Monday’s preliminary round game at the World Junior Hockey Championship between the United States and Latvia showcased a pair of Leafs prospects from the 2015 draft, both taking to the Air Canada Centre ice for their first venture on the rink they each aspire to call home.
Jeremy Bracco, the outstanding Kitchener Rangers forward and second-round – 61st overall – NHL selection, scored once in the Americans’ 6-1 win. His power play tally late in the game came with Martins Dzierkals in the penalty box for Latvia.
Dzierkals (pictured) was taken in the third round in 2015, just seven spots after Bracco. The Rouyn-Noranda Huskies left winger has not played for his QMJHL team since November 25 due to an ankle injury. However, Dzierkals had a strong outing, as overmatched as his team was. Listed at 5-foot-11, Dzierkals didn’t hesitate in tussling in the corner with USA defender Caleb Jones. He also showed deft stickhandling ability, manoeuvring around Jordan Greenway to generate a scoring chance.
“It’s fun playing against a Leafs prospect,” Dzierkals said after the game. “It’s a wonderful feeling to play at the ACC. I was here at the World Cup of Hockey watching games, and it’s an amazing atmosphere.”
The Americans were surprisingly clinging to a mere one-goal lead at the midway point before taking over the game in the second half. While Bracco didn’t register his tally until the game was out of reach late in regulation, he used his remarkable vision in setting up his teammates for scoring chances, including a near miss by linemate Erik Foley.
Bracco, who posted a 26-game OHL scoring streak that ended in early December, is himself listed at a diminutive 5-foot-10. While it’s certainly premature to predict that Bracco will enjoy the same amount of success as last season’s CHL Player of the Year and current Leafs top-six forward Mitch Marner, the comparisons of the smallish forwards are inevitable.
“Anytime you’re a smaller guy, for a guy like (5-foot-10 Clayton Keller, Arizona) on our team, everybody’s going to have their doubts about you,”Bracco said. “You’ve got to prove that you can play, compared to a guy who’s 6-foot-5. Anybody who wants to be a player can be motivated anytime you step on the ice.”
Understandably Bracco was awestruck in his debut appearance on the home rink of the team that drafted him. “It’s awesome,” he said of skating at the ACC. “Watching some of my buddies play here now..it’s a historic franchise. It’s pretty cool to get my first taste of it, and it’s really exciting.”
In 2016, Rob wrote “Hockey’s Enforcers: A Dying Breed”, now available at Chapters and Indigo stores everywhere.