August 3rd, 2018, was the day the Toronto Maple Leafs invested in Kristiāns Rubīns.
That day, he joined the Newfoundland Growlers of the ECHL. And three years later, he’s footsteps away from making his childhood dream come true — to make the NHL.
Rubīns is everything you’d want in an NHL defenceman. He’s big at six-foot-five, but he has the mobility and speed to be good at both ends of the rink. The 23-year-old has come a long way since coming into the organization in 2018.
Born in Riga, Latvia, Rubīns left home at a young age. He first went to play in Sweden at 15-years-old, which is just across the Baltic Sea. Three years later, Rubīns went even farther from home, coming to Canada and playing for the WHL’s Medicine Hat Tigers.
He was 7,413 kilometres away from home.
“I think there isn’t about learning about myself, just about more maturing,” Rubīns said when asked about what he’s learnt most about himself since leaving home. “For my seventh year, I guess, obviously, you mature as yourself, and you learn things. But throughout the years, my family has always been around through the phone call helping me out. And I think it’s just all the maturity.”
Family is such a strong word. They’re there for you at your lowest points, but also a big reason why people have success today. For hockey players — especially one’s born in Europe — they have a dream of playing in the NHL.
And that means moving away from your family.
“It means everything. Without them, it would be a lot harder.” Rubīns said of the support from his family back in Latvia.
Now, he feels more at home than ever. The 23-year-old is on a Toronto Marlies team that’s incredibly close-knit. And he’s getting to live out his dream, which is to play hockey for the rest of his life.
But it’s not just the Marlies that are good to him. It’s the entire Leafs organization.
“I’m thankful, and the opportunity I got and where I am today, I’m just extremely thankful,” Rubīns said. “Also to the people that are near me, and, the staff here, and the players. Throughout the full organization, throughout my full four years, have been incredible. Something comes up, there’s always somebody to help from top to bottom. So, I’m just extremely fortunate to be here.”
Another step in Rubīns’ career was getting a call-up to the Leafs on November 4th. Although it was just for the day, the 23-year-old knew it was a step in the right direction.
He even got to see some old friends.
“Yeah, it was a morning skate that time when I was there. They didn’t have many guys up there. But yeah, I talked to Spezz a bit. Obviously, he’s really good guy. Just unbelievable veteran and somebody I looked up to, even though he’s a forward, it doesn’t matter.” Rubīns said with a chuckle. “And then, obviously, Jack Campbell. He was actually sitting right next to me. And we had a good laugh about, you know, a couple of games we had and a couple of games he had. So I mean, it was just an awesome opportunity to get to see them again after the training camp.”
That call-up, though, wasn’t just a coincidence. Part of it was likely for the experience of getting an NHL morning skate, but the other part was because he’s come a long way.
Rubīns is establishing himself as one of the more intriguing prospects within the Leafs organization. The 23-year-old has grown to be a more confident player who’s comfortable playing in the Marlies’ top-four.
“We see the same thing,” said Marlies head coach, Greg Moore on Rubīns. “He’s starting to just make things look simple, look easy, which they aren’t. Things that maybe two years ago, he would’ve struggled with is just now very simple parts of his game. It’s what he needs to continue to find his way to the next level, and I truly believe he’s knocking on the doorstep.”
How does Rubīns think of his year so far, though?
“Comparing to last year, I feel like my game has another level.” The 23-year-old said. “I think I found myself using a lot more of my body. My skating as well, and just being confident. It’s my third, almost third and a half year here, so just trying to do my best out there and be confident with it. And I feel like the game is following up with that. And, so far I’m happy with it. But overall, I think, personally speaking, I’m happy with my game. But like, there’s always a better me, and I know I have a next level.”
With a lot of their games during the weekend, Toronto usually has a few days throughout the week to work with development staff, which helps players, especially Rubīns.
He said there’s another level, but what does that level look like?
“Obviously, you want to get better at everything,” Rubīns said. “But I think when it comes to my game, it’s definitely consistency. Being consistent with my game throughout the full season. It’s obviously a tough thing to do. But that’s kind of like my focus. And obviously, besides that, skating, shooting, positioning, and all that kind of stuff just kind of adds up to it.”
Literally speaking, the 23-year-old is footsteps away from the NHL. The Marlies and Leafs practice across the hall from each other. When you have a goal like him, there are thoughts of getting there. To get to that goal, though, you have to be patient and in the moment.
“I mean, it’s the best organization in the NHL hands down,” Rubīns said of the Leafs organization. “So, I’m just fortunate to be here and be the one that’s got picked by them and signed by the Growlers at the start, and then obviously for the Marlies and everything. So, obviously, it’s an incredible feeling to be here. I enjoy every day here and when it comes to Leafs, it’s just a dream of mine. Till then, it’s just the hard work with myself, control what I can control, and do my best to hope for that.”
There are also the little moments. Rubīns is playing professional hockey as a career, and not many people get to live out that dream. Sometimes, it’s good to sit back and think about how far you’ve come.
“It’s huge.” Said the 23-year-old when thinking about where he is in his career. “I think you just have to understand it, like, how far you’ve gotten and how many people and kids want to be in your spot, and you just have to be proud of that and enjoy the moment.”
Rubīns is good at living in the moment. Back in October, the 23-year-old was one of three early selections to represent Latvia at the Olympics. He was asked whether he was excited but said his focus was on Marlies training camp.
I asked him the same question during my interview with him, and he provided a similar answer.
“I mean, still have a lot of time left,” Rubīns said. “It’s just there’s this, obviously, the dream you want to come true, but it’s only happening in February. So for now, just full focus is just getting better my personally and and as a team-wise, be with the Toronto Marlies here.”
2022 is right around the corner. The 23-year-old will be living out the dream of playing for his home country. And he may live out his other dream in the same year. One thing is for sure — that call-up earlier this season was an influential part of his journey.
“It’s an extra motivation for you and yourself to keep pushing. And, you know, there’s things you can’t control. But you can control yourself and your game. I’m just trying to be focused on that, enjoy the moment, and hopefully my dream comes true with the Leafs.”