Zemgus Girgensons will always consider Dubuque a pivotal stop in his hockey development.
And he reaffirmed those emotions last week as he crossed the Mississippi River en route to watch the Fighting Saints’ annual open tryout camp at Mystique Community Ice Center.
Girgensons spent two memorable seasons in Dubuque before the Buffalo Sabres selected him No. 14 overall in the 2012 National Hockey League Draft. But the six-year NHL veteran hadn’t been back to Iowa in the seven years since.
“When I was driving into Dubuque, it pretty much gave me chills throughout my body,” said Girgensons, who joined the Saints ownership group last summer along with former Dubuque teammate and Calgary Flames superstar Johnny Gaudreau. “I just had so many great memories here, and coming back brought all of those memories back. Dubuque is pretty much exactly how I remember it.
“To be honest, in my whole career, I’d say my two years here gave me some of my favorite moments and best memories in hockey. It was an honor to play for the team those two years, and that’s the main reason I decided to come back with the team. It means a lot to me that I can be a part of it again.”
Girgensons’ decision to join the Saints ownership group illustrates the impact a United States Hockey League franchise can have on an impressionable young player. The Riga, Latvia, native came to Dubuque as a 17-year-old prospect, and current Dallas Stars head coach Jim Montgomery helped develop him into a two-way center coveted by NHL teams.
Girgensons tallied 45 goals, 104 points and 115 penalty minutes in 100 games for the Saints and played a pivotal role in the team winning the Clark Cup in 2010-11, Dubuque’s first season back in the USHL after a 10-year hiatus. He made the rare leap from the USHL to the American Hockey League, the top developmental league below the NHL, as a 19-year-old and cracked the Sabres roster for good the following year.
“It speaks volumes about his character that, as a 25-year-old, he recognizes the impact Dubuque had on his career and he wants to pay it forward to the next generation of players by being involved in our ownership group,” said Saints coach Oliver David, who got to know Girgensons during the Saints camp. “He’s an incredible asset to our organization.
“He’s a very courteous, very professional young man who has such a welcoming demeanor when it comes to the fans. He was approached quite a bit while he was here, and he did a great job of accommodating anyone who asked for an autograph or to have their picture taken with him.”
Girgensons appreciated a new point of view of the game while taking in the tryout camp. He watched the game from an investor’s angle and mingled with fellow owners, including managing partner Brad Kwong.
“It’s definitely different,” Girgensons said. “I usually don’t watch a lot of hockey, but I’ve probably seen more hockey here than I have in a long time. But it’s a really good experience for me, watching and learning about the game.
“It’s a great experience for the kids, because there are so many scouts and different people watching. It’s a great opportunity for them to showcase their skills.”
Girgensons has played 420 games in the NHL and has contributed 49 goals, 119 points and 120 penalty minutes. He played in the 2014-15 NHL All-Star Game thanks to an overwhelming fan vote fueled by backers in his native country as well-as a hockey-mad Buffalo, a city he has grown to love in his six seasons with the Sabres.
“It’s a really fun city to play in, because the fans are great,” Girgensons said. “It’s one of those towns where, the longer you live there, the more you like it. After six years, it’s my home now, too.
“It’s a great sports town. When the Bills made the (NFL) playoffs, the town just went crazy. I can’t wait to see the reaction of the fans when we win. When we win the Stanley Cup, the city will just go crazy. It’s great motivation.”
The Sabres appeared on target to make the playoffs after a strong start to the season. But they faded down the stretch and extended the NHL’s longest active playoff drought to eight seasons, prompting the firing of head coach Phil Housley in favor of Ralph Krueger.
“Everything looked on the bright side at the start of the season, and it just kind of fell apart,” said Girgensons, the longest tenured player on the Sabres roster. “It was a good learning experience for this upcoming season, so we don’t let it happen again. Getting a new coach will be a great opportunity to push for that playoff spot.”
Girgensons recently purchased a home near Pittsburgh, the hometown of his fiance, Katie Sullivan. The two will tie the knot next month.