TORONTO — So you want Ted Nolan to pick a player out of his past, someone who springs to mind when he watches his star rookie, Zemgus Girgensons?
Well, there was this kid who was a teammate of Nolan on a junior team in Sault Ste. Marie back in the ’70s. Oh, this guy was gifted, but it was his inexhaustible love for hockey, and for competition, that stood out even more.
“You know, they had to do the same thing with Wayne Gretzky when he was that age,” Nolan said. “He had that same work ethic. The coaches had to kick him off the ice. All the good ones, the coaches have to do that.”
High praise, indeed, being compared with the Great One. But Girgensons shares that quality with Gretzky: His coaches often need to drag him off the ice at practice. Nolan has to teach Girgensons the virtue of taking it easy in a sport where conserving energy is so vital.
Nolan says he saw the same things in Pat LaFontaine, who used to be his player and is now his boss. That’s part of their bond, a shared passion for a sport that has not always treated them kindly. They can appreciate a kid with the same burning desire to compete.
“It’s not like you have to pump this guy up to play,” Nolan said. “He loves to play.”
People notice these things. Girgensons turned 20 a week ago. He has played only half a season in the NHL but has been a favorite of Sabres fans from the moment he took the ice. It’s hard to remember a rookie forward who has been embraced so quickly.
The Latvia native is a character the fans have dreamed of for years, a player with the athletic skill of a top forward and the competitive spirit of a grinding fourth-liner – a genuine power forward. You wonder if he realizes how popular he is in Buffalo.
“Well, you got to ask the fans that,” Girgensons said Tuesday night. “It’s just usual. I do what I have to do out there. It’s my job. That’s my thing I love to do. I just go out and enjoy it.”
Girgensons’ maturity and rapid adjustment to the NHL present a sharp contrast to Mikhail Grigorenko, the 19-year-old Russian who went two spots before him in the draft.
Grigorenko, who resisted a demotion to juniors before relenting this week, comes across as the underachieving, entitled star, Girgensons as the well-grounded team guy with accountability beyond his years.
Nolan, who coached him on the Latvian national team last year, told Girgensons he had a style that would play well with Buffalo fans.
“Hard-working guys, yeah,” Girgensons said with a smile. “Even when I got drafted, they told me they love hard-working players here. So I was looking forward to it, and I didn’t want to let them down.”
Imagine how big he is in Latvia. The Sabres traded up to the 14th overall spot to take Girgensons in the 2012 entry draft, making him the highest Latvian pick in NHL history.
Girgensons left Latvia, a small Baltic nation of 2 million inhabitants, to play juniors in Vermont in 2009. He speaks good English and has adapted well to America. But he’s a national hero back home.
“The fans stay up late at night to watch his games,” Nolan said. “They’re crazy hockey fans, in love with the sport. To have one of their own over here is a treat for them.
“But he’s just as big with his peers. When the guys on the national team want a guy to come back when he’s 19 and be a leader, like he did last year, you know how much respect they have for him back home.”
On Jan. 7, two days after Girgensons turned 20, Nolan named him to the Latvian Olympic team. It was a formality. Still, it’s no small thing for a player that young to play an 82-game rookie season and also represent his country in an Olympics.
Girgensons has been a regular from the start, when he scored a goal in his first NHL game. He quickly moved his way up to the top line. Over the past 10 games, he has averaged more than 17 minutes a game of ice time as Nolan handed him more responsibilities.
He has four goals and 10 assists. He was on the ice for the Flyers’ last two goals in Tuesday night’s loss and hit a post early in the game.
Girgensons appeared a step slow at times on Tuesday, perhaps the accumulated wear and tear of a compacted NHL season on a rookie’s body.
“Yeah, there’s definitely been some parts of the season where you feel like this is the toughest thing ever,” he said, “because of all the travels and games pretty much every other day. I’ve never had a season like this, especially with the Olympics.”
He didn’t seem worn down Wednesday night. Nolan started Girgensons on the third line, but once he got going, the kid was a dynamo against the Leafs. Though he went without a point for the eighth straight game, he finished with 13 hits in the Sabres’ shootout loss, the most of any player in an NHL game this season.
“My shoulder is a little sore, the left one,” Girgensons said. “But as I said, I don’t count the hits. I just get out there every shift and do my job.”
He also led the Sabres against Toronto with six shots on goal.
Girgensons was awarded a penalty shot after being dragged down from behind on a breakaway 5:48 into the second period. But he failed miserably on a back-hand attempt on Leafs goalie James Reimer.
“All my fault,” he said. “At the last second, I switched up my mind. I wanted to do that move. I wanted to go upstairs and at the last minute, I thought the 5-hole was open. I wanted to slide it through there and it hit his pad.”
Girgensons said he’s excited for Sochi. He’ll be able to get together with his older buddies on the Latvian national team. They’re big underdogs, so chances are he’ll be done after three games and get some extra time to recharge his batteries for the rest of the NHL season.
A year ago, Girgensons started slowly in Rochester. He missed time with a concussion. But he was at his best in the Calder Cup playoffs, scoring three goals in three games in the Amerks’ first-round loss. Maybe he’ll save his best for last in his rookie NHL season, too.
“He can play,” Nolan said. “There’s all kinds of guys who can work hard. But when you work hard and you have the ability, that’s why people here like him so much. They’re probably going to come to love him.”
Ted, a lot of them already do.