When the injury bug reared its ugly head last December in a game against the Vancouver Giants, Lauris Darzins did what many elite hockey players are wont to do. He played through the pain.
At the time, the 19-year-old Kelowna Rockets forward had already made a favorable impression in the Western Hockey League. Three months into his rookie season, the offensive catalyst felt he’d made progress in learning the North American style of play. He was also a couple of weeks away from a trip to Narva, Estonia, where he would play for the Latvian junior team in a qualifying tournament for the 2006 World Junior Championship.
“The first time I hurt [the shoulder] was right here in Kelowna,” Darzins explained. “And about a week later, I had to play in a World Junior tournament. I guess I just didn’t let the shoulder heal properly.”
The experience in Estonia was a positive one for Darzins, as he played on the first line for Team Latvia along with Guntis Derzins (playing professionally in Europe) and Martins Karsums (Moncton Wildcats, QMJHL; BOS). Oskars Bartulis (Moncton; PHI) played on defense. Darzins scored four goals and added six assists in five games, helping the club to win the group with a 4-1 record.
However, in a quirky hockey reality, Darzins, Karsums and Derzins will not be on the Latvian roster later this month when the junior team arrives in Canada. While they were eligible to play in the qualifying tournament last December, they no longer meet the age requirement to play in the 2006 WJC.
“Unfortunately, only about half the team is returning from last year,” Darzins sighed. “We are a small country, so I know many of the hockey players from back there. We are close, like a family. I know the coach really well. It’s sad I can’t play this year, we have lost our first line from last year.”
“It’ll be really tough for us to compete this year at the major junior level, but I hope the guys play well and I wish them luck.”
Following the successful trip abroad, the shoulder woes continued for Darzins.
“After I came back to Kelowna, I hurt it again in January. Then I had to miss three weeks to rehab. I couldn’t play. When I did return, I played through some minor pain. In the summer, I had some tests and the doctor said it is better to have surgery.”
Darzins went under the knife on Aug. 1 to repair the damage to his shoulder. Following the procedure, he knew he’d be out of the Rockets lineup until well into the 2005-06 regular season. In fact, Darzins has spent almost one-third off the schedule on the sidelines. His first game back was Nov. 23 against the Medicine Hat Tigers.
“It’s awesome to get back on the ice,” Darzins said. “I was waiting for the moment for about four months. I worked hard in the gym and then the same on the ice. I just wasn’t able to give or take any hits.”
According to Rockets assistant coach Kim Gellert, Darzins was a workhorse during practice sessions.
“Even when the team was on the road, Lauris was on the ice, usually for about 90 minutes every day,” Gellert recalled. “We really focused on conditioning and did a lot of work with the puck. When he started to shoot with velocity, he knew he was close to getting back in the game.”
Along with Darzins, Gellert kept busy on Rockets ice with forward Tyler Spurgeon (EDM) and defenseman Kyle Cumiskey (COL), who have also been sidelined with serious injuries.
“I’m ready now,” Darzins confirmed. “I knew I was in good condition. I did lots of jogging and biking in the gym, so that kind of helped me get back in the rhythm so I felt in good shape my first game back.”
In the game versus the Tigers, Darzins took a regular shift and played the point on the power play along side Alex Edler (VAN). His efficiency in delivering crisp passes was evident, perhaps somewhat surprising considering the lengthy layoff. Yet Darzins stepped right back into the flow, often dictating the play into the attacking zone against the top team in the WHL. Darzins was pivotal for the Rockets as they defeated Medicine Hat, 5-2.
The 20-year-old will be looked upon to provide offensive support in Kelowna. In retrospect, the shoulder injury may have actually served the Rockets well as Darzins had been determined to make an impression at the Predators training camp.
“I talk to Nashville a lot and they’re really happy I’m here to learn how to play the North American game,” explained Darzins. “If I didn’t have the surgery, I would have been at the NHL camp to at least try to make the American Hockey League team or even the Predators.”
“But I will stay here and continue to develop even more and then wait to see what happens next year. I talk with the Nashville scouting staff, we’ve met at some games here. They have told me to be patient and get the shoulder healed. They just ask that I keep working hard and keep improving.”
Darzins is an engaging interview, a very polite, confident and well-spoken young man who seems to have adjusted well to the North American lifestyle and his surroundings in Canada’s Okanagan Valley.
“I had played three seasons of junior hockey in Finland,” Darzins remembered. “I felt I played well and maybe did not have much more to prove there. I wanted to move on and my agent told me he could get me a place in the Canadian Hockey League.
“I was really excited because one of my buddies who plays in Moncton (Karsums) told me the CHL is a great place to come to develop and to get used to the North American game. When Nashville heard about it, they were really excited. So I had the chance to come to Kelowna because they drafted me. I was really happy because it was the year after they had won the Memorial Cup so I knew I would be with a great organization.
“It is a very different style of play here,” Darzins agreed. “It is much more physical, but the guys and the coaches have helped me to learn.
“I feel like I was able to get used to it very quickly.”
Copyright 2005 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.