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Toronto Maple Leafs left winger Fraser McLaren (38) knocks Ottawa Senators left winger Dave Dziurzynski out during a fight in first period NHL action in Toronto on Wednesday March 6, 2013. (FRANK GUNN/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Toronto Maple Leafs left winger Fraser McLaren (38) knocks Ottawa Senators left winger Dave Dziurzynski out during a fight in first period NHL action in Toronto on Wednesday March 6, 2013. (FRANK GUNN/THE CANADIAN PRESS)


The NHL’s line of duty and the story of David Dziurzynski Add to ...

David’s easy-going personality and team-oriented values made him friends wherever he played. Even after he was sent down to Binghamton, teammate Hugh Jessiman recalls him putting other players at their ease by cracking jokes about the McLaren fight.

“It shows you how loose he is,” says Jessiman, a 6-foot-6 Dartmouth College alumnus. “Obviously he’s a tough kid, but he’s also humble. He keeps things light in the locker room and he’s a great teammate. He’s a guy who definitely has some edge to his game, and he’s a popular guy because he’ll stick up for his teammates, he’s 100-per-cent watching out for everybody.”

These are traits that are essential for team-bonding at the professional level, and may be overlooked by casual fans mesmerized by the flashy skater or the booming shot. But even hockey’s best talent evaluators missed out on David Dziurzynski.

By the age of 19, when Canadian players with a discernible future have already been selected by NHL teams, David was getting ready to call it quits. He’d never been drafted by a top-level major-junior team or recruited by a U.S. college, the usual feeders for the NHL. For two years he’d played for his hometown Lloydminster Bobcats, a lower-tier junior team, but chafed at the goon role he’d had to take on.

His mother wanted him to stay in Lloyd. She’d hated seeing Darian disappear at the age of 16, when he climbed on a bus with a newly bought suit to join the Saskatoon Blades. She was only slightly mollified when her youngest child told her, “This is what I’ve wanted since I was a boy.”

Those hockey dreams were disappearing for David. But he so despised his role in Lloydminster that, with just one year of junior eligibility remaining, he orchestrated a trade to the Alberni Valley Bulldogs in the British Columbia Junior League.

“I didn’t have any plans,” he says with a laugh. “I was just going there to get away from home and grow up a little bit.”

He’d never been much of a student. So the idea that he’d put in the hockey version of a gap year, see the world beyond Lloyd just a bit, and then return home to work with his father in the oil fields or maybe ship off to Fort McMurray, had its appeal. He’d held physically demanding summer jobs since the age of 15 and knew he could handle himself in man’s work even if he didn’t like it much.

But something happened in Port Alberni. The coach took a liking to him and put him on the top line with two talented brothers, Mitch and Mark MacMillan. That vote of confidence changed everything for the quiet player with a strong self-critical streak – he still seeks his father’s reassuring counsel when times are tough.

Hockey was fun for the first time in years. Instead of being typecast as a dead-end enforcer, he was able to stay out of trouble and prove he could be dangerous around the net, tallying 93 points over 70 games, while showing surprising technical virtuosity by playing first unit on both the power play and the penalty kill. A classic late-bloomer, he’d kept growing in his late teens, topping out at 6-foot-3. Scouts start with the raw numbers, and a big player with gaudy stats is going to get noticed.

Although the Tier-II leagues are obviously a cut below in terms of overall ability, they attract some good young players who want to pursue the college route to the NHL, since U.S. collegiate rules on amateur status regard the major-junior leagues as professional. They attract scouts for the same reason, and 17-year-old Mark MacMillan was definitely on the radar.

David never talked to an NHL scout but U.S. college teams started to pay attention, only to be discouraged by his bad high-school grades. The Bulldogs’ education adviser, Tom McEvay, who specializes in finding scholarships for hockey players, took an interest in him and had him tested. David, it was determined, had a learning disability, a useful discovery that made him newly eligible for U.S. colleges.

But only under conditions designed to get David’s learning skills up to speed: “I had to redshirt if I went the school route,” he says. “No practice, no skating, take a year off hockey. I didn’t really know if I wanted to do that.”

A good season came to an end, and David left at the beginning of April with his head held high, encouraged by his coach’s advice that he just might be able to catch on in the East Coast Hockey League, a feeder program that is essentially a job fair for players on professional hockey’s margins.

He was driving back to Lloyd when he got a call from Jeff Helperl: A couple of NHL teams had spotted him in Port Alberni and were making inquiries. David and Jeff agreed on a noon deadline just to gauge the seriousness of their interest. At 12:15 he learned that Ottawa was willing to offer him a three-year deal.

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