To say Zemgus Girgensons is conflicted is putting it mildly. Being an All-Star is supposed to be fun – and by the end of the weekend the Sabres’ lone representative will have had a great time – but the whole “Vote for Zemgus” campaign that landed Girgensons in Columbus has tortured the 21-year-old.
On one hand, he’s honored and humbled that his countrymen in Latvia made him the NHL’s leading vote-getter and sent him to the midseason event.
“I’m excited, don’t get me wrong,” he said after wiping the frown off his face during yet another painful All-Star conversation. “It’s an honor to be there.”
It’s the way he got there that bugs him. Girgensons is a driven young man, a self-motivator who believes things should be earned.
“I get satisfaction from accomplishing something on my own, not getting voted in,” he said. “It’s a different feeling.”
Girgensons is worried that his election is akin to the Rory Fitzpatrick farce back in 2007. The journeyman defenseman nearly got voted into the All-Star Game through a fan crusade.
“I don’t want to get compared to that,” Girgensons said.
There’s no comparison. Though fans backed both players, Girgensons has earned the honor.
“It’s fun for his country with all the votes and everything, but he deserves all the credit,” Sabres left wing Nicolas Deslauriers said. “You’ve got to take the votes out. He’s been our top guy. If you needed to choose a guy from each team, I would pick him.”
Girgensons will skate with many of the world’s best players because he’s one of the league’s rising young stars. He’s on pace for 23 goals and 38 points in his second NHL season.
True, he won’t compete with Sidney Crosby and Patrick Kane for the scoring title, but he’s fulfilling the promise that was predicted when Buffalo traded up to draft him 14th overall in 2012. He won’t look out of place during Saturday’s skills competition or Sunday’s game in Nationwide Arena.
“He’s going to show some skill for us,” Sabres defenseman Nikita Zadorov said. “He can play, for sure.”
It’s little surprise there are two sides to Girgensons regarding the All-Star Game. His life is a contrast.
The guy in the dressing room who smiles as often as Buffalo wins is the same one who will pose for pictures with a pink polka dot umbrella. The guy who stands for interviews because it’s more formal than sitting will don an ugly Christmas sweater complete with lights and tinsel.
“When he’s at the rink he’s very career focused and wants to do a good job,” said Girgensons’ girlfriend, Katie Sullivan. “But outside the rink he’s a 21-year-old guy. He has fun and likes to do normal things. He’s down to earth, and you wouldn’t know he’s a big hockey player when you’re talking with him and hanging out with him.
“It’s just that he takes his career very seriously and wants to do good for Buffalo and make everyone else proud.”
Sullivan gets to see the laid-back Girgensons. The University at Pittsburgh cheerleader met Girgensons in June 2012 at his NHL Draft in Pennsylvania. They started dating in December of that year, and he’ll watch three-hour Pitt games on television just hoping the camera catches a 10-second shot of her. She’s at the All-Star Game with Girgensons’ parents, her parents and several other family members.
“He’s very modest and humble about the whole experience,” said Sullivan, who like everyone else was amazed when Latvian voters went wild for Girgensons. “One day he was in the 20s” in All-Star player ranking, “then the next day I would wake up and he would already be down in the low digits. It’s crazy, but it’s amazing to see all the support he received. He’s lucky to have so many wonderful fans in Latvia and Buffalo.”
The weekend in Columbus will give the couple’s Netflix service a well-deserved break. They stream movies and TV shows daily, with “Criminal Minds” leading the charge lately.
“I went through four seasons in about two weeks,” Girgensons said.
Even the FBI profilers on the CBS show might not interpret a fun side to Girgensons if they saw him in the arena. Aside from the occasional tape-ball war with Zadorov and Rasmus Ristolainen, Girgensons is a stern-faced robot from the moment he walks into First Niagara Center to the second he walks out the door.
“He’s a mature guy for 21 years old,” said Deslauriers, who sits next to Girgensons in the dressing room and during dinners on the road. “Outside of the hockey life, I think everybody has something different. Everybody has their goofy time, but he puts his focus in when he gets to the rink. That’s what we need.
“When you compare him to all the other All-Star guys, they’re probably all the same as him. When they come to the rink it’s another mind-set, and the focus is all about hockey. Those are the kind of guys you need to rebuild a team.”
The Girgensons who is needed for the rebuild can come back Monday. He should let the fun-loving Girgensons enjoy this weekend.
“I’ve never been part of anything like this, so I don’t even know what’s coming at me,” he said. “All the players I meet here, they’re all unbelievable players.
“It’s an honor just to be next to them.”