Outside of Canada, there are very few countries where hockey is far and away the most popular sport. Pavel Zacha Jersey . Latvia is one of them.Hockeys been always the No. 1 sport really back home, Buffalo Sabres centre Zemgus Girgensons said. Theyre just passionate about it. Its like soccer in some other European countries.Just like soccer fans flock to see the World Cup every four years, Latvians make a point to see their team at every international competition. At last years world championships, many drove over the southeastern border into Belarus, and slept in tents or in their cars to be around for the event.No fan base in international hockey is quite like Latvias. Ted Nolan found that out when he took over the Latvian national team and spent his first scouting trip there watching the fans more than players.The fans were so adamant, they were so boisterous, they were so into the game, you couldnt help but watch and be part of it, Nolan said.Fans followed Nolan and his team to world championships in Stockholm, Helsinki and Minsk and to the Olympics in Sochi.People plan their vacations around their national team, said Nolan, who now coaches the Sabres. Its not a fluid country where the people have a lot of extra cash and a lot of extra money. But this is a part of life they really enjoy, and they save and they use it as a vacation.So when some of the most fervent hockey fans in the world could spend nothing and still make an impact on the sport, they went all out. Girgensons led the NHL all-star voting from the get-go and finished ahead of Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin and everyone else with 1,574,896 votes.It was a show of force for Latvia, the small country of just 2 million people wedged between Russia and the Baltic Sea. But many of those people cared deeply about getting Girgensons to this weekends all-star game in Columbus.They want to vote him in, and when they saw hes leading, then they decided the mission is now to not relinquish the lead and to make him No. 1 vote-getter, said former NHL goaltender Arturs Irbe, a native of the Latvian capital of Riga. In the eyes of those fans, it puts our country on the map.Girgensons going to the all-star game is just the latest example of Latvian fans going above and beyond in the name of hockey.Irbe, who represented Latvia from before their move up into the IIHFs top division in 1997, said this kind of dedication has been going on for almost two decades.I have had my buddies from playing days travel 24 hours, 36 hours by bus, Irbe said. Partying, then going to the games, partying, going back, staying on a bus sometimes in tents, in camping sites — all kinds of places — because whatever your means are to support your vacation, thats what youre going to use.Its about the love of sport and the fun of partying, Irbe said, but Latvians also see hockey as a point of national pride. At Summer and Winter Olympics before and after being part of the Soviet Union, Latvia has never won a medal in a team sport aside from a bronze in beach volleyball in 2012.Mens and womens basketball have had some strong showings, but hockey is the focus.Our team has always been there — always not the strongest but not the weakest. Always being able to run with the big dogs, Irbe said. For us its important to see somebody in some field do well to be comparable, to be able to stand up to the strongest nations, to the best nations, as equal. Hockeys one of the ways how we can present ourselves being equal players on a world stage.Hockey is a bit like that for Canada, but Irbe said its even more important for a nation like Latvia that doesnt have the size or population to compete with richer, more powerful countries. The Sabres goaltending coach said the success of the Latvian hockey team boosts the confidence of individual people as they go about their daily lives.Two million people, its not a lot for the whole world, and to be able to show that actually we count, we matter and were successful, Irbe said. You have to have some success in life to be able to make next step and next stride towards more prosperity and a better life.Nolan is a native of Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., and has coached in the NHL and Ontario Hockey League. But leading Latvia was something hell cherish the rest of his life.Sometimes its even more so than winning a championship. You kind of help build the morale and the enthusiasm of a country, Nolan said. You notice it everywhere you go. People sometimes when were in a sport think the world revolves around sport but really it doesnt. But when youre in that moment where a sport can get people to forget about their worries and their problems and their issues for a few moments, for myself to be a part of that, was tremendous.It took coaching Latvia for three years for Nolan to understand the full scope of what the sport means there. Only now can he explain that to North Americans.If each fan can think back in their memory to one of the most exciting games theyve ever seen and the excitement of the crowd and the jubilation of that crowd in that one particular game, thats how it is in Latvia all the time, Nolan said. Thats how they feel about their game. Theyre very passionate about it.Girgensons is currently the beneficiary of that passion. Olas, a Latvian band, made a Zemgus Girgensons rap video about him, his NHL career and getting more all-star votes than Kane.The 21-year-old was the only NHL player on Latvias Olympic team, but all this newfound attention from the voting is something totally different.I was not expecting anything, Girgensons said. It just came out of nowhere somehow and it just kind of expanded back home as a big thing.With 44 points, Girgensons already has the fourth most of any Latvian to play in the NHL, trailing Sandis Ozolinsh and the late Sergei Zholtok and Karlis Skrastins. In just his second season with the Sabres, Girgensons has become the No. 1 centre and a big piece of their future.Hes one of our better players on the team, Irbe said. Hes a cornerstone for this team probably for years to come and in a lot of ways a good example of what a true warrior, a true Buffalo Sabre is supposed to be with his work ethic and the way he plays.With the NHL trying to make sure each team is represented, Girgensons may have gotten the call anyway. Nolan said the 21-year-old deserved it, but it didnt hurt to have a boost from back home.If there was a vote for anything, Id certainly love to be Latvian because you know youre going to get the support, particularly sports figures, Nolan said. Maybe he got the Latvian vote to help him in this time, but I think his natural abilities are going to help get him in the next time and the times after that.Girgensons is in elite company as just the third Latvian all-star in NHL history, joining Ozolinsh (seven appearances) and Irbe (two). Irbe worried that the league might change voting rules next season because of this, but for now, he and many in his home country will be watching this weekend to see Girgensons among the worlds best.Its a great feeling, Irbe said. Theres another Latvian all-star. Cant beat that.---Follow @SWhyno on Twitter Damon Severson Jersey . Bryce Harper? He also came into Wednesday without a long ball and hadnt driven in a run. He was hitting .160, had nearly three times as many strikeouts as hits and was dropped to seventh in the batting order. Scott Stevens Jersey . Its the second straight year he has decided not to play as he cuts back his schedule. Stricker was replaced in the field by Ryo Ishikawa of Japan. http://www.cheapdevilsjerseys.com/?tag=adidas-nico-hischier-jersey . Chris Heisey followed with a two-run triple and Billy Hamilton added an RBI double, all but sealing Cincinnatis fourth straight victory and seventh in eight games. Brandon Phillips, celebrating his 33rd birthday, hit a go-ahead homer in the ninth for the Reds before pinch-hitter Buster Posey tied it with an RBI double off hard-throwing closer Aroldis Chapman in the bottom half.DENVER -- Tyler Matzek was nervous and wild in his bullpen session before his first major league start. When he took the mound he was nearly unhittable. Matzek pitched two-hit ball for the first seven innings of his big league debut before faltering in the eighth, and the Colorado Rockies beat the Atlanta Braves 8-2 on Wednesday night. The left-hander retired the first 13 hitters and 21 of 23 before allowing three straight singles to start the eighth. His strong start to the game masked the jitters catcher Mike McKenry helped ease. "The first inning was really, really nervous," Matzek said. "Mac was calming me down, telling me it was the same thing as Triple-A, just go out there and play your game. I let it be a positive thing, not a negative thing. If I try to fight it, it turns into a negative thing so I was just embracing it." Matzek (1-0) allowed two runs on five hits and struck out seven in seven-plus innings. He also had his first hit and run scored. The Rockies had lost 11 of 12. He is the third Colorado pitcher in the last six days to make his debut and the first to get a win. "A masterful performance by Tyler. An explosive fastball and his slider looked like it disappeared," Rockies manager Walt Weiss said. "He had it all working. He commanded it. Very impressive." It was what the Rockies needed after they had lost 15 of 18. They broke out against Braves starter Julio Teheran, who had blanked them over six innings in Atlanta on May 25. Teheran (6-4) entered Wednesday with a 1.89 ERA, best in the majors, but Colorado scored three in the first on Drew Stubbs RBI double and Corey Dickersons two-run triple. Troy Tulowitzki and Justin Morneau had three hits each for Colorado. "It wasnt my day from the first inning," Teheran said. "I didnt have a problem with the grip and with my pitches. I think I got my good stuff. A couple bloopers that happened and they got me on a couple base hits." Matzek breezed through the first four innings on 39 pitches. Atlanta hit three balls hard, including a line drive by Teheran snared by Morneau to end the third. Morneau couuldnt come down with Justin Uptons single with one out in the fifth to give the Braves their first baserunner. Taylor Hall Jersey. . The Coors Field crowd acknowledged Matzeks early work with applause after Uptons hit. Chris Johnson followed with a single to right but Matzek retired the next two batters to get out of the inning. "He has good stuff, 94-95 mph fastball," Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "The whole day youre talking to guys, Hey, this guy sprays it around a little bit. Be patient. Im not sure how many three-ball counts he got into, if any." Matzek didnt walk a batter and threw 71 pitches through seven innings before the Braves got to him. Johnson, Tommy La Stella and Andrelton Simmons singled to start the eight and make it 8-1.Franklin Morales came on and gave up a two-out RBI single to B.J. Upton before getting Freddie Freeman to fly out. Matzek received another ovation as he walked to the dugout when Weiss pulled him in the eighth. "It felt amazing. Great fans, great fan base," he said. The Rockies made it 4-0 in the third when Tulowitzki scored on a sacrifice fly by Stubbs. Josh Rutledge scored from third when Tulowitzki, who singled, was caught in a rundown between first and second in the fifth. Stubbs and Dickerson led off the sixth with consecutive doubles to give Colorado a 6-0 lead. Tulowitzki and Morneau had RBI singles in the seventh. Teheran allowed seven runs on 10 hits and struck out five in 6 1-3 innings. "I know it was a tough day for me. Im just glad that I was able to compete and get through six innings," Teheran said. NOTES: Atlanta C Evan Gattis singled in the eighth to extend his hitting streak to 12 games. ... Gonzalez was named one of the coaches for the NL at the All-Star Game in Minnesota next month. ... The Rockies optioned RHP Chad Bettis to Triple A to make room for Matzek. ... Justin Upton returned to the lineup after being removed in the first inning Tuesday because of a left hamstring injury. ... Atlanta will send Ervin Santana (5-2, 3.69) against Colorados Jhoulys Chacin (0-4, 5.35) on Thursday. ' ' '