- Doug McIntyre
Literally and figuratively, Zemgus Girgensons has come a long way.
The projected first-rounder in June's NHL draft was 14 and living in his native Latvia four short years ago, but he had big dreams of emulating compatriots like Arturs Irbe, Sandis Ozolinsh and Kaspars Daugavins and continuing his hockey career on the other side of the world.
What he didn't have, though, was any connection to the North American game. So Girgensons, a 6-foot-1 center who starred for Latvia at the World Junior Championship last month, did what any teenager looking for information does instinctively: He went online.
"I wanted to know what American hockey was about," says Girgensons, who turned 18 Jan. 5. "I went on the Internet and looked everything up about universities. I did everything by myself."
With the goal of a college scholarship in mind and the help of his dad, a former professional player in Russia, the youngster signed up for a summer showcase in New England. A year later, at 15, he traveled to the same tournament again, and this time his physical play and nose for the net caught the eye of coaches with the Green Mountain Glades, a Junior B team based in Vermont, who asked him to stick around for the season.
Before the year was over Girgensons had been promoted to the Glades' top team in the Eastern Junior Hockey League, where he put up 20 points in the final 28 games.
The prolific debut on this side of the pond landed Girgensons an offer from the Junior A Dubuque Fighting Saints of the USHL. Everything was going according to plan -- except for one thing. The foreigner's rise had been so rapid that he hadn't had enough time to master English.
"Each year at training camp, I have every player introduce themselves and tell a story," says Saints coach Jim Montgomery. "Zemgus was so shy about speaking incorrectly that he wouldn't do it."
Still, Girgensons' true character didn't take long to shine through. He settled in quickly in Iowa, both on and off the ice, finished third on the team in scoring and helped expansion Dubuque win the Clark Cup -- earning the respect and admiration of older teammates along the way.
"In my exit interviews with the 14 players who weren't coming back to Dubuque, I asked every one of them who would make the best captain for our team this year," Montgomery says. "He got 12 out of 14 of those votes. That eliminated any language-barrier concerns."
This season, with the "C" stitched to his sweater, Girgensons has taken his game to another level. He's leading the Saints in points despite missing time to play with his national team. But it's his play away from the puck that is most intriguing to scouts.
"He's not afraid to go into the dirty areas to score a goal," one Western Conference evaluator says. "He's not as skilled offensively as some other kids -- I think he's probably going to be a third line guy in the NHL -- but you don't see many guys at the top level who can score consistently just with pure skill. The guys who score goals in the NHL are the ones willing to pay the price. From what I've seen, this kid is absolutely fearless."
Defensively, Girgensons is mature beyond his years. "He's extremely aware of where everybody is on the ice," says Montgomery, a former NHL pivot. "He always knows where the puck is and is in good position to support the puck defensively or break plays up."
Girgensons now fields interviews in English comfortably. He's accepted a full ride to the University of Vermont for 2012-13. But with his draft stock rising fast (at least two scouts who watched him play at the World Juniors believe he could go in the top 10), his long journey west may continue. The WHL's Kelowna Rockets own his major junior rights, and Girgensons admits the NHL team that drafts him may want him to play in Canada rather than in the NCAA.
Wherever he ends up next year, this much is clear: Zemgus Girgensons hasn't reached his final destination quite yet.
Doug McIntyre writes that four years ago, playing hockey in America began with an Internet search for Zemgus Girgensons. Now, the 18-year-old is on the cusp of being a top-10 pick in the NHL draft.