Junior hockey is all about opportunity. For some, it's a chance to take the next step in their game before competing in the college ranks. For others, it's one last chance to play the game they love before moving on.
In the NA3HL, kids are fighting to keep their careers alive. For Woodbury native Tucker Kruse, playing for the Alexandria Blizzard meant much more.
Kruse is a 5-foot, 4-inch forward out of Cretin-Derham Hall High School. Not only does he have to overcome the lack of physical presence on the ice, he was born with high-functioning autism. From the time he laced up his skates, Kruse's father, Todd, knew that he would have to battle.
"We found out he had aspergers when he was around 12-years-old," Todd said. "Growing up, we knew he was different than most kids."
Aspegers is a condition on the autism spectrum that affects a person's social life. Kids with aspergers have a lack of social awareness, sometimes have a hard time making friends on their own and show an inability to read the thoughts and emotions of other people.
People with aspergers often show an extreme focus towards one aspect of their life. For Tucker, his life is the sport of hockey.
Life was not always easy coming up through school for Tucker.
Todd said Tucker endured the pressure of bullying in high school. However, it never deterred him from giving up his love for hockey. While Tucker was tested emotionally by some of his peers, the toll it took on his parents struck just as hard.
"It was really sad for us to see what he would go through some days," Todd said. "But he never stopped working. I know how high school kids are. It was really hard for all of us."
When Tucker looks back at his time at CDH, he reflects on the core principles of being a student athlete.
"School came first," Tucker said. "In high school, I had classes and had to do homework. Working hard in the classroom is important."
When it was time for Tucker to hang up his Raiders jersey for the last time, he had his eyes set on junior hockey. A 5-foot, 4-inch forward with aspergers is never going to be at the top of the list for a lot of scouts, but that didn't deter him from his goal.
"I just wanted to keep playing hockey," Tucker said. "Ever since I was a kid, I wanted to play college hockey. You have to go to juniors to do that. So that's how I ended up at North Iowa."
His time in Mason City
Two years ago, Tucker signed on to play with the North Iowa Bulls - an NA3HL team in the West Division.
North Iowa has been one of the top teams in the league for several years. While Tucker had his sights set on competing for a Fraser Cup, his parents were nervous about the transition.
"We had no idea what it would be like to send Tucker off to a place away from home," Todd said. "We had no idea how he would react living with a billet family or interacting with new teammates or anything. It was a leap of faith for all of us."
In his first year of juniors, Tucker played 26 games. He scored seven goals and tallied nine assists. After his rookie season wrapped up, his future in Iowa was uncertain.
"Their coach told us that Tucker was an awesome guy to have on that team and they offered to keep him around," Todd said. "They knew that he wanted to play in college and he couldn't promise him any more playing time. They asked Tucker if he wanted to get traded to a team that could put him on the ice more, and he said yes."
The Bulls traded Kruse to the Blizzard following the 2017-18 season. Just as his parents became comfortable with his living situation, the fears of the unknown crept up once again.
"We didn't know if Alexandria would take to him as well as North Iowa did," Todd said. "They were so accepting of Tuck and his needs. Most of the guys on that team welcomed him in with open arms. To leave that behind made us nervous."
Unlike his parents, Tucker wasn't phased with the change of scenery. He saw Alexandria as another step in the right direction.
"There was no adjustment," he said. "Both organizations were great and it was an easy transition. The coaches on both teams were really good for me."
Arriving to the Blizzard
Tucker's playing time increased as he was promised.
This past season, he played in 46 games while recording nine goals and 21 assists. In game three of the first round series win over top-seeded Granite City, Tucker played the whole game on the second line. The chemistry he had with his teammates on the ice allowed the Blizzard coaching staff to plug him into several spots as a versatile forward.
Sports are often poetic, and that was proven when the Blizzard drew a West Division championship series with his former team. Even though North Iowa swept the Blizzard to end their underdog run as the fourth seed, one sequence stood out to Tucker's parents sitting in the stands at the Runestone Community Center.
"Tuck has never been the kid to get in the scrums or cause some trouble on the ice. He's a rule follower," Todd said. "I think in his entire career since he was a kid he hasn't had more than a handful of penalties. In his last game on (March 23) we saw him get in the face of a kid that wasn't so accepting of him in North Iowa. That was a big step for him. That showed us that Tucker was capable of defending his teammates in that situation."
Blizzard forward Riley Scanlon and a North Iowa forward got in a shoving match after a whistle. In a situation where Tucker would have normally skated away, he stepped up for his teammate and got in the mix. A relatively normal hockey play meant so much more to his parents.
"He's not confrontational. It's part of his aspergers," Todd said. "In that moment, I could see how much he's grown. I was so proud of him."
As the final horn sounded, Tucker skated off the ice for the last time as a junior hockey player with nothing but positive things to say about the city of Alexandria.
"I felt that I played really well this season," he said. "We had a great team this year and great coaches. They brought me in with open arms and so did the community. I had a great time playing here."
Tucker isn't the kind of player who seeks the limelight, and he fit comfortably into his role.
"For me, my favorite part about playing in Alexandria was my teammates," he said. "We hung out every day at practice and at the billet houses. I made a lot of friends."
Not done yet
When Tucker sets his mind on something, he's going to get what he wants. His bulldog mentality has pushed him to work hard in everything he does in hockey.
"The best way I can put it is he's like Rudy from the movie 'Rudy,'" Todd said. "He doesn't stop. It's just not in him to stop working hard. That's just Tuck."
His efforts have kept him in contact with Fellowship of Christian Athletes hockey director Rick Randazzo. Tucker spent the last three summers working with the FCA and becoming more in tune with his faith.
"He came out to our camp in New York about three years ago," Randazzo said. "His dad found out about us online, and since then he has gone to our camps and played on our FCA team."
Through his time at the FCA, Tucker has learned to garner the attention from his peers. He does so by being himself.
"Tucker is one of the hardest-working kids I've ever met," Randazzo said. "Other kids respect him because of that. His aspergers doesn't matter because when they see him doing what he's doing, they respect him because he cares."
Tucker's future is uncertain. His goal is to keep playing hockey at Bethel University - a Christian Division III school in St. Paul. He has met with the coaches and toured the campus. All that waits now is an offer that he is unsure he is going to get.
"I just have to lean on my faith," Tucker said. "I would love to be a part of that program and go to college there. I know God has a plan for me."
Just like junior hockey, his time in college will serve a different purpose. Playing in juniors gave Tucker a chance to mature on his own. College will hopefully do the same.
"Knowing how much he will grow over that time is enough to send him," Todd said. "This time we can send him off without being worried. That's because the people in North Iowa and Alexandria were so accepting of him."
Tucker's soft-spoken personality keeps the spotlight away from him. However, he strives to set an example for other kids who might grow up playing sports with disabilities.
"I would tell kids like me to not worry about their aspergers," Tucker said. "Work hard, do your thing and be yourself. There's nothing wrong with that."