Luck, Pluck and Puck

Arena Riga is a high-class venue

Arena Riga is a high-class venue

While it may sometimes seem that the whole of Latvia is beneath a huge, dark pall which will remain in place for the next few years, it’s worth remembering that enjoyment has not yet been outlawed and there are still some good times to be had.

On Friday, I went with a friend to watch my first ever ice hockey game. I had been meaning to attend a match ever since the revival of the Dinamo Riga sparked a minor controversy.

As with today’s recessionary situation, some people still like to think that no-one ever smiled or did anything enjoyable during the Soviet period. But by all accounts, lots of Rigans enjoyed going to watch Dinamo Riga play teams from the rest of the Soviet Union – particularly as it offered a good chance to stick one on the big shots of Moscow and St Pete.

Not only does the new Riga team have the same name as the Soviet-era team, but – horrors – they play in the Kontinental Hockey League against mainly Russian opposition (plus a couple of Kazakhs and semi-autonomous CIS republics). Add the fact that former PM Aigars Kalvitis is mixed up in the organisation somewhere, and surely it’s just another sellout to the Russkies, isn’t it?

Well, no. The whole evening as very enjoyable. Tickets weren’t cheap at 14 lats each and I’d expected to enter a half-empty auditorium, but the place was filled nearly to capacity.

I had only ever been to Arena Riga once before, to don my shorts ahead of running last year’s Riga marathon (I finished one from last, but crucially, not last). It’s a smart, modern facility built as part of Latvia’s hosting of the 2006 world ice hockey championships. Well lit with good access and excellent lines of sight, it’s one of the better stadia I’ve seen.

But best of all was Dinamo’s opposition, a team with what I think is probably the best name ever given to any sports team: “Avantgarde Omsk”.

I had hoped that the arrival of Avantgarde onto the ice might be accompanied by some sort of diachromatic musical recital or a reading from Mayakovsky. Would their goal be in the shape of a Tatlin tower, with
uniforms desgined by Stepanova and exquisitely shaped Rodchenko sticks?

It was a minor disappointment that they turned out to be the usual semi-shaved toothless blokes with padding and skates.

However, any disappointment was more than compensated for by the shouts of their lone supporter. Seeing a big, tough-looking Russian leaping from his seat to scream “Aaaavaaaantgaaaaaaaaaaarde!” is a piece of glorious and hilarious absurdity that will live long in the memory and of which Marinetti or Ionesco would have been proud.

Anatgarde's number one fan takes a breather

Avatgarde's number one fan takes a breather

The crowd was in fine voice, the atmosphere was excellent and we were treated to a thriller of a match which Dinamo won 5-4 in overtime.

It was a timely reminder that it is possible to encounter things of genuinely high quality in Latvia – in this case a high quality night out watching a high quality team in a high quality venue.

If Latvians could discover how to get as enthusiastic about some other things as they are about hockey, they’d quickly find their way out of the current impasse.

I’m glad Dinamo won, but I must admit that I will always have a soft spot for Omsk. They are so… avantgarde.

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