Latvia keeps Girgensons atop All-Star vote

Zemgus Girgensons. (Jen Fuller/AP)

BUFFALO, N.Y. — Zemgus Girgensons feels a little sheepish discussing how fans back home in Latvia have clicked and quadruple-clicked his name so often that the Sabres forward is running away with the NHL All-Star Game vote.

The second-year player appreciates the overwhelming support he’s received from the Baltic nation. And yet the 20-year-old Girgensons doesn’t consider himself worthy of being included among the league’s elite.

"It’s a little bit embarrassing and funny at the same time," Girgensons said, before the Sabres hit the road for a two-game swing that concludes Tuesday at Detroit. "It came out of nowhere. I know people know me back home, but I didn’t think it was going to go that far. That’s like crazy far."

As of Tuesday, Girgensons has a league-leading 1,291,186 votes, with about 80 per cent coming from Latvia.

The only limit on voting is fans can use the same device no more than 10 times a day.

Chicago’s Patrick Kane (815,990 votes) is second among forwards, followed by teammate Jonathan Toews (803,034).

Blackhawks players hold down the three other remaining spots eligible to be selected by vote. Chicago’s Duncan Keith (790,922) and Brent Seabrook (641,736) lead defencemen, and Corey Crawford (714,471) leads goalies.

With voting set to close Jan. 1, Girgensons is on the verge of clinching a spot to play in the All-Star Game at Columbus on Jan. 25.

"If I have to, it’s awesome" said Girgensons, the only Latvian currently playing in the NHL. "It’ll be satisfaction to the fans, really."

Selected in the first-round of the 2012 draft, Girgensons has established himself as a skilled two-way forward, and part of the rebuilding team’s young core.

Girgensons leads Buffalo (13-18-3) with nine goals and is second with 18 points.

That puts him well off the league-leading pace. Dallas centre Tyler Seguin is first with 25 goals, while Philadelphia’s Jakub Voracek tops the points list with 44.

Sabres coach Ted Nolan said Girgensons has nothing to be ashamed of.

"I wouldn’t be embarrassed at all," Nolan said. "The whole nation’s cheering for him, which is great to see. So he should feel a lot of pride."

Nolan knows plenty about Girgensons and Latvia. He spent the previous four years coaching Latvia’s national team, which included Girgensons.

"He’s come a tremendous long way in a very short period of time," Nolan said.

In an email, Latvian Ice Hockey Federation media manager Maris Gorbunovs wrote the support Latvians have shown Girgensons has been spontaneous, and a reflection of their passion for hockey and a native son.

"Canada and USA has many NHL players but Latvia at the moment has only one," Gorbunovs wrote. "It is not an initiative of some separate group or segment. It is an achievement of all Latvian fans."

Gorbunovs estimated at least 11,000 Latvians travelled to Minsk, Belarus, to attend last year’s World Championship tournament. Former Latvian NHLers include goalie Arturs Irbe, now a Sabres assistant, and defenceman Sandis Ozolinsh.

Growing up in Riga, Girgensons was a fan of the Kontinental Hockey League team based in the Latvian capital.

Girgensons was 15 when he moved to North America to play for the former Vermont-based Green Mountain Glades of the Eastern Junior Hockey League. He then spent two seasons with Dubuque of the U.S. Hockey League, before committing to play at Vermont.

Girgensons turned down a college career for the chance to play pro after being drafted by Buffalo.

"I never would have said at age 20 that I’d be in my second year in the NHL," Girgensons said.

Soon enough, he might be an all-star.

Girgensons laughed when reminded that Latvia, a country with a population of about 2 million people, accounts for about 1 million of his vote total.

"Yeah," Girgensons said, smiling. "Only half like me.’

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