've become a staple at the tournament."

They're such a staple that it's safe to call them everyone's second-favourite team. And even that could soon be changing.

"They're fast becoming everyone's favourite team too," said Yzerman.

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