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Latvia’s Buffalo Soldier

Latvia’s Buffalo Soldier

All-Star Girgensons adored on two sides of Atlantic

Published 18.02.2015 11:58 GMT+1 | Author Slava Malamud
Latvia’s Buffalo Soldier
A star both in Buffalo and Latvia: Zemgus Girgensons tries to score on Team USA netminder Tim Thomas during the 2014 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship. Photo: Andre Ringuette / HHOF-IIHF Images
Voted into the NHL showcase by crazed compatriots, gritty Latvian forward Zemgus Girgensons has become the ultimate heart-and-soul guy in Buffalo.

There is nothing unusual about seeing Buffalo buried in snow. Neither is it a rare sight to see hockey fans walking in droves, weather and all, to the First Niagara Center, even nowadays, when their Sabres don’t win too many games.

But the sight of a few spirited individual sporting the maroon-and-white jerseys of the Latvian national team does catch your eye. It is such a contrast both with the Sabres blue and gold and with the white of the Buffalo landscape. The Latvians’ mood is also quite a bit jollier than that of your average Buffalo fan. One of the jerseys sports the following slogan on the back: “Zemgus, Arturs, Teds, the fans are with you!”

The legendary Latvian netminder Arturs Irbe is the Sabres current goalie coach, with the league’s most overworked crew under his command. Teds is, of course, head coach Ted Nolan, his name subjected to the usual Latvian addition of an “s” in the end. He is also a legend in the small Eastern European country, having coached the national team until recently. As for Zemgus Girgensons, he probably needs no introduction. There is no doubt that he is the primary reason for the Latvians’ braving the Buffalo winter to watch a weak team play out its terrible season.

Latvians, on the other hand, are the main reason Girgensons was the talk of the hockey world in the run-up to the 2015 NHL All-Star Game in Columbus, Ohio. Thanks to, for all we know, a lot of sleepless nights by a lot of Latvian computer geeks, the young forward from the worst team in the league received more votes than Patrick Kane, Jonothan Towes, Alexander Ovechkin... Well, more votes than anyone, really. More than 1.5 million in fact, most of them coming from the country with the population of two million.

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For Girgensons, that was no surprise either.

“I get a ton of tweets after games [from Latvia],” he says when asked about his following back home. “It’s 4 a.m. back there, and these guys are tweeting. You just know they’re staying up all night to watch the games. It’s hard to do. They’re crazy fans over there... Most of [the Sabres’] games are on TV. They are watching, for sure. A lot of them. There are a lot of hockey fans in Latvia.”

They aren’t just watching or buying Sabres gear (it is an easy guess that Latvia probably sells more blue and gold merchandise per capita than any other country), they are worshipping their NHL All-Star with the kind of reverence usually reserved for rock stars. Girgensons is getting used to moving around Riga wearing shades and a baseball cap to avoid unwanted attention.

“It can get hard back home,” he says. “But now, no-one really knows when I get there. I just kind of sneak in. I haven’t had too much attention paid to me that way. But this summer I probably had more people getting to know me.”

Naturally, this being Latvia, there is a rap song written about him by a Latvian band. And, this being rap, it’s called “Just like Zemgus Girgensons” and talks about living it up in night clubs. Girgensons, who is the very antithesis of the hip-hop image, is not in a hurry to add the tune to his ringtone, though.

“Definitely not!” he laughs. “It was a funny song , but it doesn’t really describe my lifestyle too closely. My lifestyle is hockey.”

That it is, and it’s precisely why Girgensons has forged such a close relationship with the Sabres head coach Nolan, who also used to work with him on the Latvian national team.

“Him coming in here made it easier for me,” admits Girgensons. “He knows what I am capable of, what I bring to the table. He likes hard-working players. He is a hard-working coach himself, so if you work hard, he is going to like you.”

Hard-working is how the Sabres’ newly-minted “star” views himself.

“Definitely! It’s the first thing I look forward to in every practice and every game – to work hard... Buffalo is great in this way. It’s definitely not the biggest or busiest of cities. It’s all hockey here. This helps you as a young guy to focus more on your career.”

What has endeared the Buffalonians to Girgensons is his hard-nosed, all-out style of play. What his countrymen appreciate more is his fire and a penchant for the spectacular, particularly when playing for the national team. In Sochi, he scored his first Olympic goal, beating Henrik Lundqvist himself. At the 2014 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship in Minsk, he scored on the USA’s Tim Thomas with an amazing diving shot, which was easily one of the prettiest goals of the tournament.

“Any time I play for Ted, Olympics or the World Championship, it’s unbelievable”, said Girgensons of the experience. “In Sochi, we played as one for the whole tournament. It was all Ted. He motivated the guys and got them fired up.”

Whether or not that magic has worn off in Buffalo, or if it’s just the Sabres’ being simply beyond salvation this season, Girgensons doesn’t seem too depressed. The Buffalo media is calling him “the face of the franchise”, his teammates seem to have embraced the youngster’s happy-go-lucky manner, and Nolan can’t stop gushing about the kid, praising his work ethic and coachability. His best friends on the team are Tyler Ennis and Nicolas Deslauriers, and the trio is collectively referred to as “The Stickers” because of their ritual of playing Stickman Golf on the plane.

All and all, Girgensons seems every bit the star he was in Columbus, even if some people didn’t think he deserved to be there.

“I was [star-struck], a little bit. Around those players, how can you not be?” he says. “But it was a lot of fun meeting them. They are all great guys... I got satisfaction from accomplishing something in my line of work. Of course, there were mixed emotions because I got voted in. I didn’t really accomplish this by myself, the credit goes to all the people who voted. It will be a bigger deal if I ever make the All-Star Game on my own sometime in the future.”

Whether he does that or not, who can say, but for the Latvians, both the ones treading snow in Buffalo and the ones sacrificing a good night’s sleep in Riga, he has already as big of a deal as it gets.

And once the season ends for the Sabres in mid-April – unless they miraculously make the playoffs despite being 28 points behind with 25 games to go – Latvian fans hope for more Girgensons magic when the national team will travel to Prague for the 2015 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship.


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