Date: August 31, 2016

Girgensons eyes PyeongChang 2018 in Riga

latvia ice hockey

By Martin Merk – IIHF.com

There’s no secret about Zemgus Girgensons strong bond with Latvia. That’s where the Buffalo Sabres forward comes from and where he got so many votes from to be lifted to the NHL All-Star Game in 2014/2015. This week he can play in front of his hometown crowd for the first time in his professional career.

“It’s definitely awesome to play in front of my hometown crowd. It’s special. I’ve never done it. There’s nothing better than to play at home in front of our fans, who are so passionate and always cheer for us. I expect it to be fun games,” the 22-year-old said about the days to come.

Girgensons was just 12 when Latvia hosted the 2006 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship. He was playing at the Edmunds Vasiljevs hockey school before leaving for the U.S. as a teenager.

“When I was 15 I went to Burlington, Vermont. It was a big change. The first year was tough. It’s not easy to move away when you’re 15 but I had a host family that took care of me and I was there to do a job so you understand why you are there,” he said.

“I missed mostly my family and friends but also the city of Riga. Every time I come back it’s a pretty special feeling. I drive around downtown, walk in the old town.”

Girgensons played three years of junior hockey in the United States. In his last season he captained the USHL’s Dubuque Fighting Saints and played in the top division of the World Juniors with Latvia in Calgary and Edmonton. That’s when the Buffalo Sabres used their first-round pick and drafted him 14th overall. After one season with the with the AHL affiliate Rochester Americans he made the NHL team and has played there the last three season.

The young Riga native also represented Latvia at three World Championships and the 2014 Olympic Winter Games. That’s where he wants to be again with the small but hockey-crazed Baltic country.

“I’ve never been that far east,” he said about what comes in mind when hearing PyeongChang, the Korean host of the next Winter Olympics. “I have no expectations what it can be like there but the Olympics are why we are here. It’d be fun to go there. It’s something on the to-do list.”

Girgensons is currently the only Latvian in the NHL. He played 202 games for the Sabres scoring 30 goals and 70 points. It has been a time with ups and downs for him.

“Each season was different. The second season was the best one, the last one was not that good but that’s how hockey goes,” Girgensons said.

“I learned a lot in the last three years. Being 22 I went through a lot, played three full seasons, we had a couple of coaches changed. It’s not a bad thing for a young guy to go through all that kind of stuff so it won’t be a shock when it happens later.”

The forward spent most of the summer back in Buffalo since returning from the World Championship in Moscow and was training there while still being a restricted free agent.

“I don’t have a contract yet but it’s in discussion. I definitely plan to play there,” he said.

The Latvian national team came together only on Sunday and got to know their new coach, Haralds Vasiljevs, after the sudden resignation of Leonids Beresnevs.

“We just had a practice and a game against Denmark so we’re still learning about the team but we’ll be good to go tomorrow,” he said before the next practice this evening. Having a coach change at this time is something he doesn’t see as something too dramatic.

“I had coach changes mid-season, that’s probably worse than now,” he said. For him it’s anyway not just about relying on the coaches. “[Vasiljevs] brings with him a lot but it’s more about the players doing their job.”

Their job, that’s winning three games this week after a 3-0 exhibition-game loss against Denmark. On Thursday the Latvians will open against Austria, another team that made it to Sochi 2014. The night after the maroon-and-white team will play Japan, which advanced after winning in the preliminary round. On Sunday evening a possible final awaits with Germany as the opponent.

“It will be hard. Austria and Germany are really good teams and Japan will bring their A game too. Each game will be hard but we definitely feel confident winning this,” he said.

And he can be sure to have a vocal crowd behind him that finally gets the chance to cheer on him not only through the internet but live at Arena Riga.

Big plans: Capitals are part of owner’s vision for building Chinese hockey

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Caps majority owner Ray Zhang, right, and coach Bob Beatty
during training camp.— image credit: Kevin Rothbauer/Citizen


By Kevin Rothbauer –
Cowichan Valley Citizen

If things pan out the way new Cowichan Valley Capitals majority owner Ray Zhang has envisioned, the Cowichan Valley could end up helping China become a hockey power.

Zhang, the Beijing businessman whose purchase of the B.C. Hockey League club was finalized earlier this month, admires the Canadian hockey culture and wants to replicate it in China. With Beijing set to host the Winter Olympics six years from now, he feels there is no time like the present to start the process.

“I feel it’s the right time for both countries,” Zhang said.

Not only has the Chinese government started to put more support behind ice hockey due to the upcoming Olympics, but the Russian-based Kontinental Hockey League has expanded into Beijing for the 2016-17 season with new team Kunlun Red Star, and a Chinese league with a cap of 50 international players is set to start a year from now.

The Chinese men’s national team sits 37th in the International Ice Hockey Federation rankings for 2016, and will need to make strides if it wants to contend in 2022. Although the host country isn’t guaranteed a berth in the Olympic hockey tournament, South Korea was able to lobby successfully for inclusion in the 12-team tournament in 2018, and China hopes to follow suit.

Traditionally more popular in the northeastern cities of Harbin and Qiqihar, hockey has slowly made inroads in the rest of the country in recent years.

“When my son started, there were only about 200 players in Beijing and 300 in China,” Zhang said. According to the IIHF, there are currently 1,225 registered players out of the country’s 1.3 billion people.

A hockey fan since his son, Simon Chen, started playing in 2003, Zhang had to go through a four-month ordeal in order to acquire the team, the first time someone from China has purchased an overseas hockey franchise. All capital investments using money from China need approval from the government and national bank, and no one could understand why he was interested in buying a money-losing enterprise. He had to explain his longterm plan to get them on board.

Although it isn’t unusual for young Chinese players, like Chen, to play high school hockey in the U.S. or Canada, when they return to China, they go back to a program that is “going in the wrong direction.” Zhang thinks taking the family-oriented Canadian hockey culture back to China will turn Chinese hockey around. His vision involves setting up camps and academies in Canada — most likely on Vancouver Island — to help bridge the two countries.

Although the final roster hasn’t been announced, Chen appears set to line up on defence for the Capitals when the puck drops on the 2016-17 BCHL campaign. Born in 1997, Chen went to high school at the Brooks School in North Andover, Massachusetts. When he started there, his family didn’t realize that the varsity team was entirely recruited, although he managed to get a tryout and ended up being the only player out of 22 on the roster that wasn’t recruited. Chen was the first Chinese-born player on the Brooks School team. He also played for China at the World U18 championships Div. IIB in 2014-15 and is hoping to play for the U20 team this season.

According to Zhang, hockey is Chen’s passion.

“He loves hockey,” Zhang said. “We never push him. I feel if a young kid loves to do something, why not support him?”

Chen has never had illusions of playing in the NHL or even the American Hockey League — “We were never thinking he could play professional hockey,” Zhang said — but he has two dreams: to play college hockey and to play for China in the 2022 Olympics.

Zhang is quick to point out all the benefits of hockey, beyond just being active. For young people like his son, hockey helps prepare them for the real world, and instills leadership and confidence.

“Hockey brings something besides hockey, something more important than hockey itself,” he said. “In the locker room, they learn how to deal with other players. With no adults, they close the door, and it’s the children’s world.”

As for the Capitals, Zhang knows they will be young this season, but hopes they will turn into a contender down the road

“I’d like to stabilize the team, then next season see some improvement,” he said, adding that he’d like to take them on a tour of China in the future as well.

World Cup of Hockey summer check-in: Team USA

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By Mark Spector – Sportsnet

Training camp sites: Nationwide Arena, Columbus, Sept. 5-9; Verizon Center, Washington D.C., Sept. 11-13.

Summer headlines:
Lombardi wants U.S. World Cup team to win like it’s 1996
Lightning’s Callahan out five months following hip surgery
Team USA replaces Callahan with Palmieri for World Cup

Team captain: TBD
Assistant captains: TBD

Front-office refresher:
GM: Dean Lombardi
Head coach: John Tortorella
Other Staff: Paul Holmgren, Brian Burke, Jim Johannson (management group); Mike Sullivan, John Hynes, Phil Housley, Jack Capuano, Scott Gordon (assistant coaches).

Injury concerns:
Kyle Palmieri was added to the roster to replace Ryan Callahan, who had summer hip surgery.

Phil Kessel was not added to the original Team USA roster, which raised some eyebrows as he went on to finish fourth in playoff scoring with 22 points. It turns out that Kessel required hand surgery this summer, and likely would have not been ready to play anyway—an injury that could have been at the root of his exclusion in the first place.

Goalie Ben Bishop (strained ankle ligaments) is ready to go.

Zach Parise missed his club’s short playoff run with a back injury. He opted out of surgery and is expected to be ready.

Ryan McDonaghs hand injury hampered him in the playoffs, but he’s healthy too.

This is a huge tournament for many Team USA players who are in the twilights of their international careers, at a time where the pace of play threatens to expose the legs of some American veterans.

There are 14 players on this roster from the Sochi Olympics, where the Americans were shelled 5-0 by Finland in the bronze medal game. Two years later, this roster still contains three Top-10 scorers from the last NHL season — Patrick Kane, Blake Wheeler, Joe Pavelski — but the United States will be looking for the jam and competitiveness to grind their way through an easier pool with Canada, Czech Republic and Team Europe.

Kane will be counted on here to produce offensively, as goals could be an issue.

They’ll count on the checking skills of Brandon Dubinsky and Ryan Kesler to slow down some more high-scoring opponents, and Team USA will grind away and hit their way to victory. That is, assuming these players have that style of hockey in them at this time of year.

Key storylines entering camp:

1. Who Plays Goal?
With Jonathan Quick, Cory Schneider and Ben Bishop, no one has better depth in goal than this team. But, it can also be said that nobody has a tougher decision to make on whom to play.

Quick has the best pedigree, but he was average in a playoff loss to San Jose last spring, missed the playoffs the year before that, and wasn’t very good in that bronze medal loss to Finland. Bishop lost his job in Tampa Bay when he was injured during the playoffs but has the most recent big-game experience, and Schneider is also coming off of surgery to correct a core muscle problem after missing the playoffs with New Jersey.

“Surgery pushed me back a little, but honestly I think having the World Cup sooner was a good thing because once I was cleared and felt good to go, I started pushing pretty hard,” Schneider told NHL.com. “Not only to test the groin and make sure it’s where it needed to be and (that) we didn’t need to do anything else, but to get ready for the World Cup, too.”

Has head coach John Tortorella picked his starter before the tournament begins? Or, with three exhibition games, might each netminder get an exhibition start?

2. Blue-line Blues?
There are some very good players on this Team USA blue-line, but it doesn’t stack up to what the Canadians and the Swedes are icing. Not even close.

McDonagh knows he has to up his own game, after a first-round playoff exit to Pittsburgh in which he was not enamoured with his own play.

“I want to get back (to) where I was a couple of years ago, where I was a difference-maker consistently,” McDonagh told ESPN.com. “It can’t just happen once every three, four games. It has to happen every game. Get that motto and get that confidence going through our team and get everybody rallying together.”

3. The Process
NHLers typically aren’t accustomed to playing at this level of intensity so early in the hockey calendar. Team USA plays back-to-back games versus Canada to open their exhibition schedule, and with only 23 players on the roster, all but three players will play both games — something that would never happen at their regular NHL training camps.

“Canada-U.S.? I don’t think that’s going to be an ease-in process,” Bishop told ESPN this summer. “Exhibition games are going to be a little more intense, especially for goalies who like to slowly get into it. My first game could be against Team Canada, but after practicing for a week and some intra-squad scrimmages, I’m sure I’ll be ready.”

4. The question of captain
Although Team USA has yet to officially name its captains, it is believed Joe Pavelski will get the ‘C’ on his jersey. That marks a subtle changing of the guard in American hockey, and some will question why the annual highest scoring American-born player — Patrick Kane — was not named as captain.

At the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Parise was captain, while Ryan Suter and Dustin Brown served as alternates. Brown isn’t even on this roster, and if Pavelski vaults past Parise and Suter to take over the captaincy, will that cause ripples? Also, how can your most productive player not even get a letter? Unless, that is, Kane’s off-ice foibles are at the root of that decision.

5. Changing of the guard
For players like David Backes, Suter, and Ryan Kesler — who are closer to the end of their international careers than the beginning — this could be a last hurrah, especially with young stars like Johnny Gaudreau, Jack Eichel, Auston Matthews and Jacob Trouba on their way up in national team ranks. (Of course, those four youngsters will be suiting up for Team North America at this tournament.) All of this under the tough task master John Tortorella, who always brings plenty of drama to the table. Could be fun.

Exhibition/Preliminary round schedule:
**Friday, Sept. 9 vs. Team Canada at Columbus
**Saturday, Sept. 10 vs. Team Canada at Ottawa
**Tuesday, Sept. 13 vs. Team Finland at Washington
Saturday, Sept. 17 vs. Europe
Tuesday, Sept. 20 vs. Canada
Thursday, Sept. 22 vs. Czech Republic