Pursuit of passion

Zemgus Girgensons determined to create his own legacy

22.03.2013
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Scotia Bank Saddledome Calgary  Canada

Girgensons at the 2013 IIHF World Junior Championship. In the last two U20 Worlds he has combined for 10 points in 13 games. Photo: Francois Laplante / HHOF-IIHF Images

When investigating how Zemgus Girgensons projects in the NHL, one scouting report presented a very unique take, exclaiming: “Girgensons doesn’t skate around or past people, he goes right through them to get the puck.” One writer even dubbed him, “The Latvian Locomotive.” It’s an apt description of the 6’2”, 200-pound Girgensons, who came to North America at just 15 years old, leaving his family and friends behind in his native Latvia to realize his dream of wearing an NHL sweater one day. He’s currently in his first season in the American Hockey League with the Rochester Americans, but size and physicality don’t tell the whole story – there’s a lot more to Zemgus Girgensons (pronounced: ZAM-GUS GEAR-GEHN-SUNS).

Zemgus grew up in a hockey family in Riga, falling in love with the game at just three years old when he first experienced the sport. His father Aldis was a professional, playing for four years in Russia before a knee injury and complications from surgery prematurely ended his career. Girgensons says he owes his hockey career to his father, and from an early age he began dreaming of making it to the highest level of professional hockey, but little did he know what he might accomplish. “It doesn’t matter where you’re from, everyone’s hockey dream is to play in the NHL. There’s no easy route, but you want the challenge of making it to the NHL,” says Girgensons. While he’s not there just yet, Girgensons is certainly on his way. At the 2012 NHL Entry Draft, held in Pittsburgh last June, Girgensons’ name was called in the first round, 14th overall by the Buffalo Sabres. Though there have been hundreds of first round picks called before, there was something unique about the selection of Girgensons – he became the highest draft pick in Latvian history. Prior to him, former NHL defenseman Sandis Ozolinsh had the highest draft slot for a Latvian player when the San Jose Sharks called his name 30th overall in 1991. In reference to Ozolinsh and the older players that paved the road to the NHL for future Latvian players, Girgensons is thankful and pays his respects, but also knows he has to realize his dreams for himself. “I looked up to Arturs Irbe who was hardworking and got to the NHL, he taught me that nothing was impossible and gave me that attitude toward the game.” It was a momentous day for the 18 year-old Girgensons (now 19) who was joined by a virtual army of family and friends that day at the Consol Energy Center, home of the Penguins. Equipped with the knowledge that “Z” would be off the board early in the day, a large contingent was on hand to celebrate Girgensons, including his father Aldis, mom Ina, sister Annija, grandfather Janis and agents Jim Troy and Kent Hughes. Joining them was Dennis Himes, the General Manager of the Green Mountain Glades – the first North American team Girgensons skated for at just 15 years old when he first came over from Latvia. Also in attendance were Jim Hall, his host parent in Vermont, along with Cindy and Mark Gereins who hosted him when playing for the Dubuque Saints (USHL) and his head coach from Iowa, Jim Montgomery (Girgensons actually captained Dubuque to the USHL Clark Cup championship last season prior to being drafted). A large contingent indeed, but what do you expect when history is being made. According to his current head coach Chadd Cassidy, Girgensons is already “a man” at 19 years old. “He’s well advanced in terms of physical development for a 19 year-old kid. He’s a man physically, very strong, strong on the puck and that plays into his attributes of the game. He plays really hard, at a fast pace, very physical, takes guys of the puck and attacks the net.” But, what separates Girgensons from the competition is his drive – he’s simply more determined to succeed than anyone else. “There is something inside of me,” says Girgensons. “But really, I just want my family, my grandma, my country and my team to be proud of me and that is what gives me the drive to work beyond my limits. And, there is always something to prove, especially proving critics wrong.” Girgensons isn’t just talk – his weight room sessions are notorious and the only thing on the ice later than him is the Zamboni. In fact, Cassidy has to reel Zemgus in at times. “You don’t have to ask him to do something twice,” says Cassidy. “He’s more of the type of guy you have to tell to tone things down a bit. He loves getting in the weight room and he loves to work. Sometimes you have to kick him off the ice so he’s not getting tired.” Needless to say, that drive, coupled with Girgensons physical gifts have the Sabres organization excited about his future. Hard-nosed is certainly an appropriate way to describe Girgensons’ style of play, so exactly what kind of NHL player will he be one day? Cassidy has the answer. “We were actually just talking about that the other day,” Cassidy opined. “He plays a lot like Brendan Morrow, he’s hard-nosed, and he goes into those dirty area and gets those gritty goals. I think he’s an old school guy...a guy that’s going to be physical on the forecheck.” There was even a reference to the Boston Bruins Brad Marchand – not a bad ego boost for a guy with NHL aspirations. When asked which player he personal compares to, or who he emulates his game after, Girgensons fancies himself more like Ryan Kesler of the Vancouver Canucks. “He works the entire shift, blocks shots, finishes hits and pays attention to details. He’s the kind of power forward I want to be like,” says Girgensons. Despite the lofty praise, it’s still going to take Girgensons time to develop; he’s still a teenager after all. “I think that he’s developed a lot this year, he’s come a long way, but this is a huge jump for an 18 year-old kid to come into this league, says Cassidy. “I think he was the second youngest player in the league this year.” Cassidy continues, “As an organization we need to make sure he’s ready [for the NHL]. And, I think the biggest fault an organization can make is hurrying someone along and getting them there before their ready because it just sets them back in their development.” While it might take a bit of time for Girgensons to suit up for this first NHL game, his upside is pronounced. Additionally, with the firing of Lindy Ruff in Buffalo, Ron Rolston is now the headman for the Sabres. Rolston was Girgensons’ head coach at the beginning of the 2012-13 season in Rochester, so a natural comfort exists between player and coach – another positive step to aid Girgensons in reaching his dream of the NHL. There’s another team that Zemgus would love to make, his national team, and more specifically, his country’s Olympic hockey team. That’s quite possible now as Latvia earned a spot in the 2014 Winter Olympic Games by winning Group E of the qualifying tournament held in Riga in early February. It will be the fourth straight Olympic appearance for Latvia and maybe the first for Girgensons, who is beaming with excitement about the possibility of representing his nation and people on the biggest international stage. “I want to play there and it would be a major honor to represent Latvia at the Olympics,” said Girgensons. “Hockey is Latvia’s sport and it will be even more special playing in Russia.” Aside from Girgensons obvious talents and ability to contribute as a two-way player for the national team, there is another important factor that might finalize his position on the roster. Ted Nolan, a former NHL player and Jack Adams Award winning coach, took over the coaching duties for Latvia in August 2011 and his disposition for the North American style of play is quite advantageous for Girgensons who epitomizes the power forward position. No matter what happens, be prepared to see Zemgus in Buffalo or Sochi, or both, at some point soon. RYAN O’LEARY

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