Cool Under Pressure
Friday, 02.17.2012 / 11:00 AM / Features
By Mike Doyle - Managing Editor
When you see Jared Spurgeon skating around during warm ups at Xcel Energy Center, it’s hard not to notice his size. His 5’9” frame doesn’t exactly scream prototypical NHL defenseman.
Get a little closer and you’ll notice he looks young, really young, like he should be cramming for the ACT’s, not patrolling an NHL blue line. Clearly, his stature doesn’t help, but when the team grew-out mustaches a few months ago for Movember, to raise awareness for men’s health, Spurgeon’s facial hair barely looked like it belonged in the halls of a high school, rather than in an NHL locker room.
However, when the game starts, watch the Edmonton, Alberta native play for a little while and you’ll soon forget about his size and baby face, and start to notice something else: his poise.
Only in his second season in the NHL, Spurgeon shows the type of composure on the blue line that is typically saved for veterans whose five o’clock shadows snicker at Spurgeon’s Movember mustache.
“He doesn’t get rattled,” Wild Head Coach Mike Yeo said. “For a young player, and he’s one of those guys, that’s what you look for, especially in defensemen.”
Ask the 22-year-old how he remains cooler than the Alberta Plains in February during the heat of a game and he isn’t quite sure. However, he wasn’t always the calm competitor that you see today.
“I know when I was younger, at least, anytime I would come into tryouts or anything like that, I was always the nervous guy,” Spurgeon recalled with a grin. “So maybe being nervous when I was younger helped me grow into it and get over it at a younger age.”
Spurgeon is familiar with competing against older and bigger opponents. He grew up playing against his older brother Tyler, a center who was drafted by the home team Oilers in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft, in their parents’ unfinished basement.
“We had lots of games down there,” Spurgeon remembered. “Lots of fights.”
Yet, it wasn’t his brother who wanted to work on his one-on-one moves that spurred him to the blue line, “I was almost in net more than I was playing defense,” Spurgeon joked. He made the move to defense as a 14-year-old because his team had too many forwards. He obliged, and felt a passion for the position.
“Obviously, when you’re growing up, you love to score goals,” Spurgeon said. “But, I changed to defense and fell in love with the position.”
Playing defense allowed Spurgeon to see the entire rink and find players up ice, similar to a quarterback in football. As a former forward, he also has an understanding of their tendencies. His vision is a big reason he now quarterbacks one of Wild’s power play units. This is where his poise with the puck is most apparent.
“It makes the play open up,” Spurgeon said about playing the point. “It’s easier to see (the play develop) from behind and jump into holes.”
“He’s really slippery,” fellow blueliner Clayton Stoner said. “He’s a little guy out there, but he never really gets hit too hard and he always comes out of the corner with the puck.
“His style is kind of rare.”
Spurgeon’s puck skills are easy to see. A little harder to dissect is his defensive zone presence, mainly, because he is rarely out of position, even after jumping up into a rush. Growing up, to defend bigger and stronger competitors, Spurgeon had to develop anticipation and learn to jockey for inside positioning on opponents because he wasn’t able to overpower them like a larger defenseman.
Having to fight against bigger and stronger competitors might be a reason Spurgeon has been so dependable as a pro in both the offensive and defensive ends.
“Growing up, I think he’s had to prove himself day in and day out,” Yeo said. “Being a smaller defenseman, he hasn’t been given a lot of off days, so there’s been that pressure to perform and pressure for him to go out and prove everybody wrong. And with that he’s been able to find a consistency level that not a lot of people can find.”
Spurgeon’s play has been so valuable to the Wild this season that, after being hit from behind by Colorado’s Cody McLeod, Yeo compared him to last season Norris Trophy finalist Shea Weber of the Nashville Predators.
“He’s not Shea Weber, but he’s ours in the sense that he’s going to play the same kind of minutes, he’s going to play against top lines, he’s going to play power play and penalty kill and we count on him both offensively and defensively,” Yeo explained. “So, when you start thinking in that context you start to realize how valuable he is to our team.”
“He’s quiet and reserved, but at the same time, he plays with a lot of energy,” Stoner said. “You might not hear him as much on the ice but you sure notice him.”
In the home stretch of the season, with valuable points and a playoff spot on the line, expect to notice Spurgeon playing with the poise of a grizzly bear trainer. And if the Wild makes a run into the post-season, he’ll be a big reason. Just don’t expect much of a playoff beard.