|Binghamton Senators forward Kaspars Daugavins makes his Olympic debut in Vancouver this week with Latvia, which plays its Vancouver 2010 opener Tuesday night against powerful Russia (Photo by Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images).
Latvia isn’t expected to make a lot of hockey noise at the Vancouver Olympics.
But their famously boisterous supporters most surely will.
“They’re the best fans ever,” Binghamton Senators forward Kaspars Daugavins
said about the passionate following the Latvians get wherever they play around the globe.
Even when they’re outnumbered, the Latvians are the life of the party. Daugavins has no doubt it’ll be the same this week in Vancouver, where he’ll make his Olympic debut.
“They will still be the loudest (fans) out there,” said the 21-year-old native of Riga, the tiny Baltic nation’s capital. “Even if there are 100 or 1,000, they still will be the loudest in the rink.”
Indeed, Latvia’s third Olympic appearance is sure to inspire massive interest back home in a country which has only 4,300 registered hockey players – less than one per cent of the country’s population.
“It’s huge,” said Daugavins. “We don’t have the best hockey team, but the crowd loves us and the whole country will be watching and cheering for us. If we can come home with a medal, it will be the craziest party back home.”
Truth be told, Latvia’s goals are much more modest in a powerhouse Olympic group that includes two-time defending world champion Russia — a prime gold-medal contender in Vancouver — along with the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
“The main thing for us is to probably just battle with every team and not get killed,” said Daugavins. “I know we are capable of surprising some of the big teams and if we play smart and really defensive, we might be able to take some points away from the Czechs, Slovaks and maybe Russia.
“(Our biggest goal) is to get to the Olympics and we’ve already done that. Now it’s just a time to enjoy and play harder.”
Daugavins remembers waking up “in the middle of the night” to watch the 1998 Nagano Olympics tournament, when National Hockey League players made their Winter Games debut. More memorable, however, were the 2002 Salt Lake Olympics, when Latvia participated for the first time.
"They're the best fans ever. They will still be the loudest out there (in Vancouver). Even if there are 100 or 1,000, they still will be the loudest in the rink." - Kaspars Daugavins
“A couple of my friends were playing and it was fun to watch,” said Daugavins.
The majority of the players who’ll represent Latvia in Vancouver toil for Dynamo Riga in the Kontinental Hockey League, although there are two NHL defencemen on the roster — Karlis Skrastins of of the Dallas Stars and Oskars Bartulis of the Philadelphia Flyers.
Then there is Daugavins, who has represented his country at three world championships but never the Olympics. Up until now, his biggest international memory came in 2006, when the worlds were held in Latvia for the first time.
“That was actually my debut for the national team at the world championship,” he said. “It was a huge deal back home …it was sold out and it was so loud, you couldn’t hear the whistle. My first game was against Canada. We got killed 11-0 and it wasn’t the best game to start, but it was still fun.”
The Olympics figure to be even bigger for Daugavins, who already lived one dream on Jan. 14, when he made his NHL debut with the Senators during a game in New York against the Rangers.
“It’s a big honour to play for my country, especially at the Olympics, which is pretty much the biggest event in sport,” he said. “So I’m pretty happy to be part of the team and, hopefully, we can battle with the big boys.”