Two weeks ago, the Lakeville South boys' hockey team readied for the playoffs with the same hopes and dreams as any other team.
But the Cougars had something their opposition did not: senior forward Justin Kloos. As defenseman and best friend Joe Freemark said, "With Justin on the ice, anything is possible."
Amazing things are expected and Kloos has delivered in myriad ways. He has 105 goals and 133 assists in 76 career games. He contributed at least one goal or assist in every game. And he piled up 99 points this season.
But there was much more. He showed loyalty by not following former teammates out of the varsity ranks prematurely. He exhibited supreme effort despite being a marked man. Most importantly, he led the Cougars to the Class 2A state tournament.
"We're trying to build some tradition around the program, so it's been hard the past couple years losing kids and then losing heartbreakers in the section championship," Kloos said. "But if this year keeps even one kid from leaving, it's really worth it."
Opposing coaches appreciate his speed and selfless play. His teammates and coaches laud his head for the game. They all endorse Kloos as the Star Tribune Metro Player of the Year.
"When I grow up I'm going to talk to my kids about how I played with Justin Kloos and just how he made everyone a better player," Freemark said. "I'll tell them, 'If you want to play hockey, play like him.' He's unbelievable."
Kloos, a future Gopher, made an admirer out of Erik Rasmussen, director of player development for FHIT (Flex Hockey Institute of Training). Rasmussen, a former Gopher and NHL veteran, appreciated Kloos for his ability and his attitude.
"He is so easy to coach because he not only listens but he solicits advice," Rasmussen said. "He stayed in shape all season, and he's much stronger than people realize. He doesn't get knocked over."
Kloos does occasionally floor Cougars coach Kurt Weber with his rich understanding of the game. No nuance goes unnoticed.
During a recent game, Lakeville North changed its forechecking strategy "and Justin gave one of his teammates a dissertation on the bench about what to do," Weber said. "All I could say was, 'Yeah, what he said.' He's the smartest guy on the ice I've been around."
Said the 5-9, 170-pound Kloos: "Some kids don't get it, and I guess that's one of the skills I have. I don't have height, but I was able to understand the game."
Weber sees the special attention teams afford Kloos, such as all five Hill-Murray players skating backward as he carried the puck up the ice, or multiple Eagan players orbiting him everywhere he went.
Kloos also wrestles with the challenges of being a marked man and the pressures of leading his team.
"We're careful not to let him carry the weight because he's such a thinker," Weber said. "He expects a ton of himself."
Weber raised the bar, giving Kloos an article on Sidney Crosby in which the world's best player talked about improving his overall game. Kloos took it to heart.
"For the last month I've been constantly working on my backhand, because I feel like mine is the weakest in the conference," Kloos said. "I don't think I've scored a backhand from more than 10 feet away from the net since Bantams."
He has scored from everywhere else throughout his varsity career.
"We just get him the puck," Freemark said. "He does the magic."
David La Vaque • 612-673-7574