PLYMOUTH, Mich. -- It's two days after Christmas.
Tyler Kleven walks into a meeting room at USA Hockey Arena.
At 6-foot-4, 200 pounds, he's noticeably tall and slender. He hasn't come close to filling out his frame. That's understandable considering he just turned 18 years old.
He smiles and introduces himself. He's friendly, yet there's still a shyness to him. He's engaging, yet somewhat reserved.
If you didn't already know, you'd never believe it: This kid -- this lanky, polite, quiet kid -- is perhaps the most physically intimidating and feared prospect that will be picked in the 2020 NHL Draft.
"He's the nicest kid in the world," U.S. Under-18 Team head coach Seth Appert said. "He's got his little glasses on. He's smiling . . . he almost got in a fight at practice today. The day before a game. That's just who he is. It's just in his DNA. He's real tough. The game is changing. It's different now. But physical intimidation and physical play is still of major importance in the game of hockey and he has that in spades.
"He has that combined with being 6-4, really mobile and offensively talented. His numbers don't say that, but he is an offensively talented player. He's got a great stick. He shoots the puck a ton."
With that unique skillset, Kleven has a chance to be picked higher than anyone who has ever played North Dakota high school hockey.
Kleven, who played prep hockey at Fargo Davies as a sophomore before joining the USA Hockey program, is projected by most scouts to go in the second round of the NHL Draft, whenever that may occur.
If he does, he will surpass Grafton-Park River's Lee Brodeur, who went No. 65 overall to the Montreal Canadiens in the 1984 NHL Draft, as the highest-drafted North Dakota high school player.
If not, he won't be far behind.
Kleven is different than most players in today's game.
Scouts call him a "throwback" for the way he can physically dominate a game. There is nobody in this draft that can hammer opponents like Kleven. The question for them is how much his puck skills can develop during the next few years at the University of North Dakota.
Kleven is scheduled to arrive on campus in the fall with a highly touted class of defensemen, including potential top-10 pick Jake Sanderson, potential top-60 pick Mitchell Miller and 2019 fifth-round pick Cooper Moore.
Growing up in Fargo
The son of Lori and Chris, Tyler was born and raised in Fargo, where he was drawn to hockey from a young age.
Chris, who played college hockey at Northern Michigan, made a backyard hockey rink every winter. If Tyler wasn't out there, he was probably at nearby Centennial Elementary School, skating with his friends.
There were signs from an early age that Kleven was advanced. In second grade, he moved from termites to mites to a squirt team, where he was playing against fourth- and fifth-graders. He continued to play up in age groups throughout his youth, which likely had a role in his strength development.
"I've always played against bigger guys and I'd play up a year," Kleven said. "You have to be strong and physical to keep up with everybody."
Kleven's love for hockey grew, too.
He would get home after hockey games around 5 p.m. and refuse to take his gear off. He'd go straight from the car to the backyard rink to skate until 10 p.m. This pattern became so routine that his father made an ice pathway from the garage's back door to the rink in the back yard.
There was another time when Kleven refused to take off his hockey gear during an errand run. So, his father pushed him around Sam's Club with his gear, skates and skateguards on.
When it came to watching hockey, Kleven was different.
It wasn't Sidney Crosby or Pavel Datsyuk who he studied. It was Detroit Red Wings defenseman Niklas Kronwall, who was such a dominant open-ice hitter that those types of checks became known as being "Kronwalled."
Kleven studied videos of Kronwall and even has a framed poster of the Stanley Cup champion in his bedroom.
That may explain his style of game.
"It's been part of my game for a long time," Kleven said. "I remember when I couldn't hit back in squirts. I think I racked up a couple hundred penalty minutes because I was already starting to hit. It's a big part of my game."
'He had to learn how to play the game'
Kleven played bantam hockey as a freshman and caught the eye of the nation in the following summer.
He was so dominant at a USA Hockey camp in June 2017 that he immediately fielded offers from nearly every powerhouse college program: UND, Minnesota, Boston University, Boston College, Michigan, Denver, Wisconsin, Minnesota Duluth, Notre Dame and more.
Kleven committed to UND, then joined Fargo Davies for the following season. He tallied nine goals and 16 points in 27 games in his lone North Dakota prep season.
After that, he left for USA Hockey's National Team Development Program, where Appert and defensive coach Nick Fohr, a Grand Forks native, worked on his all-around development.
"He had to learn how to play the game," Appert said. "That's not a knock on where he came from or him. He's just so big and strong and physically talented that in high school hockey in North Dakota, he could just take the puck and go. Last year, he had to learn the nuances of the game.
"Defending isn't just running and going and trying to kill somebody. It's when to be aggressive, when to gap down versus when to protect the middle of the ice. It's having your stick on the ice when you're going to hit people so they don't make plays through you, and you get a big hit, but you give up a two-on-one. Those are the things that took time and he had to learn. He did a good job learning."
Kleven said he spent a lot of time working on video with the coaching staff.
"I know in North Dakota, I was more running at guys," Kleven said. "Now, it's more angling. It's more getting pucks to forwards and transitioning rather than them coming down and getting a good opportunity."
That doesn't mean the big hits have gone away. Kleven had one this season against a Michigan State player, who was several years older.
"He still has huge, impactful hits almost every game," Appert said. "But now he does it on angles instead of running north. Usually, when defensemen run north to have those hits, they usually have a big hit, but they're giving up chances. When they do them on angles with momentum going back to their own net, they're usually doing it while helping the team create turnovers as well. He's done a really good job with that."
Kleven was not on the power play for the U.S. Under-18 Team this season, but his booming shot from the point will give him a chance to do that in the future at UND.
"Tyler Kleven has all the tools he needs to be a power-play player at some point in his career," Appert said.
Kleven said: "It's coming along. I'm not the most offensive guy in the world, but I'm definitely working on it. I try to get pucks on net and use my one-timer as a weapon."
Despite the coronavirus pandemic, Kleven has used this time to continue working toward his future.
He's been working out daily to get ready for UND's season in the fall. He's also been doing Zoom calls with numerous NHL organizations ahead of the draft as they try to get to know Kleven as a person.
Draft projections have Kleven going anywhere from No. 21 overall (International Scouting Service) to No. 57 (Future Considerations).
Either of those would make him the highest-drafted North Dakota high school player ever. Anything above No. 78 would make him Fargo's highest-drafted player, a distinction that currently belongs to Fargo North's Danny Irmen.
"Fargo hockey has grown a lot over the years," Kleven said. "Back in the day, we had the Raiders and Flyers and Angels. Now, it's one big organization with the Freeze. Everyone has come together. I'm very proud of it. I'm proud to be from Fargo and from North Dakota."
Highest-drafted N.D. prep players
No. 65 overall - Lee Brodeur, Grafton-Park River, Montreal Canadiens (1984)
No. 72 overall - Alex Schoenborn, Minot, San Jose Sharks (2014)
No. 74 overall - Dennis Johnson, GF Central, Detroit Red Wings (1972)
No. 78 overall - Danny Irmen, Fargo North-Red River, Minnesota Wild (2003)
No. 79 overall - Dave Hanson, GF Central, Philadelphia Flyers (1984)
No. 87 overall - Keaton Thompson, Devils Lake, Anaheim Ducks (2013)
No. 87 overall - Ryan Potulny, Red River, Philadelphia Flyers (2003)
** If anyone is missing from these lists, please contact Herald writer Brad Schlossman at email@example.com.