A year ago, NHL draft day came and went and not a single NHL looked at Saline's Brandon Kruse and thought he was the right fit.
Saturday, Vegas Golden Knights, the sporting world's most successful collection of misfits, drafted Kruse in the fifth round.
Kruse was watching the draft with his buddy Cam Babiak at Buffalo Wild Wings in Ann Arbor when his life-long dream came true. His friend and former teammate, Paul Cotter, of Canton, had just been drafted by Vegas in the fourth round. Kruse fired off a congratulatory text and was preparing to leave the restaurant when he saw his name flash on one of the television screens.
"I was a little star-struck at first. Being drafted by an NHL team has been something I've dreamed about since I was a little kid," Kruse said.
Since then, his phone has been blowing up with texts and tweets and phone calls. Some of the most important phone calls have been from management of the Vegas Golden Knights, the first-year expansion team that shocked the hockey world and went to the Stanley Cup Final. Though he expects to return to Bowling Green State University this fall, the franchise wants to get a look at Kruse and its other new draft picks. Kruse flies to Vegas early this week for a development camp.
Since the Golden Knights have only been around for a year, Kruse can't claim he's always wanted to play for the team. Still, he's stoked to be part of the organization.
"It's pretty surreal to see the way that team came together. They've got an exciting hockey team and an incredible fan base," Kruse said. "I couldn't be happier going there."
A year ago, nobody could have guessed what was in store for Vegas hockey fans. By the same token, Kruse wasn't sure where he fit in the hockey world. He was coming off a strong season for the Blizzard, a North American Hockey League team based in Brookings, S.D. In 59 games, the speedy forward scored 16 goals and tallied 30 assists. Kruse earned an offer from Bowling Green State University. But at 5'8 and 150 pounds, it wasn't enough to attract the interest of NHL teams. The 31 teams passed over Kruse in the draft.
Kruse was prepared for the let down.
"I was happy to see all those guys I'd played with and played against get drafted, but it kind of sucked being left out," Kruse said. "I wasn't really expecting to be drafted. I've always been a smaller player and it's always been harder to get noticed."
Kruse, the son of Eric and Robyn Kruse, didn't get sad or mad. He did what he always does. He worked hard to prepare for the upcoming season and then he used his speed and skill to create magic on the ice. The freshman quickly made an impact. He led all Bowling Green forwards with 33 points, scoring eight goals and tallying 25 assists. He out-produced some of the biggest names in the USA Hockey prospect world - including Casey Mittelstadt, drafted eighth overall by the Buffalo Sabres last year, and Brady Tkachuk, selected fourth overall by the Ottawa Senators this year. He scored .8 points-per-game, ranking 10th out of all freshman Division one players. He was named to the WCHA All-Rookie Team.
He credits his teammates and coaches for his fabulous freshman campaign.
"I play with a lot of good players and was fortunate enough to have two seniors (Mitchell McLain and Tyler Spezia) on my line. The coaches expected a lot and I focused on competing harder," Kruse said. "Everything worked out."
Kruse's campaign caught the attention of USA Hockey and NHL scouts.
Last week, Kruse was named to the Team USA roster for the 2018 World Junior Summer Showcase. Players invited to the tournament are auditioning for jobs on the US National Junior Team that will compete in the 2019 IIHF U-20 World Junior Championships in British Columbia.
"I'm honored to have the opportunity to represent my country in a tournament like that. Many great players have come through that tournament," Kruse said.
Being named to the Team USA roster a week before the NHL draft didn't hurt Kruse's stock. Still, Kruse wasn't counting on anything.
"I thought it was 50-50 I'd be drafted. I wasn't surprised. But I wasn't expecting it either," Kruse said.
He'd had some communication with NHL officials and filled out surveys.
Kruse's Bowling Green connections may have played a role in the Vegas selection. George McPhee, General Manager of the Golden Knights, played at Bowling Green from 78-79 to 81-82 before his 115-game NHL playing career. McPhee, himself, was a 5'9, 165-pound hockey player. One of the Golden Knights' best players is 5'9 Jon Marchesseault.
A decade ago, a 5'8 speed merchant like Kruse might not have gotten a second look from NHL teams. But the clutch-and-grab era is over. Kruse, who compared his skillset to Calgary Flames star Johnny Gaudreau, assessed his strengths.
"I'm fast, shifty and skilled with a good hockey IQ," Kruse said. "I try to be myself out there.
Kruse knows he still has a long road to the NHL in front of him. But he also knows he's come a long way in 12 months.