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Hockey On The Thames

LONDON -- It seems you can't even go to England without getting involved in a spirited discussion about the Sabres.

Wednesday morning, I took a subway ride down to Westminster to check out the Parliament Buildings and Buckingham Palace. After taking an admiring look up at Big Ben, I walked onto the nearby Westminster Bridge above the Thames River. I saw a person with a media credential setting up an interview on the bridge. When I saw "Latvia" on his badge, I struck up a conversation.

Armands Tripans, who works in production for a Latvian TV station, positively gushed when I asked him about Zemgus Girgensons, who was recently taken by the Sabres with the 14th pick of the NHL draft. Tripans said Girgensons wasn't a big celebrity in his home nation until the draft. But that changed when he became the highest NHL pick in this history of a hockey-mad nation.

"This is huge," Tripans said. "We had Arturs Irbe and Sandis Ozolinsh (Latvians who had successful NHL careers). Now, Girgensons is above them, because he was drafted higher than any Latvian player."

Tripans said he has gotten to know Girgensons and found him remarkably well-grounded for an 18-year-old.  He said Girgensons doesn't seem driven by money or fame, but by his love for hockey, which is extremely popular in the Baltic nation of 2 million people.

"He is so different," Tripans said. "So honest and committed to community and the game of hockey. In my country, hockey is everything."

Tripans said the sport was elevated in Latvia by Viktor Tikhonov, the former head coach of the Soviet national team during its dominance. "Hockey was so down," Tripans said. "It was like Frisbee. Tikhonov came with new ideas and brought the whole country up."

Girgensons, who signed a three-year contract with the Sabres rather than play in college, is the latest manifestation of the rise of Latvian hockey. Sabres fans will love to hear the new kid described in such glowing terms, as a player who honors the sport and has the right emotional makeup.

And when Tripans described the hockey culture in his home country, it sounded awfully familiar. He seemed to be describing Buffalo.

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