ST. PAUL -- Tom Kurvers spent 10 seasons in the Tampa Bay Lightning front office, first as assistant general manager followed by seven years (2011-2018) as senior advisor to the general manager. So when Wild general manager Paul Fenton tabbed the Minneapolis native as his first assistant GM, it was no coincidence that the team pursued and signed free agent J.T. Brown just five days later.
"In some of these cases you need to have a relationship and a little knowledge on a player," Kurvers said. "You seek that out and I knew him so I was pro J.T Brown."
The relationship between the two goes back to the 2010-11 season, Brown's freshman year at Minnesota Duluth. Kurvers followed the Burnsville native and former Rosemount, Minn. high school star closely through a 37-point (16-21=37) rookie campaign capped off by UMD winning the Frozen Four at Xcel Energy Center with Brown named the tournament's Most Outstanding Player.
Brown followed that up with a 47-point (24-23=47) sophomore season and led the Bulldogs back to the brink of the Frozen Four before a 4-0 loss to Boston College in the Northeast Regional final shattered their dreams of a championship repeat. With several NHL suitors pursuing him, the undrafted free agent was left with a difficult decision but he chose to sign with Tampa and Kuvers, himself a former UMD star and the 1984 Hobey Baker Award recipient.
"We chased him hard through his sophomore year and he followed it up with a really good season," Kurvers said. "At that point in time we had an opportunity to offer him in Tampa. We were in the process of building what became a pretty strong team and he found a role."
Brown went on to play a valuable role on a Lightning team that reached the 2015 Stanley Cup Final with 15 blocked shots and 40 hits in 24 postseason games.
But his role in Tampa diminished and, after a brief stop in Anaheim last season, Brown took advantage of the opportunity to return home on July 1 when he agreed to terms with Minnesota on a two-year, $1.375 million contract.
"I think every kid growing up thinks about one day being able to play for your hometown team and to be able to make that a reality is pretty special," the 28-year-old Brown said. "To put on the sweater and get to play in a building where I've had success before and probably, to this moment, one of the highlights of my career."
Brown's illustrious high school career at Rosemount included 140 points (75-65-140) over three years and culminated with a senior year in which he led the Irish to a 20-win season. The icing on the cake came when Brown was distinguished with the honor of becoming the first African-American to be nominated as a Mr. Hockey Finalist in Minnesota.
The points have become more difficult to come by at each level but he's worked hard over the years to adjust his game and be an asset to his team in any way he can.
"What he has are NHL attributes of speed and hockey sense," Kurvers said. "He's added a layer of grit and tenacity to his game to adjust, to keep himself in the NHL, and he's done a nice job with that."
While Kurvers knows what he has in Brown, he comes to training camp tasked with impressing a new set of eyes in Wild coach Bruce Boudreau and his staff.
"The main thing is just focusing on using my speed, using my physical presence, making sure I'm getting to the front of the net," Brown said of his focus in camp. "You can only control yourself so I can control how hard I work and that's one staple that I've used over the last years."
Boudreau got his first taste of Brown in a game situation in Saturday afternoon's scrimmage between Groups B and C of the Wild's training camp roster following Group A's open practice in front of fans in the morning.
"I saw the speed, the tenacity," Boudreau said. "I thought he made smart decisions out there. Those are things that you go, 'Ok, yeah, now I see the experience why they liked that guy.'"
Brown said it was good to get out there in the scrimmage format but added nothing equates to a real opponent. He found value in the experience nonetheless.
"Just getting into the flow, thinking about the systems and the way that we need to play the game," Brown said. "It's nice to get out there and actually practice it."
Kurvers says Brown's ability to land a spot on the Wild's opening-night roster hinges on his ability to, "play with energy and speed that defines fourth liners in this league."
But Kurvers added, "If there's an opportunity due to injury or his performance is higher than that, then he can earn more ice time."
Brown has plenty of motivation to become a fixture in Minnesota's lineup with so many friends and family surrounding him for the first time in his NHL career.
"Just being able to be around your family whereas before you get to see them in the three months over the summer and maybe once during the season," Brown said. "Family is a very important part of my life so to be able to be closer to them and still pursuing my dreams is pretty awesome."