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Crouse chose hockey despite baseball upbringing

by Adam Kimelman

MIAMI -- Kingston Frontenacs left wing Lawson Crouse looked pretty comfortable Wednesday in the right-handed batter's box at Marlins Park, wearing a No. 67 Miami Marlins jersey.

Crouse was the only one of the six 2015 NHL Draft prospects to hit a home run during batting practice, clearing the fence in right field.

The 6-foot-4, 215-pound forward could be a top-five pick when the first round of the draft is held Friday in Sunrise, Fla. (7 p.m. ET; NBCSN, SN, TVA Sports). But if Crouse's grandfather had his way, Lawson would be swinging a baseball bat full time, not a hockey stick.

Crouse shares a first name with his grandfather as well as a passion for sports. But for the elder Lawson, his sport was baseball and his favorite team was the Montreal Expos. Mike Crouse, the younger Lawson's father and elder Lawson's son, said as a youngster vacations with his father would include ballpark trips, including one road trip to Riverfront Stadium, former home of the Cincinnati Reds.

As the younger Lawson grew up excelling as a first baseman and third baseman, his grandfather was happy.

"He never pushed me," Crouse said. "I think he wanted me to play. He supported me no matter what. He was always at my games; he was always sitting on the sidelines, watching down the foul line."

Crouse said he enjoyed the camaraderie that baseball brought, as well as the change of pace from being constantly on skates.

"When you get the chance to play a different sport and do something different and juggle a few things around it's pretty fun," Crouse said. "Being out on the field; it's fun to hang around with a different bunch of guys. At the end of the day it's a lot of fun."

Crouse also excelled at hockey and lacrosse. But when he turned 15 he realized the fun of playing three sports was over; if he wanted to be a professional athlete he had to pick one sport.

Hitting home runs was something he enjoyed, but scoring goals took priority.

"At 15 you're going into your [Ontario Hockey League] draft year," Crouse said. "Obviously you've got to focus on training. It becomes a year-round thing to do, whether it's on the ice or in the gym. If you want to pursue a career in something you have to be all the way in."

And Crouse was all the way in with hockey. He said his grandfather supported the decision, but a bit begrudgingly.

"When I gave it up I do think he was a little bit disappointed," Crouse said. "He wasn't frustrated with me, because he was supporting me as my grandfather. But he did love the game [baseball], just like I love hockey now."

The decision has worked out. As a burgeoning star power forward with the Elgin-Middlesex minor-hockey program, Crouse was selected by Kingston with the fifth pick of the 2013 OHL draft.

This season, he led Kingston with 29 goals and 51 points in 56 games, and he had three points in seven games to help Canada win the gold medal at the 2015 IIHF World Junior Championship. NHL Central Scouting has Crouse at No. 5 in its final ranking of North American skaters for the 2015 draft.

"I think you'd have to be nuts not to take Crouse [near the top of the first round]," NHL Central Scouting's Chris Edwards said. "To get a guy this size ... I haven't seen a guy who physically dominates opponents like this since Eric Lindros. He can drop the shoulder and take the puck to the net. I realize there are other skilled guys in this draft class and guys who have over 100 points, but Crouse was close to being a point-a-game guy."

And because of his hockey skill he was back in a ballpark, swinging a bat for the first time in a while. In addition to taking some cuts before the Marlins' game against the St. Louis Cardinals, he got to talk to a few of the Marlins players, among them outfielders Ichiro Suzuki and Giancarlo Stanton.

While Crouse marveled at their abilities, he's happier on the ice, even if his grandfather would have liked him to stay on the diamond.

"I love to play hockey and that's what I dreamed of doing as a kid," Crouse said. "I never dreamed of being an MLB player. Hockey was the path for me to take."


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