College hockey’s relationship with its NHL counterparts is unique—no other NCAA sport has drafted players competing for amateur championships. From the prism of college football or hoops, having hundreds of NCAA eligible players spend a week with their NHL clubs before returning to campus is unimaginable, but that is simply business as usual in college hockey.
The WCHA had 24 eligible players from six member schools attend NHL development camps this summer, players ranging from wide-eyed freshmen to battle-scarred veterans, including a pair of WCHA playoff enemies who spent a week wearing the same original six logo and taking in a major league game at iconic Fenway Park. Lake Superior State defenseman Steven Ruggiero nailed it when he described the NHL development camp experience: “For a hockey player, it’s a little bit of paradise.”
The NCAA is often charged with being unofficial minor leagues for professional sports, a one-way street in which the pro’s exploit all the training and development offered by the colleges. Hockey is a world turned upside down, the only sport in which the pros aid the amateurs every summer, helping create superior players who keep raising the level of Division I hockey. This summer, six WCHA schools had players attend NHL development camps, and they all returned as superior candidates for the season ahead.
The Vegas Trifecta
Elite NCAA hockey prospects experience a whirlwind in their late teenage years. Unlike their football and hoops brethren who simply matriculate from high school to college, the 19-year-old hockey blue-chipper often finds himself in three jerseys in one season, each one representing a gigantic step up from the junior or high school levels. Only one WCHA player will wear an NCAA, NHL, and Team USA World Junior Showcase jersey in 2018, and that’s rising Bowling Green sophomore Brandon Kruse of Saline, Michigan. He looks more like a YMCA camp counselor than a future pro—a 5-foot-9 kid whose who’s still waiting for his growth spurt.
After being snubbed in the 2017 NHL entry draft, Kruse put his head down and set about his business at Bowling Green, leading the Falcons in scoring last season while turning heads with his blazing speed and mature hockey I.Q. Shortly after his stellar freshman campaign, the three brightest stars in the hockey cosmos collided in the Kruse solar system, all arriving within a startling 10-day stretch.
make you wanna roll your windows down and— Vegas Golden Knights (@GoldenKnights) June 29, 2018
On June 15 he was named to the preliminary USA Hockey roster for the World Junior Summer Showcase in Kamloops. For those unfamiliar with the World Juniors, think of it as an under-20 Olympics, only more intense. Of the 34 NCAA players at this prestigious camp, Kruse was the one and only from the WCHA. One week later Kruse was relaxing at Buffalo Wild Wings in Ann Arbor when he saw his name flash across NHL Network; he had been drafted by the Vegas Golden Knights! Two days later he was on a flight to the entertainment capital of the world, and on June 25, he stepped onto the ice in Las Vegas, wearing the gear of the Stanley Cup Finalists at their development camp.
Three life-changing moments to start the summer, back-to-back-to-back. For a kid who looked like he should be mowing your lawn, 19-year-old Brandon Kruse was atop hockey Everest.
“Having fun, proving people wrong, it’s a really good time,” Kruse told the NHL Network from the Golden Knights practice facility, uttering a massive understatement.
He willingly donned a wireless mic for a practice and a scrimmage, showcasing his killer speed down the wing in front of network cameras. Surrounded by both fellow newbies and seasoned minor pro’s, Kruse remarked that this was his first experience ever playing with only a half shield. By the end of Day One, Kruse had fully embraced the Golden Knights mindset—letting it all hang out.
“There’s time to be serious,” said Kruse, moments after a practice that was all smiles, “but everyone’s pretty relaxed. They just want you to have fun with it; that was one of their mottos going into the season.”
#28 Brandon Kruse
Bowling Green Falcons
Hometown: Saline, Michigan
Last Team: Brookings Blizzard (NAHL)
2017-18 Point Scoring
The good times were not limited to the ice. Kruse and 40 other Vegas prospects trucked down the strip to Mandalay Bay to take in the Cirque du Soleil Michael Jackson show.
“I’ve never seen anything like that,” said Kruse, eyes widening. “That was pretty spectacular. Just being in Vegas, it’s a fun time.”
The Kruse summer tour heads out to Kamloops, British Columbia, at the end of July, where the mindset changes from friendly introductions to a dead-serious battle for jobs.
Extending his summer euphoria will require Kruse to survive the USA Hockey cuts from two squads down to one. He will be playing his butt off in front of new boss George McPhee, the Vegas general manager who happens to be a fellow Bowling Green product, another 5-9 overachiever who, like Kruse, burst onto the college hockey scene as the Falcons top scorer as a freshman. McPhee will be watching to how Kruse matches up against the world’s best teenagers.
Young Brandon is on the wildest ride of his hockey life this summer. Stay tuned to see if he can extend the good times.
Upcoming WCHA Prospect Check-Ins:
Phil Beaulieu, Northern Michigan — Boston Bruins
Cooper Zech, Ferris State — Washington Capitals
Steve Ruggiero, Lake Superior State — Anaheim Ducks
Jake Jaremko, Minnesota State — Nashville Predators
Jake Jackson, Michigan Tech — San Jose Sharks