Prior to the 2005-06 season, Jared Spurgeon and his family were thinking long and hard about the notion that the youngster might be draping himself in a Spokane Chiefs jersey as a 15-year-old.
Not only was it a hockey related decision, it was a choice between two countries and a choice between junior hockey and the NCAA. The WHL was not unfamiliar territory for the family at the time, given that the eldest son, Tyler Spurgeon (EDM), had already experienced a couple of years of life away from home as a member of the Kelowna Rockets.
“I knew it would definitely be a change from Edmonton, being in the United States,” Jared Spurgeon said. “But my parents came down a lot to visit in the first few months to make sure I was doing okay and that really helped a lot.”
On the ice, Spurgeon gave the Chiefs plenty to think about. During their training camp, the organization suggested he might fit into their plans immediately. It was heady stuff for the then 5’8, 155-pound rearguard.
At the time, Bill Peters was the head coach in Spokane. He has since moved on to the Chicago Blackhawks organization as head coach of their AHL affiliate, the Rockford IceHogs. Peters knew the Chiefs had something special in Spurgeon, despite the rather small package that contained such obvious talent.
“When Jared came out of camp, there was some question as to whether he would stay with us or go back to Edmonton and get some more experience at the midget AAA level,” Peters said. “We were interested in him staying, but he had a decision to make because we had an ice time issue.
“We had some depth on the blueline at the time, so you always have to figure out what’s best for a young player. The way it worked out was that Jared got off to a bit of a slow start because we couldn’t get him into the lineup very much. Then we had some injuries, he got in the lineup and then his play kind of dictated that we couldn’t take him out.”
A seasoned WHL veteran
Since then, all Spurgeon has done is evolve into a determined veteran leader, a Memorial Cup champion and a NHL draft choice of the New York Islanders. While he has added some 20 pounds to his frame, Spurgeon will likely be labeled as “too small” in some quarters. Alas, it’s commentary the diminutive defenseman has heard and overcome throughout his playing days.
Fast forward to the 2008-09 season and Spurgeon finds himself a more mature and experienced WHLer. He has overcome many of the challenges associated with adapting to life away from home and also the ongoing battles associated with understanding the game at the elite junior level.
“Well it’s definitely better here now compared to the first season when we were at the bottom of the pack,” Spurgeon said. “We grew up together as a team and that also helped me to achieve some individual success. I think with going to the Memorial Cup last year, it helped my chances of getting drafted because the scouts maybe see you as a winner and that really helps.”
That Memorial Cup run last season was not a totally unfamiliar experience for Spurgeon, although the event in Kitchener, Ontario required him to lace up the blades in earnest. In 2004 as a spectator, he attended the Memorial Cup in Kelowna when the Rockets played host to and won the tournament. Older brother Tyler was a member of the winning team.
“When I watched Tyler at the Memorial Cup, it was neat to see how the fans got behind them,” Spurgeon said. “To see the media coverage and the players who came through the Memorial Cup tournament and then on to play in the NHL really was definitely a factor in my choice to come to the WHL.”
Patience has been a key
Playing consistently well in the WHL can be an elusive proposition, however, Spurgeon was content with being patient along the way. While he was eager to play important minutes for the Chiefs, he knew it would take some time.
“When you’re a younger guy, you’re kind of scared to make that mistake because it’s maybe your first year in the league and you just want to stay in the lineup,” Spurgeon said. “Ever since my first season I’ve worked on defense first before jumping up into the rush. But it’s important for me to know when I can go because creating offense is an important part of my game.”
And knowing when the time is right to jump into the play offensively can be a product of confidence in your partner on the blueline. Spurgeon has played most of the past two seasons been with Jared Cowen, touted as one of the WHL’s top three prospects for the upcoming NHL Entry Draft. Cowen, however, seriously injured a knee on Jan. 30 and will not play again this season.
“He’s a great team mate and we were partners on defense last season and this year until he was injured,” Spurgeon said. “I don’t think he plays like a 17-year-old. He’s very mature as a player and he’s easy to take aside and share things with, so hopefully I’m helping him to learn a few things.
“As far as getting involved offensively, I think it’s more so him some games and on other nights it’s more so me. We both like to jump up into the play and realize that we have to cover for each other, too. We read each other well and can rely on each other and that’s a good thing.”
Through 56 games this season, Spurgeon has scored 10 goals and 33 assists. He has tied his career high in points. He has also posted a plus-33 rating this year. He played for Team WHL in the ADT Canada/Russia Challenge games and was invited to the Team Canada’s tryout camp for the WJC in December. By season’s end, he will have played well over 230 games during across four seasons in Spokane.
What the current head coach has observed
Current Chiefs head coach Hardy Sauter is a beneficiary of the cohesive Spurgeon-Cowen pairing and he recognizes that Spurgeon possesses the veteran presence that contributes to team success.
“He really does everything for our team,” Sauter said. “He plays in all situations and really anticipates the play well. He’s is an offensively gifted guy because he finds holes out there and he can finish around the net. He kills penalties well because he sees plays developing and is able to get in the way.
“Last season he was definitely very good here and also played in all situations, but this year he has more confidence. You can tell in his play and in the way he talks with his teammates on the bench about things during the game. He feels comfortable and confident and he’s not afraid to help his team mates during plays and after plays in order to make our team more efficient.”
Spurgeon has handled the physical rigors well as he has developed, avoiding the injury bug that hindered his progress as a 16-year-old.
“I think that’s partly due to him being such a smart player,” Sauter said. “We tell our defensemen that it’s one thing to go into the corner first, but there’s no reason to go in first just to get killed. The guys are doing a good job of making those judgment calls on their own. If they go into the corner tied or second, they are still doing a good job of battling for the puck or even making sure the opposition doesn’t come out cleanly with it.
“Because he’s so smart and can anticipate the play, he avoids a lot of dangerous plays and obviously that means he’s played more games for us. If he was a guy who was three inches taller, there would be no doubt that we wouldn’t be seeing him back in Spokane next year.”
The Isles came calling
The New York Islanders made Spurgeon their sixth-round pick, 156th overall, at the 2008 NHL Entry Draft. He was able to spend plenty of time with the Islanders over the course of their training camp schedule.
“It was great being at the mini camp for about a week right after the draft,” Spurgeon said. “It was really more about meeting the people with the organization and experiencing the city.
“Then later I went to the rookie camp and also to the main camp, so I missed a couple of league games here. But it was well worth it to spend that time with the pro guys. I got to skate with Mark Streit a bit and he’s a very offensive-minded defenseman. So I enjoyed watching him and seeing how well he does things.”
There was also a friendly face at Isles camp, a name from the past with ties to Jared’s days as a fan of the Kelowna Rockets.
“It was lots of fun to see Blake Comeau again and he kind of took me under his wing for a couple of days just to show me around,’ Spurgeon said. “I sort of knew him from coming up to Kelowna and watching Tyler play, so it wasn’t too awkward seeing him in New York.”
A hockey family affair
As far as the impact of his older brother on his own career, Jared exudes respect and thanks for the trail Tyler blazed ahead of him. The brothers stay in contact as much as possible with their busy schedules.
“He helped me out for sure, he’s had a huge impact on the route I chose,” Jared said. “I could have gone the college route I guess, but seeing Tyler play in Kelowna, I definitely wanted to come to the WHL.
“He’s in Springfield and team is struggling a bit, but he says he’s having fun and he’s just trying to work hard there. He’s doing lots of penalty killing and taking a lot of last minute faceoffs. We talk a couple of times a week, but mostly about other things that are going on because there’s so much hockey while we are at the rinks that it’s nice to talk about something else.”
Three years into his WHL career, Spurgeon has managed to maintain a healthy perspective and a sense of humor, especially for a player of his physical stature.
“There’s lots of stronger bodies out there to move,” Spurgeon laughed. “I just have to get good body position and use my speed to help me out, because it’s not like I’m going to run over guys who are 6’4 and 220 pounds.”