About 100 miles south of the Twin Cities, in Austin, Minn., center Nico Sturm had one of the best seasons of his hockey career.
He latched on with the Bruins of the North American Hockey League in 2014 after getting cut by Corpus Christi, and while he was productive on the ice, putting up 41 points in 53 games, he arguably grew even more off it.
Sturm learned how to live on his own, since he had left his native Germany just a year before, and he identified with a blue-collar style that mimicked Austin where the local factory churns out Spam.
"They taught me how to be a man," he said.
Now, four years later, Sturm is getting another meaningful opportunity in Minnesota. He is starting his pro career with the Wild after signing a one-year, entry-level contract Monday.
"I'm super excited to be here and looking forward to the next couple of days here," he said.
Sturm, 23, wasn't in the lineup Tuesday against the Jets at Xcel Energy Center because he was still in the process of securing a work visa, but he could make his debut Thursday. That's when his parents and younger brother will arrive in St. Paul.
A Hobey Baker Award finalist after leading Clarkson in scoring with 45 points during his junior season, Sturm considers himself a two-way center who plays a 200-foot game and takes pride on his defensive work. He's also a faceoff specialist, winning 57.9 percent of draws this past season. Sturm, who was able to sign only a one-year deal since he'll be 24 by Sept. 15, will be a restricted free agent this summer.
"I still think I've got some playmaking ability, and if I have some guys by my side that I can distribute the puck to," said Sturm, "I think we're going to have a lot of fun."
What convinced Sturm to sign with the Wild was the plan outlined by General Manager Paul Fenton, a future that features a young core, plus the chance to have veteran role models in captain Mikko Koivu and Eric Staal.
"It was a great fit," said the 6-3, 211-pounder who was scouted by the Wild's Brian Hunter. "There's opportunity and at the same time, a great learning experience with the guys that are still here."
Rather than hitting his stride in his late teens, Sturm felt his most significant development came once he reached his 20s — calling himself "a pretty late bloomer." And while he realizes there are no guarantees in the NHL, he believes the timing is right for him to settle in with the Wild.
"You look at the lineup, and there are some pretty good players in here," Sturm said. "Obviously with the experience that I can gain this week and then going into training camp next year, I expect to earn my spot."
Winger Zach Parise returned to action against Winnipeg after missing the previous four games because of a lower-body injury.
Oh, the paperwork
Center Joel Eriksson Ek walked out of practice Monday at Tria Rink to find his car covered in sticky notes, an April Fools' prank pulled off by defenseman Matt Dumba.
It took Eriksson Ek approximately 15 minutes to pull the paper off his car. He figured Dumba or Koivu was the mastermind behind the idea.
"It's good to have some fun as a team," Eriksson Ek said.
Not up to code
Goalie Mat Robson has been skating with the team since he left the Gophers and signed a two-year, entry-level contract March 18, but he isn't expected to play before the season ends.
"His equipment isn't by league rules yet," coach Bruce Boudreau said. "We've ordered him all new NHL equipment, but it hasn't gotten here."