BUFFALO — Jim Montgomery put it up for a vote, so after his Dubuque Fighting Saints won the United States Hockey League championship in 2011, he asked his returning players to pick a new captain.
In addition to three 20-year-olds, the coach had a 19-year-old who played prominent minutes back for another season of junior hockey.
Incredibly, Montgomery’s players passed on the veterans, instead picking a 17-year-old Latvian to captain them.
His name was Zemgus Girgensons, and about a year earlier he had spoken very little English.
“I think he got 13 of the 16 votes to be captain,” Montgomery said by phone from Iowa earlier this week.
Something separates Girgensons among youngsters, makes him such an interesting talent the Sabres moved up and snatched him 14th overall at the NHL Entry Draft last month.
Sure, he’s an ultra-aggressive, hard-hitting forward with a strong scoring touch. Montgomery believes Girgensons could score 20 to 35 goals once he’s established in the NHL.
“They’re getting a player that can play in every situation,” Montgomery said. “They’re getting a player that plays all 200 feet of the ice. They’re getting a player who will do anything the Sabres need to win a hockey game.”
But Girgensons’ leadership qualities help elevate him to an elite prospect.
What made him a captain so young?
“It’s his will to win and his competitive drive, and his ability to understand what is needed to be done for a hockey club,” said Montgomery, a veteran of 122 NHL games over 12 professional seasons. “Obviously, everyone continues to become better as they grow old and they learn. But he learned and watches other people.
“Like, if he’s in Buffalo, he’s going to watch (captain) Jason Pominville, how he conducts himself and what he says. He’s going to learn from it.”