It's been an up and down start to the season for sophomore forward Rudolfs Balcers whose impressive training camp was cut short by a lower-body injury during the pre-season.
The 22-year-old winger admitted he knew that he was in for an extended recovery following the setback and that he'd have to work his way back up to the NHL. 19 games and 25 points later in Belleville and Balcers found himself back in Ottawa to start 2020.
"As soon as the injury happened I knew I was going to be out for a while," he said. "Once I got back on the ice, I was just super excited to play hockey again in Belleville. I had lots of fun and tried to get my game back to where it had to be to get a call-up."
But while he spent the last few months recovering and working in Belleville, Balcers has always had the unwavering support of his home country Latvia.
Acquired before the 2018-19 from San Jose, Balcers is one of only four Latvian-born players currently in the NHL (the others being Zemgus Girgensons (BUF), Teddy Blueger (PIT) and Elvis Merzlikins (CBJ)) but the support he's seen from his home country's fans hasn't been limited to just National Hockey League games.
"Whether it's wearing Latvian jerseys to NHL games that we play in or showing up to the World Championships," he said. "Wherever it is in the world, they stand, cheer and sing. As a fellow Latvian, it's something that I'm very proud of."
That support was on full display in Balcers' first game in Ottawa this year as a pair of Latvian fans made their way down to the glass prior to last week's home game against the Florida Panthers at Canadian Tire Centre. Dressed in their national team jerseys and armed with a sign written in Latvian, the duo instantly caught Balcers' attention during warm-up.
"I just saw some guys in Latvian jerseys down by the glass and it definitely caught my eye," Balcers said. "I don't know them so they may be locals from Ottawa but it was cool to see them at the game."
As his teammates warmed up around him, Balcers returned the love by tossing them a puck and posed for a quick pic with the pair that quickly made the rounds on social media.
"The selfie was great but I always wish I could do more but we're out there warming up," he said. "I'm glad it made them happy because seeing the sign that they brought and jerseys they wore to the game definitely put a smile on my face."
The sign also stood out for one of Balcers' teammates as Brady Tkachuk did his best to sneak into the frame when it came time to snap the photo.
"I saw the Latvian gear and a sign that said something about Rudy and Rudy is my favourite," said Tkachuk. "So I thought I'd just slide into the back of the pic."
When asked what he thought the sign said, Tkachuk had no idea. Thankfully his teammate is around to translate.
"It just said 'Rudy can we get a puck?'," Balcers said.
After the selfie, a puck and a photobomb, Tkachuk was left impressed by the Latvian fans and how much they get behind their country's athletes.
"Rudy's a great player and it's unfortunate that he got hurt in training camp," shared Tkachuk. "But it's pretty cool to see the passion and the support that the Latvian fans have for one of their own."
For Balcers, he believes the rampant support from his fellow Latvians comes from the country's underdog nature…especially when it comes to hockey.
"It's a small country who has always been battling in sports with all the bigger countries," said Balcers. "Hockey is probably the biggest sport back home and it's great to see how everyone cheers us on."
Video: Gord Wilson talks to Sens call up Rudolfs Balcers