World junior championship 2017 preview: Latvia

Martins Dzierkals hopes his experience at the Memorial Cup and Maple Leafs camp can help Latvia at the world juniors.

Latvia | Group B | Roster
With the benefit of hindsight, Martins Dzierkals can thank his big brothers.

Dzierkals would often take on his two older siblings – one a defenseman, the other a goalie – while growing up in Latvia. The results were seldom favorable.

“I remember when I was younger they didn’t help me at that moment,” he said. “I know they’ve helped me right now because they never let me win.”

Dzierkals, 19, has emerged as a top offensive threat in his second season with the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies. At 5-foot-11 and 173 pounds, Dzierkals paces the attack for the defending champs. As someone who loves having the puck on his stick, Dzierkals now tries to mimic NHL stars like Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin.

“He’s got some good skills, speed,” said Drummondville Voltigeurs coach Dominique Ducharme. “He’s a guy that can put the puck in the net.”

As Canada’s coach at the WJC, Ducharme will see Dzierkals in Toronto during group play. Latvia qualified for the tourney by winning the Div. I title in Austria last December. Dzierkals, a left winger, had a goal and four points in five games. Latvia has 11 eligible players returning from that squad, Dzierkals being one of the leaders.

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Appearances at the 2016 Memorial Cup final and Toronto Maple Leafs camp in the fall are experiences that will help him at this tournament.

As a child, he idolized Latvian blueliner Sandis Ozolinsh and goaltender Arturs Irbe. “My brothers already got those positions,” he said jokingly. “I had to be different.”

Dzierkals ended up with quality in-house opposition, as his oldest brother, Kaspars, 27, is a pro goalie in Latvia. Though Martins didn’t end up playing the positions his idols did, his brothers helped turn him into the physical forward he is today. “When I was younger I was crying and pissed off,” Dzierkals said. “But they taught me I had to fight to win. That’s a big reason why I am who I am right now.”

– Daniel Nugent-Bowman