Fri Nov 18 07:30pm EST
The only personal stat Zemgus Girgensons will boast of was achieved with a pencil in his hand and not a stick.
"I just took my ACT and got 21, which is pretty good for a first try," says the Riga, Latvia, native, who is first on NHL Central Scouting's USHL watch list, referring to the standardized test used for American university admissions.
That might reflect how Girgensons is outwardly focused, along with his designs about playing at least one NCAA season before turning pro. At the rate he's going, a NHL organization might want him under contract before too long. The 6-foot-1, 182-pound centre, whom Canadian fans will see when he represents Latvia at the world junior championship, has blossomed into a two-way player since coming Stateside at age 15, as capable of a big open-ice hit as he is of scoring. The captain of the defending USHL champs has eight goals and 17 points in 12 games for a team that was second overall entering Friday's play. He'll likely be Latvia's first NHL first-round pick, which would trump anything else he's done on the ice.
"Latvia's a small country and they haven't had a first-rounder," says Girgensons, who is committed to Hockey East's Vermont Catamounts. "It's something I'm looking forward to. I just have to keep working hard and hope good things happen."
Most European players who come to North America do so when they're a little older. Girgensons was all of 15 when he joined the Eastern Junior Hockey League's Green Mountain Glades in 2009. He conquered homesickness fairly fast.
"The first couple weeks were tough but I said, 'you're there for a reason,' " says Girgensons, who uses Skype to keep in touch with family but hasn't visited Latvia in three years. "I had to learn how to be on my own and how to be a man. The adjustment to hockey was almost nothing. I've always played a North American style."
The fact Girgensons has improved his English fluency well enough to be the Fighting Saints' leader should vouch for his character. He's also helped his teams win, whether it was being nearly a point-a-game scorer (21 goals, 49 points in 51 games) while helping Dubuque go from expansion team to championship team, or helping Latvia qualify for the world junior this season. He's also mature enough to admit to some apprehensions about what awaits him in Calgary next month.
"I'm pretty nervous because it's going to be tough for us playing all the big teams," he says. "I'm going to have a lot put on my back."
The 5 Questions:
1. You played in Vermont during your first season after coming to the U.S.; how much did that play into your choice to commit to UVM?
"Playing for the Green Mountain Glades was a great opportunity for me. They gave me a chance to show what I could do. I just felt good in the city [Burlington, Vt.] and I just felt really comfortable there and I just decided to choose UVM because I really liked the [head coach Kevin Sneddon's] coaching staff and really liked the city."
2. Latvia will be in tough at the world junior, being in the same pool with Russia and Sweden, but how important is it for Latvian hockey to be in the main world junor championship?
"It's always huge to play in the top division. Those are great hockey countries. This year it's going to be tough to stay in the top division but you never know. We've been up and down, hopefully we can stay up for once."
3. Apart from the obvious — build strength, improve speed — what skill do you need to improve the most by the time you're ready to turn pro?
"I think I can improve my first couple strides in order to be faster and quicker on the ice. I think I can also improve my shot, shot more and be more accurate. Along with team play, my defensive side. I've improved that a lot this year and last year, but there is still work to be done."
4. Whom in the NHL do you watch and say, "That's someone I need to be playing like?" or "I see parts of his game I can work into mine?"
"I like Ryan Kesler [of the Vancouver Canucks] because we play the same style and he has so much passion for hockey. He would be the one I would choose."
5. Since you're headed to Vermont, what is your favourite flavour of Ben and Jerry's?
"I'm not really a big dessert guy, if I ever have ice cream it's probably just plain chocolate ... Sometimes [for a treat] I do get a Mountain Dew, it's a soft drink but you can't have it too often. Candies, if I have them, I prefer Swedish Fish."
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet (photo: Jim Naprstek/Dubuque Fighting Saints).