TORINO, Italy — In Torino, you can't escape them. They're on the streets, in the cafes, and of course, in the arena — especially when their team puts the puck in the net.
Then it's the maroon and white wave, some 5,000 strong, sweeping down from Latvia — the wackiest, happiest, noisiest fans imagineable.
And they're the beating heart of sportsmanship here.
"Of course, winning is first priority," says one fan. "But if we lose in a good game, e will be happy too."
That good game came early on, when the plucky team from a nation smaller than Wisconsin tied the mighty Americans.
"It's a celebration," says NBC Sports hockey analyst Pierre McGuire. "Latvians go to the World Championships and the Olympics. That is their Superbowl."
Latvia's "Miracle on Ice" moment came in 2000, when the former Soviet Republic beat the Russians.
"It is great for us," says Latvian goaltender Sergejs Naumovs. "We just feel like we mean something to this country."
In Latvia, hockey is religion. The entire Latvian Parliament once shut down early just to watch a game. And these fans have traveled more than 1,000 miles to celebrate their team. The Latvian love of the game begins at the cradle.
"Hockey is my life," says one little Latvian boy.
Many fans are stacked up three and four to a room in rented apartments miles from the arena. There they go through their quirky pre-game rituals before piling into rental cars, plastered with stickers saying things like "Latvians are cool," for the raucous ride to the rink.
On the ice — win, lose or draw — when the final whistle blows, it's back into the streets.
Latvia may be the tiniest of nations, but they are hands down winners of the gold medal for the biggest hearts.
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