When his season came to an end, Kurtis Gabriel gave himself two weeks off. No more, no less. Once those two weeks were up, it was time to focus.
His daily regimen includes a morning workout, an afternoon skate and some stickhandling work. Each time he pushes himself hard — determined to catch up in his development — hunting down his dream.
At 21 years old, Gabriel drips in motivation and resolve as if his blood and sweat are laced with it.
“I am crazy about the game of hockey; it’s what I love to do,” Gabriel said, by way of explanation for his determination. “Some people don’t find their passion in life until they’re older. I feel really fortunate to have found what I love to do early on in life. Being able to chase it right now is unbelievable. I need to take full advantage of every opportunity I can. I’m not going to have any regrets when I’m an old guy sitting in a chair. I’m going to put everything into this and see where it takes me.”
While the forward was fortunate enough to find that passion, it took him a little bit longer than most Canadian youngsters to completely dedicate his time to his nation’s favorite sport.
Growing up north of Toronto in Newmarket, Ontario, hockey was always Gabriel’s favorite sport, but he also spent time on the baseball diamond, the basketball court and the volleyball court. An active youngster, he sometimes found himself playing too many sports, running himself ragged. Though he was just having fun, something clicked and, finally, at 16 hockey became his religion.
With the early delay, Gabriel’s path to the higher echelons of hockey wasn’t paved as smoothly as others. He went undrafted in the Ontario Hockey League but was picked up by Owen Sound with a bit of luck after he stood out at a Junior B camp, and made the roster due to his work ethic.
In his first season with the Attack, he saw action in only 40 games, picking up four points on one goal and three assists. Two years later, the 6-foot-4 right wing played in 67 games, picking up 28 points on 13 goals and 15 assists. He also registered 100 penalty minutes in the regular season before netting three goals and five points in 12 playoff games.
Midway through the season, Owen Sound General Manager Dale DeGray took the undrafted forward aside, informing Gabriel of how well he was playing — something the youngster had yet to realize. As the season continued on, the idea that he could be drafted in the National Hockey League grew into a real possibility.
“I just always felt a little left out when everybody’s talking about rank on your OHL team,” Gabriel said. “If you’re a third-round pick, you have seniority over a guy who was a fifth-round pick. Well, I wasn’t even drafted. I always felt I was really happy to be there, but I wanted to be recognized like that. I think every player wants to have that moment to get picked by a team.”
At the 2013 NHL Entry Draft that moment became reality. With its third-round pick, 81st overall, the Minnesota Wild selected Gabriel. He didn’t even hear his name. All he heard was “Owen Sound, right wing,” and knew his name had finally been called.
Heading into the Draft, Gabriel suspected going in the third round was a possibility, that some team might take that chance on him, but was slotted as a fourth or fifth round pick.
“If you ever get the players of that size and the element of toughness that he has, they never fall very far in the Draft,” Wild Assistant General Manager Brent Flahr said. “He’s very raw, but with the way he evolved physically and his effort, and the way he improved throughout the year and in the playoffs, I think that is really what set us off to move him up the board just because of the impact that he had. He’s a big, strong kid. His point is to play physical and be the big body presence; to get in on the forecheck, and hit and fight. He’s a quality teammate.”
“To have an organization like this step up and take me, and really show that they wanted me — I still can’t get that out of my head,” Gabriel added.
Come fall, Gabriel had a strong Training Camp, but was sidelined with a hip injury and was unable to play in any exhibition games. But the time he spent among the other Wild prospects and players gave him the confidence that playing in the NHL was something he could handle one day.
It would have to wait. Rather than starting the season in Iowa with the Wild’s American Hockey League affiliate, the Wild brass decided to send Gabriel back to Owen Sound. Flahr admitted it was a tough decision, but by going back to the OHL the winger got more playing time and played in all situations — something the Assistant GM felt was better for his long term development.
While Gabriel was hoping to play in Iowa — a dream deferred for only a short time — he embraced his return to Owen Sound knowing his status as a late bloomer. The alternate captain netted 15 goals and tallied 36 assists for 51 points over 60 games in the 2013-14 season.
“I felt like I was two years behind, so I maybe caught up a year,” Gabriel said. “I got a lot of experience, learned a lot of things about my game, how to be consistent and not to do too much.”
Towards the end of that campaign, the Wild inked him to an entry-level deal on March 3. It was official. The youngster who wasn’t drafted in the OHL was only a step away from the NHL.
After the season ended in Owen Sound, he reported to Iowa and saw action in eight games. He quickly developed some chemistry with Tyler Graovac and picked up a pair of goals and a pair of assists for four points in his short stint in Des Moines. Beyond stats, it showed him exactly what is waiting for him at the next level. According to Flahr, that knowledge didn’t deter him in any way.
“Sometimes a kid gets sent from Junior and they’re tentative or afraid to make a mistake,” Flahr said. “If they’re a physical player they’re a little careful going in because they’re going up against men, but he showed no signs of that. He knocked the front door down. He has things to learn, things to work on in his game, but he’s aware of that.”
And so he continues to hit the gym to work on his skills, his strength and his skating — always drinking from that bottomless well of motivation that’s hard to find in most 21-year-olds.
“The more you get to know him and talk to him, he’s a real driven kid, a real determined kid,” Flahr said. “It’s almost scary sometimes.
“There are kids like this where this is their chance to make it and they’re not going to let little things get in the way; they’re going to do everything they can to prepare. A kid like this is wired a little differently than most, that’s for sure. Which is part of why he’s here.”
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