TORONTO – Martins Dzierkals is hoping to use the adversity of two separate ankle injuries as a learning experience as he looks to take the next step in his hockey career. The Toronto Maple Leafs prospect had sprained his left ankle prior to the 2017 IIHF World Junior Championship and his right ankle just before the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League playoffs.
Despite the injuries, the 20-year-old scored at a point a game pace registering 49 points in 47 games in his second season with the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies. He added two assists in six playoff games.
“It was good, but it was not as good as the year before because we didn’t win the (league) this year, but for me, it was a little bit tougher too ‘cause I had to go through two ankle injuries, but that’s experience and I’m going to learn from it,” Dzierkals said at Toronto’s recent development camp. “(This season) was a little bit tougher, but that’s experience. You learn. Now I know what it’s like… for myself, I didn’t have injuries when I was younger so that’s experience. You have to learn from everything.”
Dzierkals also had an opportunity to represent Latvia at the World Juniors where he scored a goal and two assists in six games while getting an opportunity to play at Toronto’s Air Canada Centre – home to the Maple Leafs.
“It was fun. It didn’t turn out as well because we lost the tournament, but still for us, for Latvia, it’s a big thing and it’s a good experience for all of the guys ‘cause a lot of guys haven’t played in that high of competition – we’re playing against the best Under-20 guys in the world,” Dzierkals said. “The team I was drafted by, and I knew I’m going to play in ACC so I was kind of preparing for that, it was a lot of fun. I scored a goal there so it felt amazing – hopefully that’s not the last goal there.”
Drafted by the Maple Leafs in the third round (68th overall) at the 2015 NHL Draft, Dzierkals made the decision to move from his family home in Riga, Latvia to Rouyn-Noranda, Quebec, prior to the 2015/16 season.
Though he admits there were minor adjustments in the game, Dzierkals adapted quickly scoring 24 goals and 67 points in 59 games – good for third in team scoring.
“I heard about it before I came there and it’s a really good and skilled league,” said Dzierkals, who admits he wasn’t surprised by his instant production. “I was really happy about my choice going there, the CHL, and I think in my career, it helped me a lot.”
Born in Ogre, Latvia and raised in Riga, Dzierkals has eight siblings: three older sisters, two older brothers and three younger sisters. Despite the difference in position, Dzierkals grew up idolizing countryman Sandis Ozolins and also kept a close eye on Pittsburgh Penguins star Sidney Crosby, but it was Jaromir Jagr that he really tried to emulate.
“Jaromir Jagr was like the big guy,” Dzierkals said. “He’s still playing, but he was the best. His long hair when he was young, I even tried to grow my hair like his, just to play like him.”
When it came time to making a decision to move to Quebec, and join the Huskies, who selected Dzierkals 22nd overall at the 2015 CHL Import Draft, he had no shortage of advisors.
“I had hockey friends who played on my national team so I was consulting, asking questions to everyone,” he said. “Even my Latvian friends who played in the QMJHL before, I was asking, ‘How is it there?’ My agent for sure, we all combined with my family and everything made the decision that it would be a good thing to go there.”
Dzierkals had success on the ice in Rouyn-Noranda, but admitted life off the ice was quite different. He credited his billet family, an English-speaking family, for making the transition a smooth one.
“It was interesting, I was 18-years-old when I left my family, it was kind of hard because I have a big family, I have six sisters and two brothers,” said Dzierkals. “It was a kind of tough move away from my friends and family, but they treated me really well and I felt like family there too.
“It was smaller because I lived in Riga ‘cause that’s the Latvian capital city. It was smaller and it was all French. The difference between my town where I live in Riga, there’s only apartments in the downtown, and (in Rouyn), there was only houses so that was the first thing I saw.”
Away from the rink and the game of hockey Dzierkals says he’s recently taken up the game of tennis with his siblings.
“This summer I found that I love tennis,” he said. “I tried it one time this summer for the first time, and after that, I’m so addicted to tennis. Right now, in Wimbledon, the big tournament, there are Latvians who are doing really good too.”
With two seasons in North America under his belt, Dzierkals is now gaining a better understanding of what he needs to do to make the jump to the next level, the American Hockey League, and the Toronto Marlies.
Participating at the Leafs development camp three straight years has allowed the five-foot-11, 173-pound winger the opportunity to learn from Marlies coach Sheldon Keefe.
“I played in two rookie tournaments and he was there,” Dzierkals said. “I’m trying to listen to what advice he’s giving to me ‘cause for sure I have so many things to improve as a player.”
One thing the Leafs have told Dzierkals to do is watch fellow prospect Andreas Johnsson. The 22-year-old Swedish forward has spent last year with the Marlies after playing three seasons of professional hockey in the SHL with Frolunda Gothenburg.
“I’m watching Andreas Johnsson, ‘cause the Leafs have told me that I’m kind of similar to his game so I’m looking at how he’s playing,” Dzierkals said. “He’s a good guy for sure, I know him. If I’m going to ask him (for advice), he’s going to tell me for sure.”
Dzierkals has one year of eligibility left with the QMJHL’s Huskies, but is hoping to turn pro and join the Leafs organization. After a good rookie tournament with the Leafs he was signed to an AHL contract with the Marlies where he hopes to make his debut in a pro league.
“For sure I would love to play for the Marlies or (the Leafs),” he said.