There is the road less traveled and then there is the road so rarely traveled it is beyond intriguing. Such is the case with first-year Dubuque Fighting Saints center Zemgus Girgensons, who sits second in United States League scoring with 10 points through nine games.
A native of Riga, Latvia, the 6-foot-1, 181-pound pivot actually came over to North America in 2008 where he played in the Selects Hockey program, a summer hockey organization whose alumni include Sam Gagner and Greg Nemisz. From there, he played for Vermont’s Green Mountain Glades of the Eastern Junior League. He plans on eventually returning to the state in the future, this time as a member of the University of Vermont Catamounts. So how did a kid from Latvia decide on going to Burlington?
“I chose UVM because I really like the coaching staff and I really liked the city,” Girgensons said. “And I have friends from last season who will go to UVM as well, Connor Anthoine and Tom Forgione.”
While the educational elements will determine whether Girgensons plays one year in the USHL or two, Fighting Saints coach Jim Montgomery (who himself had an outstanding college career with the Maine Black Bears) is glad to have the kid on board.
“He’s dominant down the middle,” Montgomery said. “He’s a complete player who works as hard defensively as he does offensively.”
Landing the Latvian was a coup for the Fighting Saints who, despite being a first-year expansion team, sit in third place in the Western Conference, one point out of first.
“There was a buzz around the Northeast about him,” Montgomery noted. “I knew he was committed to Vermont and that he could be an impact player even at 16.”
And that’s another dazzling element behind Girgensons; he’s still so young. The powerful center isn’t draft eligible until 2012, meaning he has a lot of time to hone his skills. Fortunately, passion is not a problem. His coach even brings up names such as Jonathan Toews and Mark Messier to describe the youngster’s will.
“At the beginning of the year, we had all our players write down their two best attributes,” Montgomery recalled. “Zemgus wrote ‘puck protection’ and ‘I will never give up.’ And I couldn’t agree more. I describe him as a relentless player. His intensity, his never-say-die attitude; you would think he comes from Moose Jaw.”
And while Saskatchewan and Latvia may share agrarian roots, Girgensons wants the world to know his home nation loves the puck in a very Canadian way.
“It’s like religion,” Girgensons said. “We have the best fans in the world and I can say that hockey is the No. 1 sport in Latvia.”
The most famous Latvian players so far have been Arturs Irbe (Girgensons’ hero, alongside Wayne Gretzky and Mike Modano), Sandis Ozolinsh and Karlis Skrastins, but the engine is revving up. Latvia was a fan favorite at the world juniors in Saskatchewan last year, even though the team’s only victory was a relegation-avoiding win over Austria. With Girgensons now in the pipeline, the hockey-mad nation can gain some traction, much as the Swiss have done in recent years.
For now, however, Girgensons is content to learn his craft in Dubuque.
“I'm having a lot of fun in the USHL,” he said. “It's a great league with great players and awesome fans. And I am lucky that I have such a great team and great coaching staff.”
And what of his newly adopted Iowa home?
“It’s hard to compare,” Girgensons said. “Dubuque I can compare with smaller Latvian cities and the differences are not so big. Smaller cities always are quiet and therefore I like Dubuque. In a smaller city it is easier to play hockey; nothing else bothers you. My hometown is the capital city of Riga; its population is about 850,000 people.”
Based on his early play in North America, Girgensons should get used to playing in front of large crowds.
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