Glades Alum Zemgus Girgensons Featured in StoryIn advance of the NHL draft former Glades standout player Zemgus Girgensons was recently featured in this article. Zemgus could be drafted as early as 7th in this year's NHL draft. Zemgus was often seen at Glades Youth practices helping on the ice.
THE LATVIAN LOCOMOTIVE
Girgensons on track to make hockey history in his native country
By Jim Leitner
TH sports editor
As a shy 15-year-old with a workable knowledge of the English language, Zemgus Girgensons left his native Latvia and moved halfway across the world to pursue his dream of playing in the National Hockey League.
More than two seasons later, an insatiable work ethic and a maturity beyond his years has Girgensons on the verge of achieving that ultimate goal. The NHL's Central Scouting Bureau expects the Dubuque Fighting Saints' captain to be a first-round draft pick in 2012, and this week he will represent Latvia at the World Junior Championships in Edmonton and Calgary.
"Zemgus is a total-package prospect," said Jack Barzee, a former Saints coach in his 27th and final year with Central Scouting. "I love his attitude toward the game. He has a great set of hands, and yet he's very aggressive, and he loves to take the body and finish his checks. He gets up so much speed and he's so strong, when he hits you, it's like being hit by a freight train. He can hurt you.
"He definitely is a first rounder. If there are 30 players better than him in this year's draft, boy oh boy, a lot of people will think I've been smoking the funny stuff. But it's not just me, there are 10 of us (at Central Scouting) who feel the same way about the kid."
Draft prognosticators consider Girgensons the top prospect in the United States Hockey League and believe he could be selected as high as seventh at the NHL Entry Draft on June 22 at the Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh. Landon Wilson, the 19th overall pick of the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1993, holds the distinction of being the highest-selected player in Dubuque history.
Girgensons can't help but pay attention to the flood of commentary available on his place in the 2012 draft class.
"I read it just to see where I'm at, but I really don't put too much into it," Girgensons said. "You can use it for motivation, for sure. If someone says something bad about you, you want to do better to prove them wrong.
"But the biggest thing for me is the team. If you can make the team look good, you're going to get rewarded after that."
That's not just saying the politically correct thing. Saints coach Jim Montgomery sees it every day in practice and the weight room, where Girgensons' work ethic led teammates to overwhelmingly select him as team captain.
"As long as his health stays good, he's going to play 10 or 15 years in the NHL," Montgomery said. "I can tell 'Z' that, and it doesn't make him flinch. He's still going to work just as hard. He's the type of self-motivated kid who looks at the long term and what benefits him and what he wants to be in the long run.
"You don't see many players with his talent who are willing to do everything they can to help your team win. What separates him from a lot of guys with that kind of skill level is how much he cares about winning."
COMING TO AMERICA
Girgensons spent parts of two summers competing in North American tournaments before accepting an opportunity to spend the 2009-10 season with the Green Mountain Glades of the Junior B Empire Hockey League. At the ripe age of 15 and with a passable handle on the English language, he left the comforts of Riga and moved 4,000 miles to northwestern Vermont.
"The hockey in Latvia kind of ends at the Junior level, so I had to find a place to play," Girgensons said. "I decided on Green Mountain because they were going to give me a chance to play, but I had no clue where I was going.
"The first couple of weeks, you maybe get a little homesick, but then you start to get along with the guys and get into a groove. The team feels like family, so it's a lot easier. It might have been a little tougher on my family back home, but I came here for a reason."
Girgensons' father, Aldis, played four seasons of professional hockey in Russia and understood the importance of Zemgus leaving home to further his career. Ina Girgensons, however, struggled with the decision to send her only son so far from home. The Girgensons also have a 19-year-old daughter.
Zemgus Girgensons moved in with the Jim Hall family in suburban Burlington, Vt., and, after a brief adjustment period, fell in love with the community. By the end of his rookie season, Girgensons committed to play NCAA Division I hockey at the nearby University of Vermont.
"Green Mountain was absolutely perfect for us," Aldis Girgensons said. "The Glades organization treated Zemgus very well, and his first billet family was very, very good to him. They made it a lot easier for us."
Girgensons quickly adjusted on the ice, too, scoring 17 goals and 29 points in just 29 games. At midseason, the Glades organization promoted Girgensons to its entry in the Eastern Junior Hockey League.
Girgensons tallied another 11 goals and 28 points in 23 games in the EJHL, which included several Division I-bound players. His performance in the EJHL, as well as recommendations from NHL and college scouts, prompted Montgomery, the freshly appointed head coach and general manager in Dubuque, to sign Girgensons to a pre-draft tender in the Tier I USHL.
"He played against guys three and four years older than himself (at Green Mountain), and yet he was so composed," Saints scouting director Bobby Kinsella said. "I'm sure he would have been the consensus No. 1 pick in the USHL draft if we wouldn't have signed him."
RIGHT AT HOME
Joakim Ryan, a defenseman from Rumson, N.J., didn't know what to think of Girgensons when the two moved into the empty nest home of Mark and Cindy Gerein in Asbury, Iowa, in August 2010 for the Saints' first season back in the USHL after a nine-year hiatus.
"Zemgus is kind of an intimidating guy at first. He always seemed like he was mad or something," said Ryan, now a freshman at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. "But, he's just a shy person. Once you get to know him and he gets comfortable with you, he likes to have a good time. He knows when it's time to be serious, but he likes to have fun, too.
"He's probably one of the funniest guys I know. It was a blast living with him last year. The two of us were like best friends last year."
Likewise, it took the Gereins several weeks last fall to get Girgensons to open up and reveal his personality.
"Now, he's like one of the family," said Mark Gerein, who invited Girgensons back for a second season. "We have three kids of our own, and when they're around, Zemgus jabs them like brothers or sisters. You might have to remind him to clean his room every once in a while, just like any other teenager, but other than that, he's a very responsible young man.
"He really has opened up so much this year, and his English has gotten really good. He takes his captaincy pretty seriously, so we've noticed him being much more front and center when it comes to team activities."
The Gereins have been housing Junior hockey players for the past five seasons. Girgensons is their first guest from overseas.
"It's kind of neat that Zemgus comes from a different culture and we get to learn a lot about his country," Cindy Gerein said. "He likes to compare his country to ours.
"We wanted to make sure he felt at home, especially in what he likes to eat. But, to be honest, there isn't as much of a difference between the counties as you'd think."
Girgensons challenges himself academically, too.
When he first arrived in Dubuque, he hoped to graduate a year ahead of schedule so he would have the option of enrolling at the University of Vermont for the 2010-11 school year. He ultimately decided against it.
In addition to taking North American coursework this year, Girgensons has been working toward his Latvian high school diploma.
"You never know what the future will be," his father, Aldis, said. "He might need his Latvian diploma some day if he needs to find a job. There is a big difference between the two school systems, so it will be better for him to do both.
"Is it too much? It is really tough, but we believe he can graduate both."
Girgensons, who enjoys working with numbers and considers math his best subject, attended Dubuque Senior last year. He now completes all of his coursework online.
The Saints' pre-Christmas schedule, which included 15 of 24 games on the road, complicated Girgensons' academics. Despite being slightly behind schedule, he expects to complete first-semester coursework by the Jan. 26 deadline.
"Last year was a lot easier, because the teachers explain everything to you," Girgensons said. "Online is really tough because it's a lot of reading. It takes too long."
Girgensons never wavered from his commitment to the University of Vermont despite aggressive attempts by Canadian Hockey League teams to acquire his services. Major Junior teams in Canada offer players lucrative stipends banned by NCAA regulations.
"Zemgus sat down and listened to their proposals, thought about it and made a decision he thought was best for him," said Girgensons family advisor Kent Hughes, whose firm represents more than 30 players in the NHL. "He's a very, very loyal, committed and mature person who isn't looking for a short cut. He isn't looking for someone to say, 'It's OK. Go do it.'"
So, by the time the Kelowna Rockets selected Girgensons in the CHL Import Draft this summer, he had already made up his mind on the NCAA vs. Major Junior debate. Kelowna general manager Bruce Hamilton then tried to push the CHL option on Hughes and through a media blitz in western Canada.
Girgensons didn't bite.
"Education is very important to my family," Girgensons said. "When I first came to the United States, I really didn't know that much about the (educational) system. But, after I got to know the system with hockey and education, I decided it was the way I wanted to go."
Girgensons never let the Kelowna controversy distract him from his original plan.
"He's a very mature person, very focused," Hughes said. "He understands what he wants to accomplish and what he needs to do it. He's not going to stray from the workload that goes with it.
"He's definitely a unique person in that respect. We don't encounter people like Zemgus very often."
KEEP YOUR HEAD UP
Girgensons didn't always have the passion for the game.
"The first couple of times he skated, yes, he cried a little bit," Aldis Girgensons said. "But he was only 3. I pushed him back out there and told him, 'You must try again.' It wasn't long after that and he fell in love with skating and started playing against older kids.
"He has natural talent, yes. But his talent is only a small part of it. Most of it is hard work."
Montgomery, a former all-American at the University of Maine who played 12 seasons of pro hockey before moving on to coaching, likens Girgensons' drive to that of retired NHL star Rod Brind'Amour. In NHL circles, Brind'Amour is the gold standard for fitness.
"Zemgus' work ethic is unparalleled in the weight room and on the ice," Montgomery said. "It's like he's a professional at age 17.
"He works so hard every day to better himself, but, at the same time, it's just as important to him to help his teammates get better. He never demonstrates any selfishness. He doesn't care about his individual stats as much as seeing the team succeed."
Girgensons works as hard in his own end of the ice as he does when offensive opportunities arise, so Montgomery feels comfortable sending his captain over the boards in all situations. Few players protect the puck as well Girgensons, who made a pair of highlight-reel plays last week while displaying that trait.
While killing a penalty against Lincoln, Girgensons drew two defenders before springing teammate Shane Sooth for a one-on-none scoring chance with a perfect backhanded pass. The next night, he fended off multiple defenders while circling in front of the Waterloo net before lifting a backhanded shot into the top corner of the net.
But it's Girgensons physical play that draws the most attention. He delivers at least one big hit per shift, a fact not lost on opponents.
"I've always been like that since I was a little kid," Girgensons said. "I always tried to play tough. I had good teammates who were pretty tough and we always had a tough team. That's just the way Latvians play. It's probably something in our genes."
CHECK YOUR SKATES
Girgensons doesn't take everything so seriously.
If a rookie steps onto the ice for practice and stumbles awkwardly, Girgensons might have had something to do with it. A strategically placed strip of clear tape along a skate blade can trip up even an experienced skater.
Girgensons has been known to tinker with his teammates' equipment, loosen the lids of water bottles and strategically place drinking cups in his teammates' helmets.
He has become somewhat of a whiz with a roll of Saran wrap, too. Anything to draw a chuckle in a tight-knit dressing room.
"He's a goon," joked goaltender Matt Morris, a frequent target of Girgensons' mischief last season. "He's a funny kid, a big prankster. But you have to laugh about it, because it's harmless stuff and it brings the team together."
Girgensons learned the sneaky craft from Vinny Saponari and John Gaudreau, his linemates last season.
"We got 'Goo' pretty good, but he never got us," said Girgensons, a sly smile crossing his face. "I don't know, he was probably afraid of us.
"It's very important to have stuff like that, because it gets everyone involved. Maybe the (target of the prank) gets a little pissed, but everybody gets involved and laughs. It brings the team together when you get away from all the hockey stuff."
Mongtomery doesn't mind Girgensons' playful personality.
"When it's his turn to do a drill, he's going 100 percent and he does all the little details we ask to perfection," Montgomery said. "But when's in line waiting his turn, he's joking around with his teammates.
"To me, that's just being a hockey player. He loves the game and it shows through his body language. He loves being around the rink, and he loves being immersed with his teammates. His ability to relate to his teammates is a big part of why he's such a great leader and a great player."
Lincoln Stars defenseman Ralfs Freibergs, the only other Latvian in the USHL, represented his country in three World Junior Championships before exhausting his eligibility in the tournament last winter. Two years ago in Saskatchewan, Latvia played at the tournament's highest level, where Friebergs faced Canadian stars Jordan Eberle, Alex Pietrangelo and Taylor Hall.
"Playing against those guys and all the Swedish stars, it was unbelievable," Freibergs said. "I know Zemgus is on the same level as them. Oh yeah, he can compete on that level, of course.
"We're a small nation, so playing at the top level of the World Juniors is a big deal for us."
Latvia will be, by far, the smallest of the 10 nations competing in the World Junior Championships, both in population and geographic area. Its 2.2 million people live in nearly 25,000 square miles of land in the Baltic country flanked by Estonia, Lithuania, Belarus and Russia.
By comparison, more than 3 million people live on Iowa's nearly 56,000 square miles.
Latvia earned the right to compete in the highest division of this year's World Junior Championships by winning the gold medal at a second-tier tournament last winter in Belarus. Girgensons finished third in tournament scoring with four goals and seven points in five games, took eight minutes in penalties and finished a plus-five.
"I'm a little bit nervous, because we're going to be one of the underdogs in this tournament," Girgensons said. "Our goal is going to be to stay in the top division for next year.
"I just want to play my game and try to do what I can to help our team accomplish our goals."
The top eight finishers remain in the top division, while the other two face relegation. Latvia has typically bounced between the top two levels in recent years.
Girgensons will be the fifth member of the Saints organization to compete in the World Junior Championships. Gary Suter (1984), Chris and Peter Ferraro (1992-93) and Landon Wilson (1995) all represented the United States.
"The World Juniors is the highest stage a player can play on in his draft year, and it's also the toughest," Barzee said. "He will be scrutinized heavily. If Zemgus plays really well, he will get a lot of points for it. But, if he plays just good, scouts won't hold it against him because there are some unbelievable players in the NHL who didn't do well in that tournament.
"With smart scouts, there will be some forgiveness because he's playing for Latvia and not Canada or the U.S. The only issue would be if he doesn't show up or doesn't work hard, but I doubt very much that's going to be the case with Zemgus. That's just not his nature."
If projections prove accurate, Girgensons will make Latvian hockey history. Since the NHL instituted its draft in 1963, no Latvian has been selected in the first round.
Sandis Ozolinsh became the highest-drafted Latvian when the San Jose Sharks selected him in the second round with the 30th overall pick in 1991. Of the 28 Latvians selected in NHL Draft history, 17 have reached 'The Show' and just six have played 100 or more games.
"In Latvia, Zemgus is a star. Big star," Freibergs said. "Everyone there knows he's going to be the first player drafted in Round 1, so he's a big deal there, especially in hockey. A lot of people say he could go play in the (Russian-based Kontinental Hockey League) right now, but I know he wants to play in the NHL.
"It's an honor to play against him. It's fun. To take the puck away from him (in a game Dec. 16) was the best feeling ever. He's so technical and so strong. I made sure I gave him a little chirp after that."
Girgensons recently endured the second five-game pointless streak in his two seasons in the USHL. He broke out of his funk last weekend with three goals and two assists in a pair of victories to increase his team-leading scoring lead to 26 points, including 12 goals, in 22 games.
Girgensons contributed 57 points in 62 total games last season in helping Dubuque win the USHL's Clark Cup playoff championship.
"Some people might have thought I was in a slump because I was nervous about the draft, but it was more that I was unlucky," Girgensons said. "I was getting my chances, but we weren't scoring. I knew if kept playing my game, everything was going to be fine.
"It felt great to get back to scoring again, especially if it helps us win. Hopefully, it gives me confidence for the World Juniors, too."