Wild rookies enjoy living the dream

  • Article by: KENT YOUNGBLOOD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 5, 2012 - 6:26 AM

Fourteen rookies have played for the Wild this season, including eight who made their NHL debut. For most of them, getting "the call" was the culmination of a lifelong dream.

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With his college career finished less than a week earlier, Jason Zucker made his NHL debut last Thursday in the Wild’s victory over Florida. “It’s something you dream of,’’ Zucker said. “… Of course, it’s nerve-racking at first. But I remember [Darroll] Powe coming up to me and saying, 'It’s just hockey. Go and play.’’’

Photo: Carlos Gonzalez, Star Tribune

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You'd think every moment, every second, would be burned into the memory banks, the fodder for stories you'd be telling for years.

Not always.

Ask Jared Spurgeon, for example. Ask him about Nov. 29, 2010, the night the Minnesota Wild played at Calgary. That was also Spurgeon's NHL debut, the culmination of a few months of defying the odds. Spurgeon was a productive but undersized defenseman in major juniors. Undrafted, he was invited to the Wild's developmental camp in 2010. From there he went to the prospects tournament in Traverse City, Mich. That September he signed a contract with the team. By November, with just a few AHL games under his belt in Houston, he got the call to play in his first NHL game.

Memories?

"Kind of a blur," Spurgeon confessed. "I remember sitting on the bench before the game, trying to take it all in, I guess; you only get that first game once. But I don't remember that game."

Nerves, butterflies, whatever you call it, reaching your dream can be an adrenaline-inducing experience.

And it has happened a lot this season for the Wild. In an up-and-down, injury-riddled season, the Wild will have a franchise-record 45 players play a game for them this season, burning up the airways between Houston and various NHL cities.

Among those 45 are 14 rookies and eight players who made their NHL debuts.

"What an experience," said Jason Zucker, who joined the team last week out of the University of Denver. "It's something you dream of. I tried to just have fun. Of course, it's nerve-racking at first. But I remember [Darroll] Powe coming up to me and saying, 'It's just hockey. Go and play.' This is the end goal, really, of every player."

Getting the call

Just about everybody can remember where they were when they got the call. Spurgeon was watching TV when then-Houston coach Mike Yeo called him. Problem was, his parents were visiting his brother in Europe, so he didn't know who to call.

Matt Kassian was getting ready for bed. "You're not sure what it's about," Kassian said of the call, which came Nov. 5, 2010, also before a game against the Flames. "You see who it's from, your heart skips a beat, you try to calm yourself down, then you pick up the phone. It was short: 'Are you ready to go play against Calgary?' Heck yes."

That's the calm before the storm. Here's what comes next: Calls to your friends and family. A scramble to get your gear together, then get to the airport.

Of course, it doesn't always follow a story script.

Ask Tyler Cuma.

A 2008 first-round pick of the Wild, Cuma had a hectic few days that ended in disappointment. He played for Houston in British Columbia on a Wednesday, few back to Houston on a Thursday. He got the call that day, just after landing in Houston just before 2 p.m. Spurgeon was ill, and he was needed in Phoenix that night.

Didn't work out. "I grabbed my baggage, which took a while to come out," he said. "I got it about 2:15. I took a tram to a different terminal. When I tried to check in, it was too late. That was my first call-up. My first one. It was right there. Next time I'll make the flight."

The next time could very well come Thursday night, because Cuma was recalled from Houston on Wednesday. He will play if Clayton Stoner cannot return from an upper body injury. If Cuma plays, he would be the ninth player to make his NHL debut for the Wild this season.

Once they arrive? Yeo, now the Wild coach, and his staff have a process. The player gets a crash course in the Wild system. "We tell them we don't expect perfection," Yeo said. "Just do what you can do, bring your game and be confident with it."

Of course, Yeo has seen the whole range of reactions, from players scared stiff to first-timers who have surprising confidence. "Some guys step in as a believer," Yeo said. "Some are more wary."

Lasting memories

The biggest memory Spurgeon has of his first call-up is that he didn't bring enough clothes. That's a good thing, because that means he stuck for a while.

Kassian remembers his first walk down the tunnel to the ice. "For me, it's always been a constant state of proving people wrong," he said. "Ever since I was 14, 15, there have always been people who told me I wouldn't amount to anything. You'll never reach the NHL. In one game, one minute, you get to not only accomplish something you worked your whole life for, but you get to stick it to a lot of people. I played in the NHL. Nobody can take that away from me."

For Chad Rau, it couldn't have gone better. He'd been called up before but hadn't played. But Rau, a Minnesota native, made his NHL debut Jan. 21 at home vs. Dallas. It was Hockey Day in Minnesota, and Rau scored his first goal, the eventual game-winner.

"Sitting in the locker room before the game, you have no idea what to expect," Rau said. "A million thoughts cross your mind.''

On the ice? Rau has a better memory of his first game than Spurgeon does. "I remember being surprised when that goal went in," he said. "And then I didn't know exactly what to do when it did go in.''

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