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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Magnificent Mitens: How Lake Superior State Swept Bemidji State 2-0

(Photo Credit:Kelsey Lee from Violent Turtle Photography)

Last night at the Sanford Center, Lake Superior State faced a strong Bemidji State team lead by senior goaltender Michael Bitzer. The Lakers were coming off a strong 2-0 shutout of the Bemidji State Beavers on Friday night. Last night, they recived a superb 36 save shutout from freshman netminder Mareks Mitens, and a timely go-ahead goal from Max Humitz 1:14 into the second period plus an empty net power play insurance marker from Diego Cuglietta to provide the same result. Mitens finished the night with 36 saves, including stopping many high percentage shots from the low slot and just outside his crease.

 

This game had some themes running throughout it. The Beavers utilized their speed all night and forced the Lakers to play in their own zone the majority of the night. The shot attempts on the evening were 81-29 in favor of Bemidji State. The Lakers were able to counter this with strong defense and superb effort from Mitens. He did not look out of position on any of the saves he made all night. Mitens even anticipated multiple deflections coming from Beavers on the attack and set up well to stop them.

Mitens poke save

(Photo Credit:Kelsey Lee for Violent Turtle Photography)

Also, Lake Superior State skaters did a superb job of blocking shots, and clearing rebounds from in front of Mitens. On the night, the Lakers blocked 16 shots as a team. They were lead in that category by Colin Saccoman who finished the night with four blocks and a primary assist on the Max Humitz goal to earn third star honors on the evening. Mitens took home second star honors for the shutout, and Humitz earned first star honors for netting the game winning goal.

Another theme of the evening was the Lakers’ ability to counter Bemidji. Whenever there was a long sequence in the Lakers’ defensive zone, they were able to use some timely speed and smart puck decisions to clear the puck. They generated their best chances, including the Humitz goal in the second on the counter attack.

Also give credit to Lakers’ forward Yuki Miura. In only his third college hockey game, he played outstanding. On the top line, he generated the secondary assist on the Humitz goal. He found Saccoman who set up the Humitz goal.

Another thing that stood out to me was the main review of the game. It happened in the third period. The Beavers looked like they had scored. However, it was waved off  after a prompt review for goaltender interference. Leo Fitzgerald skated across the crease and bumped Mitens which prevented him from playing the puck. Mitens knew it and immediately voiced his concerns on the ice about it. To the officials’ credit, they quickly reviewed the play and got the call right.

Finally, Mitens played just as strong for the Lakers tonight as he did for team Latvia in the 2016 U18 Worlds when we first saw him. It would be smart for Latvia to consider taking Mitens to the IIHF World Championships in Denmark this spring. Mitens has shown he can withstand high shot volumes, and plays quite well regardless of the team in front of him. He kept the Lakers in this one last night, and should merit strong consideration for WCHA Rookie and Goaltender of the week.

We think that Mitens and his goalie colleague Nick Kossoff should share WCHA goaltender of the week honors. Combined they stopped all 64 shots faced on the weekend.

Next week, the Lakers look to vault themselves into a playoff spot with a crucial two game set on the road against Alaska Anchorage.

Below are the highlights from last night including the two Lake Superior State goals and the goaltender interference call which nullified Bemidji’s best chance of the evening.

Interview with Gustavs Grigals

Recently, we had the chance to catch up with another goalie from the Latvian side in the 20016 IIHF U18 World Championships. We have interviewed goalie Mareks Mitens  recently and we recently interviewed Gustavs Grigals.

Grigals was named one of the top three players for the Latvian side at the tournament and his combined efforts with Mitens helped the Latvian side avoid relegation in a harrowing three game series against Denmark.

This past season, Grigals was outstanding for his HK Riga side in the Russian Junior League (MHL). The net minder had a 2.36 Goals Against average and a sterling 92.6 save percentage. In addition, Gustavs helped the Latvia U20 side gain promotion to the World Juniors Championship being held in Montreal and Toronto this upcoming December.

Below are Grigals’ answers to our questions.

What is your favorite memory of the season?

“My favorite memory is a game in the Russian Junior Hockey League (MHL) against the league champions “Loko” from Yaroslavl where I was able to save all 40 shots. Also, I have good memories about the World Junior Championship Division 1 in Austria where we won and got promoted to the 2017 World Junior Championship.”

What was favorite thing you did in grand forks besides playing hockey?

“We did not have a lot of spare time, but with the time I had I enjoyed seeing the local college life and exploring the city.”

What are your pro hockey goals for next year and beyond?

“I want to play at a high level and become a stable and good goalie whilst getting good education. Also, I want to make the U20 team and play in the World Championships in Toronto.”

What where your thoughts on the overall tournament experience in Grand Forks?

“It was a well organized and overall a great tournament. It was an excellent experience to play against the world’s best players and teams.”

What NHL goalie do you model your game after?

“I try to watch every goalie and pick something from everyone. I love watching some goalies like, Carey Price because he is very calm and skilled and Jonathan Quick because he is flexible and quick.”

What was your favorite aspect of your team at the tournament this year?

“I liked that we were like a family. The players really helped each other and the goalies. They blocked many shots and sacrificed themselves for the team.”

What is your favorite non hockey hobby?

“In my free time, I love to spend some time with my family and friends, go to the school and try to relax. I also enjoy spending time with my dog and teaching it new commands.”

What is the biggest improvement to your game you have made in the past year?

“The biggest improvement for me this season was that I started to play at a higher level as I was able to play in the U18 and U20 world championships in the same season. It inspired me to work harder, to become better every day. I believe that if you work hard good things will happen.”

 

Stats: http://www.eliteprospects.com/player.php?player=280628