The proudest person in Xcel Energy Center on Tuesday night will be Kurtis Gabriel’s mother, Kim, who will get to watch her son, after years of overcoming adversity, skate his first NHL shift — for real.
Gabriel’s first NHL call-up to Winnipeg a few weeks ago was a false alarm. The rugged winger wound up not playing against the feisty Jets. But this time against the same opponent, Gabriel, a 6-4, 212-pounder and 2013 third-round pick, will skate on the right side of Chris Porter and Ryan Carter.
“I don’t think it’s hit both of us,” Gabriel, 22, said. “I’m sure when she sees me play and sees me after the game, it’ll be pretty emotional. … She’s going to break down for sure. It’s going to happen. It’s going to be pretty amazing.”
Gabriel’s mom will be joined by her husband, Bill; Gabriel’s brother, Iain; and Gabriel’s best friend.
“When we first started on this journey, she didn’t know anything about hockey,” said Gabriel, who only started playing hockey full-time five years ago because he broke his wrist and quit baseball. “And now, honestly, I think she could be a scout. She knows everything. She watches games. She goes to local Junior A games and watches things and tells me things to do better. It’s crazy. She knows the game inside and out.”
The pivotal moment in Gabriel’s life came when he was 10 years old. His father committed suicide.
“Everybody has adversity, and maybe I got it a little younger,” he said. “You don’t really have that father figure growing up, but my mom and grandparents stepped up and everybody fills a role. They’re strong people, and they just passed that on to me.”
Gabriel is known as one of the Wild’s most driven players. He eats impeccably and is a rink rat and gym rat, even sticking around Minnesota much of last summer to work on his skating with Diane Ness and her son, Andy.
“My grandparents came over from Scotland and built a great life for my mom,” he said. “That has transferred down to me and my brother. It starts with their hard work, my mom’s hard work and I’ve picked up on it. I’ve chosen what I’ve gotten to do, so it makes it easy.”
There will be tremendous satisfaction inside the club to see Gabriel’s debut. He is highly respected.
“Nobody has worked harder on and off the ice, and arguably nobody has improved more since he was drafted,” assistant GM Brent Flahr said.
Gabriel knows why he’s here. The Jets tower over the Wild from a brute force standpoint, so the Wild’s hoping he provides physicality from the fourth line. He’s not shy to drop the gloves, fighting 16 times in the American Hockey League and 31 in the Ontario Hockey League.
“I play physical, they play physical and it’s a rivalry game,” Gabriel said. “Things get chippy, and I’m here to help out.”
But coach Mike Yeo made clear Gabriel’s not here to pick a fight.
“You just can’t just run around and have 15 hits in the game and be minus-3,” Yeo said. “You have to be able to play the game, you have to be able to execute and along the way try to find a way to bring a physical presence.”
The Wild has lost Zach Parise and Justin Fontaine to sprained knees lately. There is always the debate that the Wild, which has had one fight this season from Carter, doesn’t have enough of an intimidation factor. But enforcers are endangered in today’s NHL, and fighting is decreasing.
“Those days of the deterrents and those days of the enforcers tapping a guy on the shoulder, the league has changed. That’s the reality,” Yeo said.
It’s unknown how long Gabriel will be here. Christoph Bertschy made his NHL debut against Tampa Bay on Saturday and was sent down immediately after the game. The Wild might shuffle players from Iowa in and out of the lineup based on the opponent.
Gabriel’s not worrying about that.
“Right now it’s all business, and I just want to really show that I can play,” he said.
• The Wild could be without defenseman Marco Scandella for a little while. As he did in training camp, Scandella has left the team temporarily for a family matter. Defenseman Nate Prosser, who missed Saturday’s game with a sore back, will return Tuesday and be paired to the left of Christian Folin.
• Parise has been ruled out of the four-game road trip that starts Thursday in Carolina. “I would expect to not see him on the ice 100 percent for sure for the first week,” Yeo said. “It’s going to take a little bit of time here. Couple weeks, and then we’ll re-evaluate from there.”