NEW YORK -- The cup of hot tea and slightly raspy voice suggested that the pride of a nation might be fighting something other than a cold. It was his 21st birthday, after all, and he was in New York City. A hangover would be understandable, if not expected.
But Zemgus Girgensons, the young center for the Buffalo Sabres and Latvian national team and unlikely All-Star, quickly explained that he had spent part of his off day walking around outside the Sabres’ Times Square hotel, where the January temperatures and the thousands of tourists on Broadway had conspired to give him a cold.
"It's like, how many people are in New York?" he wondered with a chuckle. "In Latvia, we've only got 2 million people. That's the crazy part."
Riga, Latvia's capital and Girgensons' hometown, is a world away, both geographically and culturally, but the country's lone full-time representative in the NHL has -- however unintentionally -- bridged the gap in the most peculiar 21st-century of ways: through an online popularity contest.
Hockey in the U.S boasts a relatively smaller fan base possessed of a unique knowledge and passion for the game. Still, when asked to name their sport's best, most popular players, fans wouldn't likely deviate from listing a familiar core of Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Alex Ovechkin, Steven Stamkos, Henrik Lundqvist et al.
Those are all names one would expect to see headlining the ballot for the All-Star Game, to be played Jan. 25 in Columbus, Ohio, after a two-year hiatus due to the 2012 lockout and the Sochi Olympics.
Few outside of Latvia would think of Zemgus Girgensons.
Sure, the Sabres selected him 14th overall in the 2012 draft, the highest slot ever for a Latvian player. He had spent some time in the now-defunct Eastern Junior league as a 15-year-old before jumping to the USHL's Dubuque Fighting Saints for two seasons, followed by time with the Rochester Americans of the AHL before joining the Sabres last season. Girgensons has scored only 19 goals and tallied 42 points in 111 NHL games, respectable numbers for a new player on a young, struggling team, but surely unworthy of an All-Star nod.
Somebody forgot to mention that to the fans.
Zemgus Girgensons got more All-Star votes than anyone else in the league.
When fan voting wrapped up on Jan. 1, Girgensons finished with 1,574,896 votes. His closest competition -- almost 350,000 votes behind -- was Kane, he of the two Stanley Cup rings and one Conn Smythe Trophy, with 1,232,201.
For those who would cry foul or allege a rigged system, save it. There are no improprieties here, no evidence of gerrymandering, a possibility that Brian Jennings, chief marketing officer for the NHL, quashed last month in an interview with The New York Times.
"It is vetted, and the votes are legit," he said. "It's a big amount of fans that are coming from Latvia that are getting their vote out."
Girgensons credits Latvian television networks and the power of social media for spreading word of the online vote throughout his country.
One person can vote up to 10 times from one device in a 24-hour period and, according to the NHL, 79 percent of Girgensons' vote total came from Latvia. In July, Riga named itself the "European Capital of Wi-Fi," which might be a partial explanation.
Regardless, it is a hockey-crazed nation, and its citizens have latched on to its star.
"It's always been a big deal back home," Girgensons said about the passion for hockey in his homeland. "Even as kids, we'd have people watching us; family is always there, everyone's all about it. When you're a kid, the national team is the one that you root for."
Girgensons was a bright spot for a Latvian team that had been largely ignored on the national stage. He had played a key role for Latvia in the 2014 Olympics, where he scored his only goal of the tournament against Sweden's Lundqvist. Helmed by current Sabres head coach Ted Nolan, Latvia made a surprising run to the quarterfinals in Sochi, where it fought powerhouse Canada to the final horn. Goaltender Kristers Gudlevskis, 21, a prospect in the Tampa Bay Lightning organization, delivered a masterpiece 55-save performance, but ultimately the Canadians escaped with a 2-1 victory. Latvia finished the Olympics in eighth place, its best showing ever, and Girgensons' national profile increased.
He doesn't get to spend that much time in the country that raised and loves him, but when he returns to Riga for a few weeks each summer, he tries to keep a low profile. Still, his fellow citizens have a way of finding him when he's around.
The trope of the humble hockey player, averse to individual attention and committed to being one of "the boys," is well worn, but that's because it's generally true. Girgensons is no exception.
He is amused, and maybe even embarrassed, by the whole All-Star thing. When a phenomenon as idiosyncratic and implausible as Girgensons' ascent to the top of the All-Star leaderboard occurs, it makes sense that people would take notice. That doesn't mean that Girgensons or his teammates pay it much mind.
"I don't know, we didn't talk about it in the locker room," he said. "They make jokes sometimes, but at the end they just congratulate me. ... Sometimes I get a little hard time, but I'm still young, so I get a hard time even when it's not about [the All-Star votes]. It's part of the locker-room style. It's always been there. It's always going to be there.”
The chances he will get cocky about his All-Star status are nil: "I would get eaten alive, that's for sure," he said.
Girgensons said that the media attention has intensified, but he, ever the hockey player, insists he is focused solely on becoming a better player and helping the Sabres emerge from the dregs of the league standings.
In Latvia, though, he is a constant topic of national discussion.
"TV shows it every day," he said. "It's crazy there, so it's been the main focus for them for a long time. I never really got into it, didn't look at it, but my family said they were going pretty crazy back home. ... We just have crazy hockey fans."
Girgensons' path to the All-Star Game is an odd one, of course, because -- excluding Olympians in individual sports -- how often does an athlete have the singular support of an entire nation? And, of all places, Latvia? Girgensons laughed when he pointed out that while he was proud and honored to positively represent his country, he figured that many fans would now be Googling where and what Latvia is.
He wants to make sure he immerses himself in the All-Star experience so that he -- along with family members from Latvia who had to reschedule a previously planned vacation to Costa Rica -- can enjoy it all, but he doesn't know what to expect in Columbus.
"I have no clue how it works, so I'm just relying on people to give me some idea of what's going to be going on, and just go there and make the most of it," he said. "It can't be bad, that's for sure."
As a competitive professional athlete, Girgensons, naturally, aspires to return to the All-Star Game on his own merit. For now, he recognizes his unique position as the hero of the country that has shown him unprecedented support.
"It's a little bit funny with all the voting stuff, but that's how it is," he said as he finished his tea and adjusted his toque before heading back up to his room to fight his cold in peace.
"Definitely later in life, if you can make it on your own to the All-Star Game, that's a satisfaction for yourself. This is more satisfaction for the fans."