Karlis Zirnis: Creating a Path at UAH Hockey

Photo Credit: UAH Athletics

Karlis Zirnis is the Associate Head Coach for Alabama Huntsville Hockey, and a proud alumnae of the program. The Riga, Latvia native is also a passionate advocate for development and genuinely enjoys recruiting the type of player that this program will need to succeed. He has coached internationally for Latvia, including at the 2014 Sochi Olympics.

First, he got to Huntsville to play ice hockey through hard work and persistence. He wrote to every program he could in hopes of playing beyond the end of his junior career. Only one program gave him a chance. Former head coach Doug Ross sent him an admission application. Karlis was able to apply and get to Huntsville. The path was not done, as he had to redshirt as a walk on and spent the year getting better. Every day he had to prove that he belonged in Huntsville and he did just that. Zirnis went on to play four years as a Charger finishing with 119 points (73 assists, 46 goals) in 143 games, and finished his time as an on ice leader for the Chargers.

After playing in various minor leagues around North America, Karlis returned to the Southern Professional League’s Huntsville Havoc to finish his playing career. In his last full season, he was the on-ice leader as captain of the Havoc.

He then worked his way up the coaching ladder to where he is now. Along the way, Karlis has instilled his persistence and work ethic in every player he has coached along the development ladder. In addition, the network of relationships has already paid dividends for this program. Not being able to see Tyrone Bronte in person this year, he harkened back to his time with the Shreveport Mudbugs in the North American Hockey League coaching against Bronte in the semifinals. He knew Bronte’s coach with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Knights and was able to kickstart the conversation about Tyrone with West which eventually lead to Bronte becoming a Charger.

Once the Associate job opened at Huntsville Lance West called Karlis first. The fit was natural given that West had coached Karlis on Ross’s staff and that they had a working relationship for years after that. In addition, both men have similar philosophies on coaching and what they want to see in a recruit, especially a recruit in building a program in their image of hard work and selflessness.

Zirnis does spend a lot of time developing defenders on the team, and is the architect behind the idea to play Ayodele (Ayo) Adeniye and Bryan Scoville together. As he noted, their statistics prove they are a shutdown pair, and they play well off each other, along with being on their strong sides. It was clear to Zirnis as soon as they stepped on the ice, and the pair has continuing chemistry as a potential shutdown pair for UAH in the years ahead. They have the size and mentality needed to clear net-fronts so goalies can make stops easier, and to limit rebound goals that have plagued prior Chargers teams of recent memory.

Karlis also runs the penalty kill which he likes to mirror the personality of the team. That is they are, as he said, “relentless and unafraid and [when playing well together will] outwork the power play.” The Chargers have been doing that through the help of Karlis and the speed they all bring to the table. All of the returners seem to have picked up more speed, and every freshman in this class can skate well.

Relating to another member of the team, Carmine Guerriero , Zirnis also noted that the assistant coach is “more than a goalie guy.” Carmine gives a netminder’s perspective to Karlis’ special teams work to start, he knows what UAH hockey has been as a netminder, and actively helps to maintain the new culture of Charger Hockey. Carmine also is the head social media manager, among the many hats he wears, and liaison between administration and the staff. Throughout this interview, the amount of things each coach does in college was referenced including the copious administrative work needed for any program to function. Carmine handles the bulk of that as he looks to start as a paid assistant coach at the same place where he became one of the most influential netminders in this program’s history.

Another area Karlis meshes in this program is in the type of player he looks to recruit. Hardworking players that, like so many current Chargers, can be overlooked by other programs for the roles they deserve a chance to compete for are on the top of his list. Finding all of these attributes is an ongoing work for Karlis, who watched countless hours of video on the 12 freshmen whom they offered to make up most of their recruiting class. Between video and the extensive network of relationships he has built, the Chargers have pipelines to places now that they may not have had before.

For instance, given Karlis’ work with the Latvian Junior team, and the expansion of Latvian players in college hockey, it makes natural sense that UAH fans could see some more Latvian players in Huntsville soon, Relating to the broader international hockey landscape, he is a fierce advocate for showcasing college hockey abroad, helping international players navigate the tough admission process of UAH, and giving them the tools to keep their grades where they need to be.

As recruiting is an ongoing battle, and given the unprecedented year we are in, Karlis has helped the Chargers, pending admission, get a player to join them for the second semester from an unnamed school. Given the recent decision by the NCAA to grant immediate eligibility to Division One Student Athletes who transfer for this year only, this addition may not be the last we see for the Chargers over the holiday season.

Going forward Karlis sees the inherent value in the advisory board. He noted the expanded relationships of everyone in the group giving UAH acess to things it has not had before, Karlis was also complimentary of the administration at Alabama Huntsville for giving their full support to the team looking to add games in the second half of the season.

To sum all of this up, the grand plan for UAH Hockey is quite simple. Zirnis put it best saying, “we are not in this to survive, we want to make sure we are competing to win a championship.”

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