FAIRBANKS — They aren’t in Latvia — or Shreveport, Louisiana — anymore.
Gustavs Grigals and Karlis Zirnis have a bond unlike any other duo associated with the University of Alaska Fairbanks hockey team. Both are from Latvia, and both spent the 2017-18 season with the Shreveport Mudbugs in the North American Hockey League.
Now they’re both in their first season with the Nanooks.
Grigals is a freshman goaltender for UAF, while Zirnis is one of two full-time assistant coaches on first-year head coach Erik Largen’s staff, with Joe Howe being the other. Although Grigals and Zirnis lead different lives, both agree it’s nice to begin their time in Alaska with each other.
“It’s cool that he’s here. It’s great,” said Grigals, who is a native of Riga, Latvia’s capital city.
“He’s a good coach and he’s passionate; you can see that he wants to give his all to us. He wants to see our success.”
Zirnis served as head coach in Shreveport last season and helped guide the Louisiana-based Mudbugs to their first NAHL Robertson Cup national championship in May. Grigals was already committed to play at UAF before Largen was hired in April, but Zirnis decided to make the move to Fairbanks after speaking with the rookie coach during the summer.
“I just thought it was a great fit,” Zirnis said. “I wanted to make a jump to a new level, and the NCAA is obviously a step up from junior hockey. It’s not that things weren’t going well in Shreveport, I just wanted to take the step to the next level and thought this was a good fit.”
Grigals and Zirnis had the opportunity to spend time at UAF in November, when the team was in town to play the Fairbanks Ice Dogs at the Big Dipper Ice Arena. Zirnis knew Lance West, who served as interim head coach for the Nanooks last season, from his time at the University of Alabama Huntsville.
West coached Zirnis when he was at UAH, and the two reconnected last year when Shreveport was in town. Even though West has moved on to rejoin the coaching staff at Alabama Huntsville — now a Western Collegiate Hockey Association rival of UAF — the hospitality West and the Nanooks program showed last year left a good impression on Zirnis.
“We spent a whole week here skating and they showed us around,” Zirnis said. “So when they offered me the position, I had been up here and I knew the people and spent a whole week around town. I knew this was a great hockey community.”
Even though their relationship really strengthened in Shreveport, Zirnis and Grigals also have ties through Team Latvia. Last year, Zirnis was the head coach for the Latvia Under-20 team, and Grigals was one of his goaltenders.
They may be far from their home country, but they still find ways to bring Latvia to Alaska.
“It’s always nice when you can talk to somebody in your native tongue,” Zirnis said.
“It’s funny,” added Grigals, “because the other guys don’t really like when we speak Latvian.”
Despite the fact that the Nanooks are only two games into the season, both Grigals and Zirnis are making an impact on the program. Grigals made his collegiate debut Sunday, making 22 saves during the second and third periods of a 5-0 loss at Arizona State University.
Although he allowed two goals, the freshman netminder still felt comfortable when he got the nod to replace junior Anton Martinsson, who started the game, at the start of the second period.
“Before that game, I didn’t know if I could play at this level,” Grigals said. “Now I know I can play here.”
Largen, a former goaltender for the Nanooks himself, was pleased with Grigals’ outing.
“I was really impressed,” Largen said. “I thought he was really good, and I think he’s only going to get better and better. It was nice to see him be really confident and poised in the net. I think he’s going to be really good for us.”
The first-year head coach also praised the work Zirnis has been doing. All it takes is a few moments of watching UAF practice to see the new assistant coach’s passion for the game, as he can often be seen buzzing around the ice, offering encouraging words of advice to players.
“He brings a lot of juice every single day,” Largen said. “He has the passion to help the guys get better — he shows it in every video session, every practice, every game, it doesn’t matter. He’s a really great person and a great coach. I’m glad he’s around.”
The duo is in the opposite corner of the country from where they spent last season at the junior level and are even farther from their home country, but they’re already helping the Nanooks establish a new culture under Largen’s guidance.
“It’s definitely different from Latvia and Shreveport, but it’s good,” Grigals said. “I’m liking it here.”
UAF will look for its first win of the season when it hosts No. 3/5 St. Cloud State in its home opener at 7:07 p.m. Friday at the Carlson Center. The Nanooks and Huskies will close out the series at the same time Saturday back at the Carlson.
The Huskies, of Minnesota and the National Collegiate Hockey Conference, are ranked third in the USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine poll and fifth in the USCHO.com poll.
Contact News-Miner sports writer Brad Joyal at 459-7530. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMSportsGuy.