A tale of two Olympic debutants
It's been a momentous season for young Latvian hot-shot Zemgus Girgensons. The 20-year-old has already made the breakthrough into the NHL and lines up for his first Olympic appearance on Wednesday.
That represents a rapid rise for a player who was only drafted into the senior national team at the 2013 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship while playing AHL hockey with the Rochester Americans.
Now he's the sole current NHL player on his country's roster - and one of very few who didn't graduate from the Dinamo Riga organization which dominates the game in the Baltic state.
But Girgensons is determined to ensure that this is merely the beginning of his story.
"It's a pretty good feeling to be in the NHL and coming to the Olympics," he said. "But I have way more to improve in my game. This is just the start for me and there's more work to do. I can still achieve much more."
Not that his rapid ascent has startled the youngster. Asked about whether he expected to get to this level so fast, his response is unhesitating: "If you don't believe it, you'll never achieve it. I've always wanted to play in the NHL and worked hard to get there."
Many young stars point to an established pro as an inspiration in their childhood, but once again Girgensons differs from the common herd. "I never really looked up to any particular player," he admitted. "I'm just working for myself and my family, my loved ones, trying to do my best."
The iron focus on his own game helps handle the weight of expectation as a hockey-mad nation looks to end a 12-year wait to win a game at the Olympics. With tough tests against Sweden and the Czech Republic to come, much hangs on the opener against Switzerland on Wednesday evening - but Girgensons takes each opponent in his stride.Continue reading
"I don't really know how the Swiss will play," he said. "I never really look at what other teams do, I just do what I have to do.
"I don't really feel pressure. It's my job, and as long as I can bring what I've brought to Buffalo (Sabres), it's going to work. It is a bigger ice sheet, I just have to adjust to that and do what I have to do out there."
That Sabres connection is also significant - Latvia is coached by Ted Nolan, whose renewed enthusiasm for the game also booms out from behind the bench in Buffalo. If Girgensons is a man making an Olympic debut and hoping for a long career at the very top, Nolan's tale is almost a case of redemption beside the Baltic.
Yet it was almost by chance that Nolan ended up taking charge of the Latvian team in 2011, taking up a position in a country that he'd barely heard of when the offer arrived.
But when Tom Coolen, Nolan's assistant with Latvia, made that call it rekindled his love affair with the game.
"I'm a great believer that things happen for a reason in your life," Nolan said. "I wasn't coaching at the time and I'd almost given up on the idea that I'd coach again then I got a call out of the blue about going to Latvia.
"I didn't know where Latvia was, I didn't know anything about the place, but I came over and fell in love with the place right away. It was a nice fit and I fell back in love with coaching again.
"I got into coaching for a reason. I wanted to help players get better. In Latvia I got my love for coaching back.
"Everybody wants to feel wanted and you can feel the passion Latvia has for its hockey team. You walk down the street and there are these lovely warm people. It gives you a sense of worth, makes you proud to be with the team."
That renewed enthusiasm led to a call from the Sabres, and a pathway back to the NHL, but the opportunities presented by international coaching have taken Nolan to somewhere he never expected to go.
"If you'd asked me 10 years ago I wasn't even close to imagining that I'd coach in Latvia, but on the flip side I never thought I'd be coaching at the Olympic Games," he smiled.
"Good things happen when you least expect it and I'm thrilled to be here with all these top athletes.
"It's why I got into hockey in the first place."
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