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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Hockey Hysteria Helps Latvia Unite

RIGA, Latvia — Nobody had to tell the police that the mob was approaching. They could hear it blocks away.

It was late on a recent Monday night when they poured by the hundreds out of the taverns of Riga's Old City and surged down its streets. They paused at the century-old Freedom Monument, then reversed course and marched toward the police, who were ringing their real target: the Embassy of Norway.

Whereupon they broke into cheers, waved Latvia's maroon-and-white flag and began singing the national hymn, "God Bless Latvia." The Latvian national hockey team had just defeated the Norwegians, 3-0. But it wasn't really the score that mattered.

"We go to the consulates when we lose, too," said Kristaps Karklin, 20, as he marched, with the barest hint of unsteadiness.

This is an understatement. Latvians are hockey fans like the Baltic Sea is damp. In a nation too young to have many traditions and too polyglot to agree on much of anything, hockey is a unifying force, and marching on rival teams' embassies a hallowed tradition for, oh, at least a few years now.

How revered is hockey here? Thirteen months ago, in the midst of debate over a no-confidence vote in the government of Prime Minister Andris Skele, the parliament called a recess, and the entire chamber — Skele included — sat down to watch the national team play Russia in the World Ice Hockey Championships. After the game, they convened again and voted to oust Skele.

Then again, that is small potatoes compared with the economics minister, Aigars Kalvitis, who faced a no-confidence vote this month over his role in the privatization of a government shipping company. Kalvitis did not bother to attend the debate over his fate; he was in Cologne, watching the Latvians play in this year's championships. (He won the vote, 50-32.)

Latvians — some 8,000 of them — were voted the loudest fans at the Cologne games.

The government mints hockey money (a silver one-lat commemorative coin, issued last month) and prints hockey stamps (a series of four, celebrating the national team's top four players, issued last year).

Hockey is the language of politics. Latvia's foreign minister urged his ambassadors last fall to promote European integration like the Canadians play hockey, "driving a puck to the goal whenever there is a chance to do it."

And the speaker of the Parliament lamented this month that Latvians have become so disillusioned by cutthroat politics and fiscal hardship that the only time they feel patriotic and unified is during a hockey game.

A lot of people think that may be why Latvians have embraced hockey with such ardor. While things are looking up, average income here has yet to climb back to the level of 1989, two years before Latvia achieved independence from the Soviet Union. The political unity that prevailed back then has dissipated into feuding leftist and rightist factions and a distinct coolness between native Latvians and the Russian emigrants who make up a third of the population.

"We need something to cheer about, given the ups and downs of politics and economic struggles," said Ojars Kalnins, a former ambassador to the United States who directs the government-financed information agency. "A lot of people are disappointed that things haven't gone along as well as they should have.

"The hockey team is a source of national pride. It shows we can be as good as other nations — and even better than some nations, like Russia and the United States."

Indeed, Latvians went bonkers this time last year when the national team faced off against Russia — or, as Latvians call it, Krievija. One of the largest banks in Riga offered players 1,000 lats (about $1,600) for every goal the team scored, and wide-screen televisions were placed strategically in cities across the country to ensure fans a good view.

When Latvia scored its big upset, winning 3-2, the crowd of Old City celebrants swelled from its usual hundreds into the thousands, marching from embassy to embassy, laying flowers of condolence on the sidewalk before the offices of those nations the mighty Latvians had beaten in that year's championships.

"As they walked past our embassy, they pointed up to the windows where people were looking out and said, `You're next,' " the American ambassador to Latvia, James Howard Holmes, said this week. To their surprise, the Latvians made good on that pledge this year, trouncing the United States 2-0 on April 30 — and again, an outsized crowd marched and laid flowers to console the losers.

"The Latvian press was reflecting last year on how the hockey team reflected the best of Latvian nationalism," he said, "not the least because it was a team of Latvians and Russians working for a common purpose."

When the Latvians defeated Ukraine last year, the throng trooped to the Freedom Monument and burst into song. "I think it may be the first time anyone has ever spontaneously sung our national anthem," Mr. Kalnins said.

And, in fact, the crowd that marched to celebrate the recent victory over Norway was a mix of Latvians and Russian Latvians, speaking both nations' tongues, wearing the same maroon-and-white hats and maroon-and-white hockey jerseys, and waving the same maroon-and- white flag.

"Win or lose, it's tradition," said one twentyish man in Russian. "We love our country, and we love our hockey."