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Norsemen D Leo Gruba is trying to stay focused with recruiting interest, being ranked by NHL Central Scouting

The 18-year-old senior at Hill-Murray High School is the No. 100-ranked North American skater in the midterm rankings by NHL Central Scouting and is weighing NCAA Division I offers. But his next task is helping St. Cloud reach the second round of the NAHL playoffs, which begin Friday

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Leo Gruba (2) carries the puck for the St. Cloud Norsemen. Gruba, who helped Hill-Murray to a third-place finish in the Class AA state hockey tournament, played 10 regular season games with the Norsemen, who begin the NAHL playoffs on Friday, April 22, 2022.
COURTESY OF ST. CLOUD NORSEMEN

ST. CLOUD, Minn. — When NHL Central Scouting's midterm rankings came out in January for the 2022 draft eligible players, Leo Gruba was a bit surprised when he got a phone call that he was ranked No. 100 among North American skaters.

Gruba, 18, was a senior captain for the Hill-Murray High School team when he found out.

"When I was told that I'd be on that (list) and I was a little bit like, 'Me? OK, sounds good,'" the defenseman said with a smile. "I'm confident in my game and I've always thought that I'm good, I can hang with these guys and I'm a good player. But it never really clicked in my head that that's the next step — the draft.

"At the moment, I was thinking of my senior year of high school and trying to win the state tournament. When that (draft list) came into my wheelhouse, that it's the next step — it was a little surreal, to be honest. I try not to think too much of it. It's an honor to be on it."

MSU-Mankato commit has helped one of the top power-play teams in the NAHL to lead the Central Division.

Currently, Gruba is trying to focus on helping the St. Cloud Norsemen reach the second round of the North American Hockey League playoffs. St. Cloud, which set a franchise record by going 41-16-2-1 and won the Central Division regular season title, has home ice advantage for the first round of the playoffs against the Bismarck Bobcats (29-27-1-3).

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The Norsemen open the playoffs with a best-of-five division semifinals series on at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday Municipal Athletic Complex. Playoff tickets are $5 and can be purchased online at tickets.stcloudnorsemen.com.

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Hill-Murray defender Leo Gruba (11) reaches up to catch the puck before St. Thomas Academy defender McClain Beaudette (5) can punch it into the net in the first period of a Class 2A semifinal game of the State Boys' Hockey Tournament at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul on Friday, March 6, 2020.
John Autey / St. Paul Pioneer Press

Loved being a Pioneer

Gruba, who is listed at 6-foot-2 and 205 pounds, is expected to be in the lineup and playing on a power-play unit for the Norsemen in the series. He spent time with the team during the preseason and then joined the Norsemen after his high school season ended with a third-place finish for the Pioneers in the Class AA state tournament.

Both of Gruba's parents attended Hill-Murray and he ended up playing three varsity seasons for the Pioneers.

"It was kind of dream come true, being a captain for Hill," said Gruba, who also played soccer and tennis in high school. "I've gone to Hill-Murray games since I was a little guy and I always wanted to be the captain, to be the guy there. We had a really good year (25-5-1) and came up a little bit short and ended up getting third place.

"It was kind of a dream come true to be with the boys and this class — I grew with these guys since I was in sixth grade. To have all of us join together for a big senior class — it was fun."

Gruba was third on the team in goals (12) assists (21) and points (33) in 31 high school games. Since joining the Norsemen, he has four assists, five points, two penalty minutes, 14 shots on goal and is a plus-3 in 10 games. He said that he began playing primarily defense during his second season of squirts (10-and-under).

"Some would argue that I'm still a forward," Gruba said with a laugh. "I chose to be a defenseman because I like to be able to see the ice a little bit more and have little bit more time and space to skate it and make plays. Even from like a young age, I've always been a physical player.

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Hill-Murray defenseman Leo Gruba (11) skates the puck past Andover forward Brooks Cogswell (11) during the first period Friday, March 11, 2022, in the State Boys Hockey Tournament at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul.
Jason Wachter / The Rink Live

"When I'm playing at my best, I bring a variety of things. I like to strive to be a two-way defenseman where I think a couple years ago, I would have been strictly an offensive defenseman. I'm rounding that part of my game out. When I'm playing well, I'm shooting the puck a lot, have a good active stick in the 'D' zone and jumping up and joining the (offensive) rush. The coaches here tell me that you've got to join and pressure and be up in the rush."

Clark Kuster, a former St. Cloud State defensemen, is an assistant coach for the Norsemen and works with the defense. Kuster said the coaching staff likes the talent that Gruba brings and is helping him refine some areas.

"Simplifying his game a little bit more," Kuster said. "We like to call him a wild stallion a little bit. He plays off of instinct and his raw ability.

"He's learning more of the where and when details of the game. He's progressing," he said. "He's got some size, he's strong, can wire a puck and there's definitely some ability there that's very noticeable."

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St. Cloud Norsemen defenseman Leo Gruba, 18, is ranked No. 100 among North American defensemen eligibile for the 2022 draft by NHL Central Scouting.
COURTESY OF ST. CLOUD NORSEMEN

A hockey family

Some of that ability is inherited. His uncle, Steve Griffith, played forward for Hill-Murray and then the Gophers from 1979-83 before playing for Team USA in the 1984 Winter Olympics. Gruba's father, Tony, played forward for St. Cloud State from 1990-94. In 138 college games, Tony had 40 goals, 71 assists, 111 points and 295 penalty minutes and was the team captain as a senior. In the Division I era, he is second on the program's career penalty minutes list and is tied for 28th in career points.

"(My dad) has some big shoes to fill," Gruba said. "I'm kind of following a similar path with going to Hill and being a Johnson guy. There's definitely a lot of similarities between us and we look very similar. It's funny and I hear it all the time that he was such a great player.

This group of former St. Cloud State men's hockey players played for the Huskies from 1989-94

"I've watched some of his games and it's crazy. He was a good player. I try not to think of it as pressure. He did his own thing and I've got my own separate career."

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Gruba said that his father coached him until his second season of squirts (10-and-under).

"It was really good to have him as a coach because he's so intelligent," Gruba said of his dad, who is a financial advisor. "I remember talking to him as I was going into my second year of squirts — 'Hey, I like having you as a coach, but I don't want to be dad's son. I kind of want to do my own thing.' He was really cool about that. He understood and probably thought it was the best for me, too."

While his dad played for the Huskies, Gruba has not yet made a decision as to where he wants to play college hockey. He said that he is being recruited by a number of schools, including St. Cloud State. His dad is not putting any pressure on him to play for the Huskies, but he does hear about it from time to time.

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Tony Gruba (13) played forward for the St. Cloud State men's hockey team from 1990-94.
Courtesy of St. Cloud State University Athletics

"He's got a couple of friends that he went to school with who are always harping, 'Be a Husky, be a Husky,'" Gruba said with a smile. "I get the whole sales pitch.

"It sounds like he had a fun college career. I've talked to St. Cloud and I really like the coaches and there's no red flags with them and it's cool being in the city where that would happen. I've gotten a lot of texts from my dad's friends about that.

"There's really no pressure to go to St. Cloud. (My dad) knows that it's my thing. It's been established since I was young that this is my journey and he's there to support me, but at the end of the day, it's my decision. He's not harping on me to go to St. Cloud or not go to St. Cloud."

The 18-year-old forward, who was named Mr. Hockey in March, has 13 points in 13 games for the North American Hockey League team.

And Gruba has put a lot of the college recruiting on the back burner until the end of the season. He said that he has official visits lined up and wants to make a decision on a college this summer.

"As much as I can, I'm trying to cancel the noise," Gruba said. "I don't want it to distract me too much. I've talked to some schools that I've really liked."

Right now, what he's enjoying is working on his game and being around the Norsemen.

"He loves coming to the rink, loves being here and being around the boys," Kuster said. "He sits up near the front of the bus near the coaches (on road trips). He'll joke around with us and have fun. Another kid that you enjoy being around."

READ MORE ST. CLOUD STATE HUSKIES COVERAGE:
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Mick Hatten is a reporter and editor for Forum News Service and helps manage TheRinkLive.com, a website dedicated to hockey. He began working for Forum Communications in November 2018 and has covered St. Cloud State University hockey since 2010. A graduate of St. Cloud State, he has more than 30 years of experience as a journalist and has been a youth hockey coach since 2014. mhatten@forumcomm.com
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