BLAINE -- Known as one of the American Hockey League's toughest players, Kurtis Gabriel has earned every inch of his sandpaper reputation. But surrounded by nearly 100 kids last week at the Wes Walz Hockey School, Gabriel was able to show off his softer side.
A favorite of teammates inside the dressing rooms of both Iowa and Minnesota over the past few seasons, Gabriel quickly gained a following among the youngsters in the group, deftly answering even the most difficult inquiries:
"Do you still have all your real teeth?"
"How many fights have you won?"
"How did you learn to fight?"
After gamely answering the questions, Gabriel takes a minute for a public-service announcement. The gist of it? Fighting is being phased out of the game, and when he does fight he assumes the risk of injury. Players without training -- and especially young players, like his audience -- should never, ever fight.
The kids sagely nod, and Walz carefully steers further questions away from the topic of dropped mitts.
Even though fighting is what Gabriel is known for, he's looking to become a better all-around player and continue to develop the other aspects of his game. After a summer of balancing relaxation, including trips to Italy and Cuba, along with some intense training, Gabriel believes he's already made improvements.
"I think my skating's at a good level now," he said. "I just gotta keep up the puck work … and show that I can handle any situation they're gonna throw me into out there and they can trust me."
In addition to working on his skating, Gabriel also has leaned up, dropping down to 205 pounds and maintaining a more balanced diet.
At 24, Gabriel has just come off his three-year entry-level contract and was given a qualifying offer, officially re-signing with the Wild in July. That vote of confidence by the organization, along with his continual desire to improve, provided motivation.
"I'm happy to get back to work," Gabriel said. "I know the team's looking good again. [I'll] try to show as well as I can and if I'm not up there then [I'll] try to have more of a role in Iowa this year."
With both tempered expectations and heightened goals for his play in Minnesota and Iowa, Gabriel wants to make a bigger impact no matter where he lands.
"If I get some games up [in Minnesota] that would be great -- it's nice -- but if I have a larger role in Iowa and both teams are doing well, then that can't be bad either. I'm gonna get better either way."
Aware of the uphill climb to make the Minnesota roster out of training camp, Gabriel has tried to maximize his time in the Twin Cities this offseason. This was his second year of volunteering at Walz's school, and just a few weeks ago he met with military families through a partnership with United Heroes League.
Video: Kurtis Gabriel meets UHL families at SMAAASH
As a kid, Gabriel never had a chance to meet a professional hockey player of any level. "I think the local junior-A team was like a big deal to me; I got a jersey one time when I won chuck-a-puck," he said.
By going out into the community here, he hopes he can impact the young players of today by sharing his story and reminding them what he says is really important:
"Have fun, keep enjoying hockey but believe in yourself when stuff gets tough," Gabriel said. "I mean, it's cliché stuff, but it's what life's all about."