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Little Big Time: Spurgeon Proves Detractors Wrong

One of the NHL's smallest defensemen has made a career out of dispelling doubts

by Dan Myers @1DanMyers /

Minnesota Wild defenseman Jared Spurgeon arrived in the Twin Cities in the summer of 2010 with a single duffel bag in his hand and his dreams of a career in the NHL hanging by a thread. 

Recently informed by the New York Islanders --the team that drafted him in the sixth round of the 2008 NHL Draft -- that his services were no longer wanted, Spurgeon had received a number of offers to take his career to Europe, where his 5-foot-9, 160-pound frame might have more success.

Offers were few and far between, but Spurgeon, who was 20 years old at the time, still had a dream to play in the NHL

A veteran of five seasons with the Spokane Chiefs of the Western Hockey League, Spurgeon got better each season. He took part in one training camp with the Islanders but sustained a shoulder injury that prevented him from attending the 2009 camp.

He returned to Spokane, posted career highs in assists (43) and points (51) and led the Chiefs to the Memorial Cup, but was told he was no longer in the Islanders' plans.

Even now, Spurgeon said he was never told why New York chose to go a different direction. 

"My agent phoned me about a week before the deadline and said they let him know they weren't going to qualify me or send me an offer," Spurgeon said. "I know they had some good [defensive] prospects that they probably thought were ahead of me at the time."

The Islanders' loss has certainly been the Wild's gain. 

Spurgeon showed up in St. Paul, earned himself a two-way contract and went to the American Hockey League for less than half a season before making his NHL debut on his 21st birthday.

He's never looked back.

'Last chance'

After the Islanders told him they were no longer interested, Spurgeon's agent put together clips of his highlights with Spokane and sent them to a handful of NHL teams. 

The Wild was one team to respond, offering him a spot at the team's development camp that summer. 

Spurgeon, who knew nothing about the organization, called his former Chiefs teammate Justin Falk, who was a 2007 draft pick of the Wild and had made his NHL debut the previous season. 

He asked his older brother, Tyler, who played for the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins of the American Hockey League when Wild general manager Chuck Fletcher managed the hockey operations there.

Falk had glowing words to say about the organization. His brother had nothing but good things to say about his experience with Fletcher. 

So he showed up that July with nothing more than a chance to play that week guaranteed to him. 

He impressed the Wild enough to earn a spot on the team's roster for the Traverse City Prospect Tournament in September. Still without a contract, the door was left open for Spurgeon … if only a little bit.

"You sort of see it as your last chance," Spurgeon said. "Last chance, you sort of believe without signing, that you're trying to prove a point. But at the same time, I knew there was a bunch of other teams at Traverse City, as well, so hopefully if it didn't work out here, somebody would take a chance on me from the tournament."

For many coaches, it was tough to get past the fact he was just 5-foot-9. Even after he lit up his first prospect camp in Minnesota and helped lead Wild prospects to a championship at the Traverse City tournament. Coincidentally, that's where he first formed a bond with one of his best friends, Wild defenseman Marco Scandella.

Spurgeon's quality play during the tournament in Michigan earned him an invitation to the Wild's training camp.

Once again given a chance, Spurgeon took advantage.

At main camp, an illness to defenseman Nick Schultz opened up a spot for Spurgeon to play in a scrimmage.

"He was literally one of the better defensemen in the scrimmage," said Wild assistant general manager Brent Flahr. "So we gave him another one. Then we ended up signing him."

His first contract with Minnesota was a three-year entry-level deal worth a little over $1.5 million, but paid him just $50,000 per season in the AHL, his likely destination.

The Wild, literally, had no idea what they had stumbled into.

"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," Flahr said. "We got a little lucky." 

Sent to Houston in the first round of roster cuts, Spurgeon began his pro career in Texas. Nobody, not even him, could have imagined how short that stay would be.

One shot

Toward the end of November that season, the Wild was in need of a defenseman. Clayton Stoner sustained an injury on Nov. 26, and it was Falk who got the first crack to replace him. Not satisfied, the Wild prepared to make another roster move.

Fletcher phoned Mike Yeo, then the coach of Houston, and asked who his best defenseman was. Without hesitation, Yeo recommended Spurgeon.

"We had a number of real good prospects, guys that are still here now and were great players. They were playing really well too," said Yeo, who went on to coach the Wild for five seasons and is now the head coach for the St. Louis Blues. "At that moment, at that time, Jared Spurgeon was [the best]. I don't even think it was a consideration."

The phone call continued. Fletcher was intrigued, but was wondering if the 5-foot-9 Spurgeon could play at the NHL level. It's not uncommon for shorter players to succeed at the AHL level. But in the best league in the world?

"I remember the conversation well," Yeo recalled. "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."

On Nov. 28, 2010, Spurgeon was recalled from Houston. The following day, his 21st birthday, the Edmonton, Alberta native made his NHL debut about 180 miles from his hometown against the Calgary Flames at the Saddledome. 

"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.'"

They were right. 

Spurgeon didn't know it at the time, but his minor-league career was, for all intents and purposes, over. 

The following spring, after the Wild's season was finished, he would return to Houston to help the Aeros to the Calder Cup Finals. But he would never play another regular season game in the AHL again.

"Any young player, when he comes up the first time, you think maybe he'll get a game or two," Flahr said. "It was one of those things with him, we called down and asked who the best defenseman was and Yeosie and [Darryl] Sydor said it was Spurgeon. So we brought him up and gave him an opportunity."

Earning respect

Spurgeon played 14:42 in his NHL debut and immediately stepped into a nightly role.

It took 21 games for him to get his first point in the League, an assist in Chicago on Jan. 25, but they came more consistently after that. He finished with 12 points over his final 32 games and built from there.

While he has been between 25 and 29 points in each of the past three seasons, Spurgeon is on the verge of a major breakout campaign in his first season under coach Bruce Boudreau. Heading into Thursday's game against Dallas, Spurgeon is already at 26 points and, his plus/minus rating of plus-30 is tied for fourth in the NHL (with fellow Wild defenseman Ryan Suter).

Upon his arrival in Minnesota, even Boudreau needed to be convinced. After playing against him a couple times per season, Boudreau had never truly appreciated Spurgeon's game.

"I couldn't believe it ... I was told he was small. He plays so much bigger than his size," Boudreau said. "My first thought was, 'Man, how is this guy going to defend at his size?' He has proven me 100 percent wrong."

Spurgeon has been proving people wrong his entire career. Yeo said it took him about one practice to truly appreciate Spurgeon, way back when he was just a 20-year-old kid fresh out of Canadian juniors.

"You get him on the ice, and you start teaching and start working with guys. And immediately, you just see a guy who does everything right, every single time," Yeo said. "He's easily one of the most coachable people that I've ever worked with."

For Spurgeon, that's been the goal since day one of his NHL career and will be until he hangs up the skates. 

"I think every day and every summer when you're in those dog days of summer, or parts of the season when things get a little bit long, you don't always want to be in the gym in the summer, you remember one person saying something about you and it pushes you through," Spurgeon said. "You never want to be satisfied with where you are as a player; that's when someone else will bypass you. 

"Especially with the team we have here and what we've been doing as of late. We're excited about it, you just want to keep going and try to win a championship."

While his size has likely limited the amount of attention and appreciation he gets from media, his game is certainly appreciated by both teammates and opponents alike.

"I think it's not at the point where he's getting the recognition he probably deserves," Yeo said. "But I will say, the people who are inside the game, the players, the coaches, the management, I think that everyone around the League is aware. He's earned the respect of the League, no question."

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