Half an hour before the arena doors opened in Coventry, the advance guard of travelling Latvian fans was assembling. With a pounding of a bass drum and a blare of klaxons they were ready to kick off the party in the English evening.
In the arena, the announcer promised “2,000-plus bonkers Dinamo Riga fans” and the maroon-clad army did not disappoint. Roaring the team forwards from the puck drop, and howling at the officials for any hint of a penalty, it was an atmosphere as raucous as greeted the Brits last time they played Latvian opposition in Riga during qualification for the Sochi Olympics. With roughly half of the 3,500 tickets in the Skydome sold to Latvian fans – according to arena staff, the demand crashed the computer system when sales opened last month – it felt like a home game for the KHL visitors.
Those fans came from far and wide: the Latvian diaspora in the UK, expat Latvians from elsewhere in Europe and even a few hardy souls making the trip from the Baltic. For some of the long-term UK residents, it was the first chance to see their team in the flesh: previously they followed their heroes online. And, despite the loss for Riga, there was a fantastic atmosphere from start to finish with both teams winning plenty of new fans among the opposition supporters.
On the ice
Team Great Britain 3 Dinamo Riga 1 (1-0, 1-0, 1-1)
Team GB was hoping to test itself against a level of speed and skill that it had not often encountered in the lower divisions of the IIHF World Championship and from the puck drop, Dinamo obliged. The action was frenetic with home goalie Ben Bowns kept busy. However, the Brits drew first blood when Coventry Blaze forward Luke Ferrara opened the scoring on 8:20, producing some lovely stick-handling to draw towo defensemen out of position before lazering a wrister past Kristers Gudlevskis.
Riga responded: Andris Dzerins forced a good stop from Bowns and the home goalie was alert to deny Roberts Lipsbergs after a crucial block from Mark Richardson halted a goal-bound shot. Even a British power play did not halt the flow; Gints Meija led one short-handed rush, Lauris Darzins fired narrowly wide.
The pattern continued in the second frame. Dinamo had the better of the play, Bowns was the busier goalie, but a local player got the only goal of the session. This time it was GB debutant Ben Lake who grabbed a short-handed effort as he raced away from Nerijus Alisauskas and outwitted Gudlevskis.
Dinamo got a goal back in the third when Darzins carved a swathe through the British penalty kill and picked out Edijs Brahmanis at the back door to make it 2-1 with six to play. However, a late empty-netter from Ben O’Connor wrapped up the win for the home team, with 41 saves from Bowns also making a huge contribution to the home cause.
Both teams chose to rest several prominent players: Britain played without the nation’s goalscoring record holder Colin Shields, while Dinamo rested the likes of Linus Videll and Brandon McMillan.
What they said
Matias Myttynen, forward, Dinamo Riga
Wow, that was such a great atmosphere! The fans here made it a really great experience and it felt like a home game for us. Coming here was a great opportunity, we got to see something different and play a different kind of game. It really wasn’t an exhibition, it was a pretty intense game against a good opponent. I think that’s good for our guys [when we have a battle for the playoffs].
Dinamo Riga head coach Girts Ankipans
This game was more or less about cooling our thoughts. We wanted to disconnect a little from the KHL championship. The atmosphere in the arena was great. This game was like a little festival of hockey in a country where maybe this sport isn’t so popular. The fans really drove us forward and we played our best. Now, the key thing is to relax a little as we prepare for our next championship game on Feb. 11.
Team GB head coach Pete Russell
It was a fantastic evening. These are the kind of games that can really help us get up to speed for the World Championship. We played against a very good team, a KHL team. People told me they were missing some of their players, but so were we. We’re under no illusions about the challenge we face [in Slovakia] but we want to go there and be the best we can, and we’re getting better all the time.
Georgy Kolybyansky, KHL Vice President of Hockey Operations
I’m really enjoying the evening. It feels like I’m at a home game in Riga, the support is unbelievable. As for the game, it is absolutely not like an exhibition game. The tempo, the commitment, is like a battle in regular season. As for the action, I think Dinamo has maybe dominated but isn’t taking its chances. And then we saw two defensive errors and two goals for Great Britain.
We chose Dinamo for this game because we knew there was already a large Latvian diaspora here, and they’ve come out and supported us. And, of course, Dinamo Riga is a well-known brand in Europe: when I talk to people here in Britain, they already know very well about Dinamo.