Consider Darels’s father, Tomass, who was the first Latvian to win the World Cup in skeleton racing in 2004 and who competed at five Olympic Winter Games. Tomass came by his love of skeleton naturally. His father, Dainis, was a champion bobsledder in his own right in the 1980s, so it seemed reasonable for Tomass to jump on the speedy toboggan and fly down the hills at death-defying speeds just as his dad had.
Not so with Tomass’s son, Darels, though. As a young boy, Darels showed no interest in skeleton, and Tomass happily pushed him in the direction of hockey anyway.
“My father was a big fan of hockey,” 19-year-old Darels began. “He’s the reason I started playing. He didn’t care if I was interested in skeleton; he was a hockey man. He always hoped I’d be a hockey player, and I just fell in love with the game. I started skating when I was seven, and I was probably the worst skater on my team. I had to practise a lot to catch up with everyone’s skills, and when I had bad games, my dad always supported me and motivated me to continue. My father was my idol. He was always there for me. He always pushed me, and I always looked up to him, his work ethic.”
Darels not only liked the game; the game liked him back. He became a good skater and player, and he did so without much outside help or influence. “I just motivated myself to get better,” he continued. “I watched the Latvian games of the national team, but not really the NHL because they play in the middle of the night my time. I need to sleep!”
A year ago, he made Latvia’s U18 team that finished 9th in Texas, and in December he played on the U20 team that finished second in the Division I Group A. Belarus finished first, and when Russia and Belarus were suspended, Latvia was promoted to the top pool for August.
Meanwhile, Darels graduated from high school and began an apprenticeship at a sports school in Berne, but his goal for the immediate future is to play in the top league in Switzerland. “At the moment, I’m working on getting my Swiss ice hockey licence, so I can play there and not count as an import. That’s why I went there to play hockey,” he explained.
Darels gives a scouting report of himself as an all-around player, a two-way player rather than a superstar. “I think I can do a little bit of everything,” he explained. “I’m not just a scorer or playmaker; I’m something in between.”
For now, though, Darels and his teammates are locked in a battle they couldn’t have expected to be in when they arrived in Edmonton – a quarter-finals date with Sweden on Wednesday afternoon. They will be the prohibitive underdogs, but that hasn’t stopped them from advancing this far in what will be their most successful U20 showing ever, despite not even qualifying to play.
“The playoffs give us the chance to prove that we can beat difficult opponents, too,” Darels continued. “This success gives us motivation.”
And as he plays and tries to help the team, Darels knows his dad will be watching, cheering him on as always.
“He watches all my games,” Darels explained. “He facetimes me after the games, giving me his opinions, sometimes good, sometimes not so good. But he’s always supporting me.”