BUFFALO – When Sabres center Zemgus Girgensons represented Latvia in an Olympic-qualifying tournament late in the summer, NHL players hadn’t committed to participating in the 2022 Beijing Games.
“But I still decided to go over and compete in the qualification because even if I wasn’t going, what it means to other players back home to go is a big thing,” said Girgensons, who played for Latvia in the 2014 Sochi Games, the last time the NHL sent players to the Olympics.
The tournament meant a lot to Latvians. A capacity crowd packed Arena Riga on Aug. 29 to watch Latvia beat France 2-1 on Aug. 29 and secure a spot in Beijing.
Girgensons, who was officially named to Latvia’s Olympic entry Friday, said he and his teammates celebrated the victory wildly.
“We’re celebrating like we won the (Stanley) Cup or something,” he said following Friday’s practice inside KeyBank Center. “For the guys back home, it means a lot. I’m glad to be a part of something like that.”
Girgensons’ memories of Sochi, of course, are special. In 2014, he was a 20-year-old rookie whose NHL coach, Ted Nolan, also led Latvia.
His time in the athletes’ village remains seared in his mind.
“That was the coolest part about it, just being surrounded by other world-class athletes and just kind of having a chat with other countries, your own country’s other players,” he said.
The underdog Latvians became the darling of the tournament, beating Switzerland and nearly upsetting heavyweight Canada, which would win the gold medal.
“It’s an unbelievable experience to have as a player,” Girgensons said.
Girgensons was one of three provisional players named to Latvia’s roster. San Jose Sharks forward Rudolfs Balcers and Toronto Maple Leafs defense prospect Kristians Rubins also earned spots.
Both players did not practice the last two days dealing with what Granato called “soft tissue” problems.
“They’re progressing,” Granato said. “They should be full-go for practice on Monday, so no need with their injuries to put them in.”
Meanwhile, Granato said rookie winger J-J Peterka will likely miss today’s game with a lower-body bruise. Peterka skated on his own Friday.
The Sabres on Friday sent defenseman Brandon Davidson to the Rochester Americans. Davidson must clear waivers. The Sabres now have eight healthy defensemen in training camp.
Granato said veteran goalie Craig Anderson, who has played only 40 minutes during the preseason, will start against the Red Wings and likely play the whole game.
Anderson, 40, is expected to be the Sabres’ starter Thursday when they open the regular season against the Montreal Canadiens.