It doesn’t take a Princeton graduate to tell you hockey and wrestling are very different sports. It might take one to find the similarities, though.
“It’s this mentality that I had back in the day as a wrestler,” said Mike Kramer, former Princeton forward and current Wild Development Camp invitee. “My dad was a wrestler, and he’d always say, ‘Whoever gives up first loses. Once you hang that towel up, you have no shot.'
“You can always do better, you can always improve and learn from great people.”
Even though Kramer swapped his singlet for skates a long time ago, the St. Paul native has used his motto from the mats to pave an unconventional path on the ice -- from Como Park to the Ivy League, all the way to Xcel Energy Center this week as an unsigned player trying to get noticed by the Minnesota Wild’s front office and coaching staff.
The sessions in St. Paul -- both on and off the ice -- feature guys like Mikael Granlund
, Jonas Brodin
, Zack Phillips
, Johan Larsson
, Jason Zucker
and Mario Lucia
, all players taken by the Wild in the first or second round of the last two NHL Entry Drafts.
Kramer’s situation is a bit different. Yet, that's been the case throughout his career, the 23-year-old is out to show he belongs.
“Being from Como Park, there was always people questioning you on whether you could make it to the next level,” he said. “It’s one of those things you have to overcome, and the only way to do that is through work ethic and through character and making yourself a better player.”
The Como Kid
Growing up a wrist shot away from the Minnesota State Fairgrounds, Kramer worked hard to improve his skills.
“Just snapping off shots” is still one of Kramer’s favorite things about playing hockey.
Skating in on goal during a shootout drill Wednesday at Xcel, he showed why, ripping a shot into the top right corner over the outstretched glove of top goaltending prospect, Matt Hackett
It was a pretty goal, a pretty play, and pretty much the way most remember him from his days playing for Como Park High School.
He played three varsity seasons for Como before bypassing his senior season to play for Lincoln of the United States Hockey League. Still, Kramer’s name is etched into the record books as Como’s career scoring leader.
“Record keeping wasn’t exactly fine-tuned,” he said with a laugh, “but I put up some good numbers in high school. It was fun, but it was just one stage of my career. I don’t look into it too much.”
Leaving his hometown behind for the USHL was a tough call, Kramer said, but one he had to make.
“Just development-wise, I thought it was a good move,” he said. “It was hard to leave my family and my friends, but it was something I needed to do to progress and move on to the collegiate level.”
He played three seasons in Lincoln -- scoring 94 points in 168 games -- before moving on to Princeton. The move out East signaled a major shift for Kramer.
“Being from Minnesota and playing hockey, I thought it was all based on skill,” he said. “Being at Princeton, I really learned to become a two-way player and to focus on the defensive side of the game.”
And the rigors of Ivy League academics ensured Kramer’s life as a student didn’t solely revolve around ice time. Class all day, lifting, practice, then back to the dorm to write papers -- the work load at Princeton far exceeded anything he had experienced before.
Juniors at the school were required to write a 60-page research paper. It was a task that seemed monumental to Kramer. Well, at least for a year, until he had his 80-page senior paper due just a week after the Tigers were bounced from the playoffs.
“It instilled a commitment and work ethic, not only to hockey but to managing my time and training,” he said. “You learn to pace your time. ... It’s definitely something I’ve matured from, and I’m a different person than when I entered (Princeton) as a freshman a few years ago.”
Hoping for Wild times
Most kids skate around their local rinks, dreaming of one day putting on an NHL sweater. That thought wasn’t lost on Kramer when asked Wednesday what it means to him to have the Wild logo on his chest as he skates this week.
“I’ve had a few Wild shirts here and there, but nothing really beats putting on a jersey with your name on the back and to put on the colors,” he said. “It’s definitely a special experience.”
The week itself has been a whole new experience for Kramer, he said. Working through his first pro camp, he said he’s simply trying to take in as much as possible and show he’s ready for that next step in his game.
“They say it’s not an evaluation camp but that they’re always watching,” he said. “You realize that you have to be sharp out there every minute. Every pass and every shot needs to be at a pro level. Everybody is so good out there, and those are just the basics.”
As far as how he fits in, Kramer likes to think of himself as a solid two-way player, a player coaches can count on in any situation on the ice. With 31 points in 31 games as a senior last season at Princeton, he can score, too, leading the Tigers with 13 goals.
“I like to shoot the puck,” he said. “Trying to snap it from anywhere -- that’s kind of the way I’ve always played. I just try to get it off as quick as I can, get as much on it as I can and go to the net hard and hope to get some greasy goals.”
The camp wraps up with public scrimmages on both Saturday and Sunday (11 a.m. both days), and Kramer said he’s excited for the opportunity to skate in front of so many people who watched him play as a kid. Coaches, family, friends -- Kramer said he just wants to “do them proud.”
And he said he’ll do that the best way he knows how: by living up to the motto his dad taught him on the mats. Sure, he’ll always have that Princeton degree to fall back on, but Kramer said it’ll take a heck of a lot to wrestle his dream away from him.
“I’ve realized how important work ethic and character are to being a successful hockey player,” he said. “Every shift, every instance could be your last one playing, so you can’t take it for granted.”