You don’t often see 24 different penalties handed out in a game. Even at Gatineau’s famed Robert Guertin Centre, home to the Olympiques, deafening noise, and raining beers, there’s seldom 56 penalty minutes given out.
But on the last day of the regular season, with the CHL’s top team in Gatineau to play the QMJHL’s third best team, the scene was set for anger -- even in an arena where boiling is the base temperature. As Gatineau sat out its captain (Nashville Predators prospect Alexandre Carrier) and its leading scorer (top 2016 NHL Draft prospect Vitalii Abramov), new faces populated the lineup without names on their jerseys and anything to lose.
At the centre of it all, a slender rookie whose birthplace is plainly listed as "Latvia" on game sheets – presumably because it’s understood that nobody knows where Ogre, home to less than 30,000 people as of its last census, is.
Less than a year ago, when Martins Dzierkals was selected in the third round of the NHL Draft by the Leafs, few knew who he was, let alone where he was from.
He had never played hockey in North America.
"It’s completely different hockey than in Europe," Dzierkals said after a 4-0 win over the Olympiques. "It’s completely different, it’s faster, it’s more physical, you have to dump and chip the puck, it’s not like in Europe where we have bigger ice rinks, more space, more time, so here it’s less everything."
But the physicality certainly hasn’t proven to be an issue.
Dzierkals, 13th on his Huskies team in penalty minutes, brought the physicality to the league’s most physical team.
After setting up a play that led to Rouyn-Noranda’s opening goal, Dzierkals created several chances off the rush and on the forecheck before taking the puck end-to-end and past two defensemen to draw a penalty in the first period.
In the second period, Dzierkals drew two more penalties; falling to the ice to on back-to-back shifts on violent hits against the boards while he controlled the puck, giving his team a 5-on-3 that they would capitalize on while he was winded.
On his next shift, as boos chorused from the crowd every time he touched the puck, having drawn three penalties, Dzierkals instigated a line brawl after a high hit.
Out of it, came seven penalties, a bloodied ice surface, missing teeth, a two-minute penalty to Rouyn-Noranda goalie Chase Marchand for attempting to start a fight with Gatineau goalie Mark Grametbauer.
For Dzierkals’ part, it meant the first of two roughing penalties and an ovation from his teammates as he returned to the bench.
The other roughing penalty came shortly after serving his first, when he exchanged punches after the whistle with San Jose draftee Gabryel Paquin-Boudreau and was sent to the dressing room before the end of the second period.
When the game calmed, he had drawn five penalties, taken two, nearly instigated a goalie fight, and turned a second and third period into perpetual post-whistle scrums (there were five penalties taken in the last minute of the third period too).
And while he didn’t score, he dictated the game offensively and physically.
With it, his first season in North America came to an end with 67 points in 59 games.
And he’s happy with his decision.
"I think I did a great step moving to North America to play here," he said. "It’s been a great year."
Of the tone he brought to the game, Dzierkals acknowledged that nobody can always keep his calm.
"It happens sometimes," he said with a smile. "Sometimes you get mad but it was playoff game so there will be games like that for sure because our team is getting ready for the playoffs and there will be parts when you have to be physical and I’ll do it – there’s no problem with that."
Still, he knows where his strengths lie.
"People talk about me as a fast player," he said. "I can be fast and explosive."
Rouyn-Noranda head coach Gilles Bouchard is resolute about his star forward.
"He plays fucking hard," Bouchard said, shaking his head.
And the physical play isn’t new. Bouchard has been pushing the team to be more physical since Christmas. If they’re going to go all the way in the playoffs, they’re going to need to be physical, he said.
And Dzierkals has bought into that new style.
"He’s shifty left to right, good speed, he likes to go into traffic, and he’s a gritty player – he’s a skilled player but at the same time he’s fast and gritty."
Moving forward, Dzierkals is confident Rouyn-Noranda can do more than win the QMJHL title. He thinks they’re capable of winning the Memorial Cup.
"We have a really great team," he said. "The best team I’ve ever had."
The Leafs have kept a close eye on his progress, and regularly go to his games or keep in touch via emails and text messages.
Recently, the Leafs sent him "all kinds" of Toronto Marlies players’ isolation videos that outlined how to improve his skating (already his biggest strength). They’ve also sent him explanations on ideal shift length. Via email, the team outlined to him that optimal shift lengths are less than 40 seconds.
Before Dzierkals sets his sights on the NHL level, he’s got an exciting Spring ahead of him. Rouyn-Noranda is the No. 1 ranked team in the CHL. After securing a 4-0 win to improve to 54-9-5 on the season, they’re riding a 14-game winning streak into the QMJHL playoffs.
And if Dzierkals’ coach or his final game of the regular season is any indication, he’s key to their success.
"Marty is unbelievable. Unbelievable."