With lots of help from the rabid fans in his native Latvia and Buffalo, 20-year-old Sabres center Zemgus Girgensons earned an NHL-high 1,574,896 votes and has been elected to the All-Star Game Jan. 25 in Columbus, the league announced tonight.
Girgensons is just 109 games into his career.
The other five players voted in are all Chicago Blackhawks stars: forwards Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, defensemen Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook and goalie Corey Crawford.
Kane finished second in balloting with 1,232,201 votes.
It was evident right after the voting opened in late November that Girgensons, a relative unknown outside of Buffalo, would be elected to the game. Proud fans in Latvia, a country of about 2 million people, kept clicking away online for their only current NHL player.
Fans from outside North America cast almost 27 percent of the votes, up 7,000 percent from the 2012 campaign, according to the NHL. Overall, fans cast more than 35 million votes, up 52 percent from 2012.
Girgensons, who has 19 goals and 42 points in his career, took an early lead and never relinquished it. The voting clearly made the quiet youngster a bit uncomfortable. He mostly downplayed the support.
“I just think it’s kind of funny,” Girgensons said Dec. 1. “It’s just fans back home. Nothing, really.”
But Girgensons, the No. 14 pick in 2012, is wildly popular at home. Fans watch Sabres games late at night or early in the morning, Girgensons said. His goals are featured on the news. A Latvian TV crew spent a week in town in November shooting a documentary on Girgensons.
“The fans back home have always been all about hockey,” he said last month. “They’re just kind of crazy.”
Sabres coach Ted Nolan, Latvia’s national team coach, has seen the fandom up close.
“He’s a very popular man over in Latvia,” Nolan said Dec. 1. “I think from the Sochi Olympics he got his name out there a little bit more. Playing the way he’s playing in Buffalo the first couple years, he’s getting his name out. He’s going to hopefully be a household name over here in North America as he is in Latvia. Good for him. He deserves everything he’s getting.”
Nolan believes Girgensons is a worthy choice to be an All-Star.
“I think it’s very supportive of his country,” he said Dec. 3. “But his play’s supportive enough that he probably doesn’t necessarily need his country for his support. … He’s our No. 1 center. He plays on power play. He plays on penalty killing. You show me another 20-year-old that has that much responsibility on their team in this league.
“I think it should be, ‘Who is this kid? Let’s see him. Let’s watch him.’ He’s the type of kid that brings people to our game.”
Girgensons has a team-high 11 goals and 20 points in 39 games this season.