Zemgus Girgensons (middle) celebrates a goal with his Latvian teammates and fans during an IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship. This week he hopes to celebrate on home ice in Riga at the Final Olympic Qualification. Photo: Andre Ringuette / HHOF-IIHF Images
Girgensons eyes PyeongChang 2018 in Riga
There’s no secret about Zemgus Girgensons’ strong bond with Latvia.
Latvia is where the Buffalo Sabres forward comes from and where he got so many votes from to be lifted to the NHL All-Star Game in 2014/2015. This week he can play in front of his hometown crowd for the first time in his professional career.
“It’s definitely awesome to play in front of my hometown crowd. It’s special. I’ve never done it. There’s nothing better than to play at home in front of our fans, who are so passionate and always cheer for us. I expect it to be fun games,” the 22-year-old said about the days to come.
Girgensons was just 12 when Latvia hosted the 2006 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship. He was playing at the Edmunds Vasiljevs hockey school before leaving for the U.S. as a teenager.
“When I was 15 I went to Burlington, Vermont. It was a big change. The first year was tough. It’s not easy to move away when you’re 15 but I had a host family that took care of me and I was there to do a job so you understand why you are there,” he said.
“I missed mostly my family and friends but also the city of Riga. Every time I come back it’s a pretty special feeling. I drive around downtown, walk in the old town.”
Girgensons played three years of junior hockey in the United States. In his last season he captained the USHL’s Dubuque Fighting Saints and played in the top division of the World Juniors with Latvia in Calgary and Edmonton. That’s when the Buffalo Sabres used their first-round pick and drafted him 14th overall. After one season with the with the AHL affiliate Rochester Americans he made the NHL team and has played there the last three season.
The young Riga native also represented Latvia at three World Championships and the 2014 Olympic Winter Games. That’s where he wants to be again with the small but hockey-crazed Baltic country.
“I’ve never been that far east,” he said about what comes in mind when hearing PyeongChang, the Korean host of the next Winter Olympics. “I have no expectations what it can be like there but the Olympics are why we are here. It’d be fun to go there. It’s something on the to-do list.”
Girgensons is currently the only Latvian in the NHL. He played 202 games for the Sabres scoring 30 goals and 70 points. It has been a time with ups and downs for him.
“Each season was different. The second season was the best one, the last one was not that good but that’s how hockey goes,” Girgensons said.
“I learned a lot in the last three years. Being 22 I went through a lot, played three full seasons, we had a couple of coaches changed. It’s not a bad thing for a young guy to go through all that kind of stuff so it won’t be a shock when it happens later.”
The forward spent most of the summer back in Buffalo since returning from the World Championship in Moscow and was training there while still being a restricted free agent.
“I don’t have a contract yet but it’s in discussion. I definitely plan to play there,” he said.
The Latvian national team came together only on Sunday and got to know their new coach, Haralds Vasiljevs, after the sudden resignation of Leonids Beresnevs.
“We just had a practice and a game against Denmark so we’re still learning about the team but we’ll be good to go tomorrow,” he said before the next practice this evening. Having a coach change at this time is something he doesn’t see as something too dramatic.
“I had coach changes mid-season, that’s probably worse than now,” he said. For him it’s anyway not just about relying on the coaches. “[Vasiljevs] brings with him a lot but it’s more about the players doing their job.”
Their job, that’s winning three games this week after a 3-0 exhibition-game loss against Denmark. On Thursday the Latvians will open against Austria, another team that made it to Sochi 2014. The night after the maroon-and-white team will play Japan, which advanced after winning in the preliminary round. On Sunday evening a possible final awaits with Germany as the opponent.
“It will be hard. Austria and Germany are really good teams and Japan will bring their A game too. Each game will be hard but we definitely feel confident winning this,” he said.
And he can be sure to have a vocal crowd behind him that finally gets the chance to cheer on him not only through the internet but live at Arena Riga.