EDMONTON, ALBERTA — The snow is melting, a cascade of water dripping near the arena’s sun-pelted windows, as Barry Spurgeon roams the inside, looking for a photo of his son.
This warmer-than-usual February afternoon is his first time back at Callingwood Recreation Centre in maybe 15 years, but he remembers the snapshot hanging on the wall. It showed a team with a young Jared Spurgeon in 2000 that won the city championship, a squad — perhaps auspiciously — named the Wild.
After exploring a hallway without any luck, Barry stops his search. He glances out at a public skating session that just started on Rink B, and then his memories begin to thaw.
He used to coach Jared, from the time he started competing at age 5 until he was 11.
All these years later, having overcome the doubts of so many in the hockey world, Spurgeon has blossomed from a sixth-round draft pick into a crucial player for the Wild.
He has been an integral part of six consecutive playoff teams and now this one, which desperately hopes for one last late-season gasp.
Along the way, Spurgeon’s value has been magnified.
He has had a career year while the Wild has battled injuries and inconsistency, and his impact could continue to balloon because of the style he adopted right here in his hometown.
“He just needed an opportunity to be able to show it,” Barry said.
A step ahead
Laced into skates when he was just 3, Spurgeon joined his first organized team two years later.
He was constantly around the game, watching it on TV and going to the arena when his older brother Tyler played. Instead of hanging out with the other kids in the lobby, Spurgeon would sit by himself in the seats and analyze what was happening.
By the time he was 7, Spurgeon was winding up for fake shots, turning into spin-o-ramas and looking to his left when he passed right — as the rest of his teammates chased the puck in a pack.
“Jared was about three levels past everybody,” said Bruce Ennis, who also coached Spurgeon during his minor-hockey days. “He was playing probably like a 17-year-old when he was 7 years old.”
Ennis switched Spurgeon from forward to defense in peewee because of his fluid skating and hockey IQ, and Spurgeon liked shutting down the opposition. And he had a knack for it, setting his sights on the professional ranks.
When a school project asked him what he wanted to do for a living someday, an 8-year-old Spurgeon responded, “Play in the NHL.”
His teacher explained that he needed to answer with a real job.
On a mission
An undersized skater who’s now listed at 5-9 and 167 pounds, he was routinely told he would never advance — by scouts, coaches and hockey organizations, some of which cut him.
The feedback made him angry but also motivated. He wanted to prove the naysayers wrong, so he kept developing.
Spurgeon studied NHL defensemen who were smaller, noticing how Brian Rafalski and Dan Boyle operated in the corners against beefier opponents and transitioned the puck the other way.
When it was his turn to attend Oilers games with his grandfather’s season tickets, he’d observe what worked for the pros — even a forward like Doug Weight — and copy the moves. He would listen to games on the radio, visualizing the action, then check the TV highlights to see if what he imagined was real.
The scenes in his mind were pretty close.
At 15, Spurgeon joined the Spokane Chiefs in the Western Hockey League. That is when he learned how to use his stick instead of his body to pry opponents off the puck.
“The way he defends, he defends intelligently,” said Bill Peters, who coached Spurgeon in Spokane and is now the bench boss of the Calgary Flames. “You gotta go through him to get to the net.”
This progress, however, still was tested.
Spurgeon hadn’t been contacted by any scouts after the Chiefs hoisted the Memorial Cup as the Canadian Hockey League champions in 2008.
He had no expectations for the draft that summer and thought going to college could be a backup plan. But with the 156th pick, the New York Islanders selected him.
After two more seasons in Spokane, Spurgeon learned the Islanders weren’t going to sign him. He moped for a week, wondering if he could really twist a dream into a reality.
But he wasn’t alone in this pursuit.
Barry and Spurgeon’s mom, Debi, encouraged him, boosting his morale when the negativity swelled. He also had friend and former teammate Tyler Ennis to lean on; Ennis was also overlooked because of his size.
Eventually, Spurgeon decided he was ready to use the rejection as fuel.
Spurgeon’s agent, Eustace King, assembled a video of his junior highlights and sent it to NHL teams. Then-Wild General Manager Chuck Fletcher invited Spurgeon for a tryout, and he impressed enough to earn a contract. He was in the minors for just 21 games before he made his Wild debut and by the 2011-12 season, he was with the team full-time.
“To play this long is pretty special to me and my family,” Spurgeon said.
Even now, as a 29-year-old in his ninth NHL season of an underrated career, Spurgeon monitors his peers for tips to improve — such as how Drew Doughty and Erik Karlsson elude forecheckers and jump into the rush to create chances for their teammates.
And this attention to detail shows.
Already, Spurgeon has set career highs in goals (14) and points (41). On Sunday, against those same Islanders who passed him up, he crafted a highlight package that included a stick save on the goal line, a ferocious end-to-end backcheck to disrupt a breakaway and a clutch power-play goal.
His 14 goals are tied for the fourth most in the NHL among defensemen.
“He’s a gem in this league that nobody knows about,” coach Bruce Boudreau said.
A righthanded shot, Spurgeon chalks up the statistical spikes to luck but also a concerted effort to unleash more pucks on net. That’s another trend he detected among the NHL’s most offensive defensemen, and the 156 shots he is on pace for would be a career high.
“I don’t know if it’s the best he’s been,” Boudreau said, “but it’s made it look like that only because we’ve needed him more.”
Spurgeon felt the need to step up after Matt Dumba suffered a torn pectoral muscle, and most of Spurgeon’s contributions have come since that mid-December injury.
Take these measures: The Wild generates approximately 59 percent of its high-danger chances when Spurgeon is on the ice, which is fifth among NHL defensemen, and gives up only eight of those chances per 60 minutes played by Spurgeon at 5-on-5 (also fifth best for league defensemen).
As the Wild’s top unit, he and partner Ryan Suter also allow roughly eight high-danger chances per 60 minutes played at 5-on-5, compared to 12 when Suter was with Dumba. And Spurgeon’s defensive play is estimated to have secured the Wild nearly three additional wins — which ranks fifth in the NHL among defensemen.
“As long as … you’re committed to the game, working hard and thinking the game,” Spurgeon said, “it doesn’t matter how big you are or strong you are.”
No spotlight needed
Barry Spurgeon backtracks to the main lobby at Callingwood, still on the lookout for the picture.
There’s a display case and a flier on the wall but not the team photo. He figures it was taken down when the rink was repainted, one less reminder of what Spurgeon’s accomplished.
But it doesn’t matter. Spurgeon actually prefers when the spotlight misses him. He’s an underdog who honed a technique that, combined with his perseverance, turned him into one of the most dependable at his profession. That tailored approach is what helps keep him in the NHL at his size, but it’s a skill set Spurgeon believes he’d have even if he was taller.
“How could he ever think he was great?” said Bruce Ennis, Tyler’s father. “Everyone told him he was never going to make it.”
So after pausing in front of the sun-splattered windows, where the drops of water are still sinking, Barry decides to leave and walks out of the arena one more time. His son’s improbable journey to the NHL may be rooted here, but right now it continues out there.