As I approached Arena Riga, the home of Dinamo Riga, the city’s professional hockey team, I wondered if it would feel the same as a game back home.
I have only been to one professional hockey game in my life, but I grew up going to high school hockey games in Minnesota and I’ve been to countless professional basketball, football and baseball games, so I was curious how the overall experience would stack up.
For starters, the price couldn’t be beat. My ticket was 8 Lats (about $16) for a seat in the second row of the upper level, directly behind the goal.
As I entered the arena, I was surrounded by men decked out in hockey jerseys or Dinamo Riga scarves and women with cute fake tattoos with the team logo decorating their faces. The only thing that may have set it apart from a typical game back home was the number of women donning 4-inch heels and miniskirts to go with those fake tattoos.
The vending options were lacking in diversity, but seemed standard: popcorn, hamburgers, French fries and beer. But wait, could that be right? Beer cost only $3??
Apparently the Latvians have not yet learned the art of jacking up prices at professional sporting events.
After warm ups finished, the lights went down and I could see two stages being lowered from the ceiling toward the ice. I mistakenly assumed these were for the national anthem when instead we were treated to a rousing multi-song performance by the Latvian version of Adam Lambert. Based on the crowd’s reaction, whoever he was, he must be a big thing in Latvia.
Then it was time for player introductions – at which point the Dinamo Riga players skated out of a tunnel, through a large inflatable cat/bear/animal of some kind, with torches burning on either side. Yes, real live torches with real live fire. Do we do that in the United States or is it just calling for a potential lawsuit?
Before the first puck was dropped, the enthusiasm of the fans impressed me. The game had a playoff atmosphere, yet it was an early season match-up between the second-worst team in the KHL (unfortunately the home team) and a team that wasn’t much better. Several men in the lower level banged on drums continuously, leading the rest of the arena in nonstop chants – some of which I could understand and others I couldn’t make out at all.
The most common?
(yes, that is dee-na-mo, not die-na-mo as I totally thought it was beforehand)
Most of the first period was played on my end of the ice. While the home team seemed to completely control the puck, the visitors somehow managed to score not once, but twice.
I wouldn’t have known it by listening to the fans. Immediately after the first goal was scored, the drums just got right back into it and the chants started up again. Same response after the second goal. And when the team left the ice when the period ended, everyone in the arena were on their feet, flags and scarves waving and, of course, drums beating.
Breaks in the action felt pretty similar to any professional sporting event back home.
Everyone rushed out to use the restroom or grab food (odd note: the women’s restroom seemed to be converted from a man’s as it included a whole row of urinals…).
Back in the arena, the jumbotron did the kiss cam and a feature that probably wouldn’t fly in the U.S. – placing the heads of random men in the crowd on top of an image of some very large cleavage.
There was a contest – the lucky person sitting in row 5, seat 113 won a bunch of miles to use on bus transportation.
And of course, there was a marriage proposal.
And of course, she said yes.
Back to the game, the situation didn’t improve much for the home team, but the crowd’s spirit never diminished. When they finally scored to pull within 4-1, you would’ve thought they had tied it up.
And when they made it 4-2 with less than a minute to go, you might’ve thought they won.
Even as the clock wound down and the visiting team from a town in Russia I’ve never heard of (which is saying a lot!) scored to make the final 5-2, the fans stuck around and cheered.
People weren’t rushing out to beat the traffic.
They weren’t giving up on their team with a losing record who had no realistic chance of winning the game.
And as they final left the arena, they were still chanting and yelling and singing as if they had won.
Which led me to conclude that either they are some of the most passionate, enthusiastic sports fans I have ever encountered – or they were just really, really drunk.
I’m kind of leaning toward the latter.