COLUMBUS, Ohio – Think of Zemgus Girgensons like a political candidate who won a Senatorial election without actually campaigning.
So he walks into Congress, looks around at the famous (and infamous) faces, and wonders ‘what the hell am I doing here?’ while at the same time acknowledging that, in the end, they’re all just politicians and he should just enjoy the rest of his term.
That’s pretty much the Buffalo Sabres forward’s 2015 NHL All-Star experience.
He admits to wondering if he belongs here, and it's a question some in the media have asked as well.
He’s 168th in the NHL in points at 22 and 61st in goals at 13, meaning most of the defensemen here have better offensive credentials. In an event typically reserved for the League’s elite performers, Girgensons … well, is not one.
“I have thought about it,” he said, “but at the end of the day, it doesn't really matter,''
It doesn’t matter because Girgensons has another number attached to his name: 1,574,896.
That was the incredible total of votes he received in his all-star election, fueled by the insanely passionate fans back home in Latvia. Nearly 27 percent of all All-Star Game votes were cast outside of North America, which was up seven thousand percent from 2012.
“They’re crazy fans, I can tell you that. They always cheer no matter what the score is,” he said.
The NHL-high vote total was astounding from the start, even if Girgensons did his best to ignore it. “I didn’t even think about it the day it started. I had zero plans to be here,” he said. “I don’t even know where I’d be if I wasn’t here. Probably be some sunny place.”
So while he doesn’t have the numbers or the fame of his All-Star Game peers, he has the people behind him.
“I’m just happy to be here. I got a lot of votes, and that’s about it,” he said.
If any Latvians made the trip to the All-Star Game, their numbers aren’t great, which is of course a downer for Columbus’s businesses of adult beverage distribution.
“They know how to party,” said Girgensons.
But back home, they’re no doubt watching him compete in All-Star weekend. Girgensons said the hockey-mad country sometimes forces him to wear a disguise when he’s out and about in the summer. And while Latvians don’t rock hockey sweaters during the day, walk into any bar with a game on and you’ll no doubt see Sabres Girgensons sweaters.
And of course, there was that rap video.
“Yeah, that’s another crazy things. Just goes to show how people back home care about stuff like this," he said.
It hasn’t been the greatest season for the Sabres, who are squarely in a race to the bottom for one of the top two picks in the NHL Draft. Girgensons admits that the all-star weekend has been a nice mental break within that challenging season.
“I don’t think there’s too much pressure here at the all-star game. It’s just fun,” he said.
So far, it’s been varying degrees of fun. Girgensons sweated out the NHL All-Star Fantasy Draft, falling to one of the worst spots: Third-to-last, since the last-picked players win a car.
“A long TV show, pretty much,” he said.
He’ll compete for Nick Foligno’s team in Sunday’s All-Star Game, having played with his brother Marcus in Buffalo. “I knew him a little bit from being around Marcus. He’s a nice guy,” said Foligno.
The Saturday night skills competition saw Girgensons, wearing a helmet cam, finish second-to-last in the fastest skater race, thanks to a slip up by Vladimir Taresenko. He also took part in the skills relay and the elimination shootout, getting stopped by Jarosalv Halak.
“The hardest part was the skating part. The helmet was pretty heavy, going side to side,” he said.
But results aside, the fact was that Zemgus Girgensons, the 21-year-old Latvian who most fans couldn’t identify by sight let alone pronounces his name, was standing with the best and brightest (and healthiest at the time) of the NHL.
Because the people, at least of Latvia, demanded he belongs here.
“Oh, there’s been jokes,” he said. “But there’s been congrats [too].”
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