"Hockey's been always the No. 1 sport really back home," Buffalo Sabres centre Zemgus Girgensons said. "They're just passionate about it. It's like soccer in some other European countries."
Just like soccer fans flock to see the World Cup every four years, Latvians make a point to see their team at every international competition. At last year's world championships, many drove over the southeastern border into Belarus, and slept in tents or in their cars to be around for the event.
No fan base in international hockey is quite like Latvia's. Ted Nolan found that out when he took over the Latvian national team and spent his first scouting trip there watching the fans more than players.
"The fans were so adamant, they were so boisterous, they were so into the game, you couldn't help but watch and be part of it," Nolan said.
Fans followed Nolan and his team to world championships in Stockholm, Helsinki and Minsk and to the Olympics in Sochi.
"People plan their vacations around their national team," said Nolan, who now coaches the Sabres. "It's not a fluid country where the people have a lot of extra cash and a lot of extra money. But this is a part of life they really enjoy, and they save and they use it as a vacation."
So when some of the most fervent hockey fans in the world could spend nothing and still make an impact on the sport, they went all out. Girgensons led the NHL all-star voting from the get-go and finished ahead of Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin and everyone else with 1,574,896 votes.
It was a show of force for Latvia, the small country of just 2 million people wedged between Russia and the Baltic Sea. But many of those people cared deeply about getting Girgensons to this weekend's all-star game in Columbus.
"They want to vote him in, and when they saw he's leading, then they decided the mission is now to not relinquish the lead and to make him No. 1 vote-getter," said former NHL goaltender Arturs Irbe, a native of the Latvian capital of Riga. "In the eyes of those fans, it puts our country on the map."
Girgensons going to the all-star game is just the latest example of Latvian fans going above and beyond in the name of hockey.
Irbe, who represented Latvia from before their move up into the IIHF's top division in 1997, said this kind of dedication has been going on for almost two decades.
"I have had my buddies from playing days travel 24 hours, 36 hours by bus," Irbe said. "Partying, then going to the games, partying, going back, staying on a bus sometimes in tents, in camping sites — all kinds of places — because whatever your means are to support your vacation, that's what you're going to use."
It's about the love of sport and the fun of partying, Irbe said, but Latvians also see hockey as a point of national pride. At Summer and Winter Olympics before and after being part of the Soviet Union, Latvia has never won a medal in a team sport aside from a bronze in beach volleyball in 2012.
Men's and women's basketball have had some strong showings, but hockey is the focus.
"Our team has always been there — always not the strongest but not the weakest. Always being able to run with the big dogs," Irbe said. "For us it's important to see somebody in some field do well to be comparable, to be able to stand up to the strongest nations, to the best nations, as equal. Hockey's one of the ways how we can present ourselves being equal players on a world stage."
Hockey is a bit like that for Canada, but Irbe said it's even more important for a nation like Latvia that doesn't have the size or population to compete with richer, more powerful countries. The Sabres' goaltending coach said the success of the Latvian hockey team boosts the confidence of individual people as they go about their daily lives.
"Two million people, it's not a lot for the whole world, and to be able to show that actually we count, we matter and we're successful," Irbe said. "You have to have some success in life to be able to make next step and next stride towards more prosperity and a better life."
Nolan is a native of Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., and has coached in the NHL and Ontario Hockey League. But leading Latvia was something he'll cherish the rest of his life.
"Sometimes it's even more so than winning a championship. You kind of help build the morale and the enthusiasm of a country," Nolan said. "You notice it everywhere you go. People sometimes when we're in a sport think the world revolves around sport but really it doesn't. But when you're in that moment where a sport can get people to forget about their worries and their problems and their issues for a few moments, for myself to be a part of that, was tremendous."
It took coaching Latvia for three years for Nolan to understand the full scope of what the sport means there. Only now can he explain that to North Americans.
"If each fan can think back in their memory to one of the most exciting games they've ever seen and the excitement of the crowd and the jubilation of that crowd in that one particular game, that's how it is in Latvia all the time," Nolan said. "That's how they feel about their game. They're very passionate about it."
Girgensons is currently the beneficiary of that passion. Olas, a Latvian band, made a "Zemgus Girgensons" rap video about him, his NHL career and getting more all-star votes than Kane.
The 21-year-old was the only NHL player on Latvia's Olympic team, but all this newfound attention from the voting is something totally different.
"I was not expecting anything," Girgensons said. "It just came out of nowhere somehow and it just kind of expanded back home as a big thing."
With 44 points, Girgensons already has the fourth most of any Latvian to play in the NHL, trailing Sandis Ozolinsh and the late Sergei Zholtok and Karlis Skrastins. In just his second season with the Sabres, Girgensons has become the No. 1 centre and a big piece of their future.
"He's one of our better players on the team," Irbe said. "He's a cornerstone for this team probably for years to come and in a lot of ways a good example of what a true warrior, a true Buffalo Sabre is supposed to be with his work ethic and the way he plays."
With the NHL trying to make sure each team is represented, Girgensons may have gotten the call anyway. Nolan said the 21-year-old deserved it, but it didn't hurt to have a boost from back home.
"If there was a vote for anything, I'd certainly love to be Latvian because you know you're going to get the support, particularly sports figures," Nolan said. "Maybe he got the Latvian vote to help him in this time, but I think his natural abilities are going to help get him in the next time and the times after that."
Girgensons is in elite company as just the third Latvian all-star in NHL history, joining Ozolinsh (seven appearances) and Irbe (two). Irbe worried that the league might change voting rules next season because of this, but for now, he and many in his home country will be watching this weekend to see Girgensons among the world's best.
"It's a great feeling," Irbe said. "There's another Latvian all-star. Can't beat that."
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