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Rise to captaincy the culmination of a long, unique journey for Spurgeon

Wild defenseman was once a development camp invitee, earning his first NHL contract the hard way

by Dan Myers @mnwildscribe /

Fox Sports North rinkside reporter Kevin Gorg and former Wild play-by-play man Dan Terhaar were with the club in Calgary on Nov. 28, 2010, returning to the team hotel after an off-night trip to the movie theater.

As they walked in, an unfamiliar face hopped out of a car with some hockey sticks and a Houston Aeros equipment bag over his shoulder. Gorg said he thought the person looked like he couldn't have been older than a junior in high school. 

"These equipment guys keep getting younger and younger," Gorg recalled saying to Terhaar as they kept on walking into the hotel. 

"And then the next morning, at skate, Terhaar and I are sitting there and I said to him, 'hey, that equipment guy is on the ice,'' Gorg said. 

That "junior in high school," the team's "new equipment guy," was Jared Spurgeon, the Wild's newest call-up from the club's then-American Hockey League affiliate in Houston. As goofy as it might seem to confuse an NHL defenseman with a kid on his high school team, take one look at Spurgeon now and it isn't entirely out of the question.

And a decade ago, when he wasn't yet 21 years old, that was certainly the case. But Spurgeon has been dealing with doubters his entire life.

Too short. 

Too light.

Too nice.

Too quiet.

Too anonymous. 

Those doubters have been silenced plenty over the years as Spurgeon has quietly become one of the very best defensemen in the National Hockey League. 

On Saturday night, Spurgeon was rewarded by the only NHL franchise he's ever played for when he was named just the second full-time captain in team history. Wild General Manager Bill Guerin and coach Dean Evason traveled to Spurgeon's home in the west metro and broke the news to him, his wife, Danielle, and their four children, sons Zach and Jayce, and daughters Colbie and Myer.

Video: Jared Spurgeon on being named team captain

"It was a huge honor, and I was very grateful that my family could be involved in it," Spurgeon said. "I'm not going to take [the honor] lightly. We have a lot of work to get to the goal that we all want."

While the secret may finally be getting out on a League-wide scale regarding the Wild's diminutive blue liner, Spurgeon's ability is one that has had every Wild coach that's ever had him raving about just how good he really is.

With a babyface that has not aged a day since the moment he stormed onto the scene in his home province of Alberta, Spurgeon's stay with Minnesota was expected to be a short one. Injuries had forced the Wild to recall a defenseman from it's minor-league affiliate in Houston, and Spurgeon's game was in the right place at the right time. 

"We had a number of real good prospects ... They were playing really well too," said former Wild coach Mike Yeo, then Spurgeon's coach with the Houston Aeros. "At that moment, at that time, Jared Spurgeon was [the best]. I don't even think it was a consideration."

But then-Wild GM Chuck Fletcher was still skeptical. He was just 5-foot-9. He had just been signed off the proverbial scrap heap less than two months prior.

Fletcher couldn't beat around the bush anymore.

"I remember the conversation well," Yeo said. "He asked, 'Do you think he can play based on his size in the NHL?' And my comment to him was, 'He's our best defenseman, and you'll never know unless you give him a shot.' To Chuck's credit, he gave him a shot."

It took Spurgeon a bit to see statistical success at the NHL level; his first point came in game No. 21 and his first goal against his hometown Edmonton Oilers 10 games after that. Still, his overall game was solid, especially considering he's built nothing like your prototypical NHL defenseman.

Generously listed at 5-foot-9 and 167 pounds, none of that has seemed to matter to Spurgeon. When he broke in, defensemen of his ilk were the exception to the rule.

Now, it seems, that every small defenseman that arrives in the NHL is compared to him. 

Tweet from @mnwild: Captain Spurgeon #mnwild

"When you talk about flying under the radar a little bit, I think that's a public perception," Guerin said. "But in the world of hockey and the world I live in, he's no secret and he hasn't been a secret for quite some time. He has the respect of his teammates, the players around the League and the coaches around the League, and that's what's really important."

Drafted in the sixth round by the New York Islanders in 2008, Spurgeon was quickly cast aside by the club that drafted him. 

Within two years, Spurgeon's agent was told his services there were no longer needed and that he'd be an NHL free agent. To this day, Spurgeon says he's never gotten a real reason for his eventual release. 

He showed up at the Wild's Development Camp in the summer of 2010 with a single duffle bag and his NHL dreams hanging on by the thinnest of threads. 

Nothing was guaranteed when he arrived. But he showed well enough for the Wild to offer him a shot to play in the Traverse City Prospects Tournament that fall. 

He played well enough there to earn an invitation to the Wild's training camp back in St. Paul. 

When Nick Schultz went down with an injury, Spurgeon was the man who earned himself a spot in a scrimmage. He played so well, he earned himself a second scrimmage.

It was at that point that the Wild could no longer deny Spurgeon a real chance. So it signed him to a three-year entry level contract that paid him just over $1.5 million, where he'd earn 50 grand per season in the AHL.

"He was literally one of the better defensemen in the scrimmage," said former Wild assistant general manager Brent Flahr, now with the Philadelphia Flyers. "So we gave him another one. Then we ended up signing him. Our staff did a great job [finding him], but at the same time, I'd be lying if we knew what he was going to be.

"We got a little lucky." 

Spurgeon spent less than half a season in Houston before his call up to the show, in Calgary, one day before his 21st birthday. 

He hasn't been back since.

"As coaches, we were watching that game in Calgary. We were real happy to see him get that opportunity," Yeo said. "We watched him play and after the first period, we said, 'We're never getting him back.'"

Tweet from @mnwild: Spurgeon General has a whole new meaning.Introducing... 𝘾𝙖𝙥𝙩𝙖𝙞𝙣 𝙅𝙖𝙧𝙚𝙙 𝙎𝙥𝙪𝙧𝙜𝙚𝙤𝙣Congratulations Jared! 👏#mnwild

The fact that it was Guerin, a former NHL captain himself, bestowing the honor upon Spurgeon, proves just how unique every player's ascent through the ranks really is.

Guerin was the fifth overall selection in 1989 and was an alternate captain for six seasons with three different organizations before finally earning the 'C' with the New York Islanders in 2007.

Spurgeon's journey was very different.

"We hope it resonates [with young players], we hope it resonates with the whole group," Guerin said. "Everybody takes a different path, but not everybody is willing to do whatever it takes. People might say they are, but they're not.

"Jared's path shows that he's willing to do whatever it takes and he's willing to prove himself, not just take things that are given to him. That's been the message to the whole team: we have to go out and earn this. Nothing is going to come to us easy.

"If we want to win the Stanley Cup, we have to earn it. We have to sacrifice, we have to do things that, maybe some nights, we don't want to do. We have to do the hard things, and I think if you look at his path, his career, he's done the hard things, he's done the sacrificing. And that's what we need to do as a team."

It's a rise Spurgeon could have never predicted, certainly when he was fighting for his first contract or that night he walked into a Calgary hotel, equipment bag over his shoulder and his NHL dreams in tow. 

"I was just working hard and trying to prove myself," Spurgeon said. "I still to this day try to do that when I come to the rink. You're working to get better at something because I hope it rubs off on the other guys that you strive to be your best. 

"I think every day, you have to try and come in and prove who you are and what you want to do for the team."

Spoken like a true captain. 

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