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Former Hill-Murray captain, Norsemen defenseman Leo Gruba sleeps on it, commits to play for SCSU

Both of Gruba's parents attended St. Cloud State. His father, Tony, played forward for the Huskies from 1990-94 and was the team's captain his senior season.

Leo Gruba faceoff.jpg
Leo Gruba verbally committed to play for St. Cloud State on June 1, 2022. The 18-year-old defenseman from Lake Elmo, Minn., lettered three seasons for Hill-Murray High School and played 21 games in the North American Hockey League with the St. Cloud Norsemen after his senior season was completed. He is rated No. 125 among North American skaters eligible for the 2022 NHL Entry Draft by NHL Central Scouting.
Pete Knutson Photography

Leo Gruba was excited after his recruiting trip to St. Cloud State, but wanted to give himself some time before he made a decision.

"I knew it was the right spot for me right away and that it was going to be my decision," said Gruba, who made his visit on May 26. "I was like 99.9% sure. On the spot, I didn't tell (SCSU's coaching staff) that I was 100% in. I wanted to go home and make sure because it is a big decision.

"I just slept on it and woke up the next morning and know that it is the right decision. I think that was the right way for me to do it. Some guys commit right on the spot. It had been a very eventful week with our season being over, going back home and graduating — I just wanted to decompress for a second and then make a big decision."

The 18-year-old defenseman from Lake Elmo, Minn., graduated from Hill-Murray High School. In three varsity seasons, he helped the Pioneers reach three Class AA state tournaments, which included a state title in 2020 and a third-place finish in 2022.

As a senior, he was Hill-Murray's captain, was named to the AP All-State First Team, was third on the team in points (33 in 31 games) and tied for the team lead in plus/minus (plus-42). In three seasons, he had 16 goals, 53 points, 22 penalty minutes and was a plus-45.

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After his senior season, he played junior hockey for the St. Cloud Norsemen of the North American Hockey League. He played in 10 regular season games and had five points, two penalty minutes and was a plus-3. The Norsemen won the Central Division regular season and postseason tournament titles and Gruba helped them reach the Robertson Cup semifinals. In 11 playoff games, he had three assists, two penalty minutes and was a minus-1 and the Norsemen were eliminated on May 21.

Gruba delayed any recruiting visits until the NAHL season was over.

"I went on tour and got to meet their new assistant coach (R.J.) Enga and caught up with coach (Brett) Larson and coach (Dave) Shyiak and that was a lot of fun," Gruba said. "You can really tell by being there, in the rink, the culture they have. I met with some of the guys and the equipment manager — it's really not matched any other place in terms of culture and that's why you hear so many great things about the reputation that coach Larson and all of the guys have there."

Leo Gruba skating (1).jpg
Between the regular season and playoffs, defenseman Leo Gruba played in 21 games for the St. Cloud Norsemen in the North American Hockey League in 2022. He had eight points, four penalty minutes and was plus-2 for the Norsemen and is ranked No. 125 among North American skaters eligible for the 2022 NHL Entry Draft by NHL Central Scouting.
Pete Knutson Photography

Mom and dad are SCSU alums

Gruba took his mom, Jodie, and dad, Tony, on the recruiting trip to St. Cloud State. Both of his parents attended St. Cloud State. Tony, who is also a Hill-Murray alum, played hockey for the Huskies from 1990-94 and had 111 points in 138 games and was the team's captain as a senior.

"Brought both my parents up with me because I figured that they've supported me a lot and I really value their opinion and hold me to a high standard," he said. "They've guided me throughout my life and they could help me form the right decision and I made the right decision.

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

"They said that a lot had changed (on campus), but a lot hadn't changed. They had stories for all of the landmarks and the cafeteria. They had funny stories. I really didn't want my parents being there to affect my opinion and they didn't pressure me in any way. But at the end of the day, I think it's pretty cool, now that I am committed there. But it really didn't have anything to do with my decision, if that makes any sense."

St. Cloud State, which began the recruiting process with Gruba a year earlier, was the first of his scheduled recruiting visits. But after he visited SCSU, he canceled the rest of his visits.

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"I knew I didn't need to see anywhere else," said Gruba, who did not announce his commitment on Twitter until June 1. "That was part of the reason that it took me a couple of days. I still wanted to be respectful of the other coaches and communicate that before they see on Twitter that I'd committed someplace else.

"I hadn't seen anything else, but I knew that I wasn't going to see anything better. Everything that I'd heard about St. Cloud was true just about culture and the way people treat each other."

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Leo Gruba (2) warms up before a junior hockey game for the St. Cloud Norsemen of the North American Hockey League in 2022.
COURTESY OF ST. CLOUD NORSEMEN

A two-way defenseman, NHL prospect

Gruba's stock rose considerably during the last year. As a junior at Hill-Murray, he had 15 points in 20 games and then played his first season in the Upper Midwest High School Elite League last fall. Players are invited to play in the league, which is for the top players in the state.

In 20 regular season games playing for MPLS ST. PAUL Magazine, Gruba had nine goals and 26 points in 20 games. In January, he was listed at No. 100 among North American skaters eligible for the 2022 NHL Entry Draft by NHL Central Scouting. On May 10, the 6-foot-1, 202-pound Gruba was listed at No. 125 on Central Scouting's final draft ratings.

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

On May 5, Gruba was selected by the Fargo Force in the first round (fifth overall) of Phase II of the United States Hockey League draft.

"He's just a player who is just starting to scratch the surface of where he can get to," said Fargo Force head coach Nick Oliver, who spent the last four seasons as an SCSU assistant coach. "Just watching him last year in high school and then this fall in the Elite League, throughout this high school season — you saw him take a lot of steps with his game. And then he finishes the season with the Norsemen and playing in the Robertson Cup.

"He's a kid that you've seen at a lot of different levels of the game and make a lot of steps. He just kept getting better and better. That's something at the junior level that you get excited about. No. 1, really good people, really good competitor and someone who is gifted and has the talent and the skill set you want to work with."

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Gruba admits that he has a lot to learn, but Oliver sees a lot of potential with the tools he has.

"When you project him out, he's a natural two-way defenseman, who can impact the game in a lot of different areas," Oliver said. "He has some strong offensive elements to his game with his ability to skate, transport the puck, his ability to bring offense from the blue line, both with a really good shot and he has an ability to use deception and activate and has a creative side to him offensively.

The 31-year-old Roseau High School graduate discusses the tough decision to leave the Huskies for the USHL. He also talks about the newcomers for SCSU in the fall and does a rapid fire on coaches he's played for, worked with.

"He's still learning when and where to use some of that and he's still learning more of the details on the defensive side. He's competitive and strong enough that he's going to be able to defend. He's still learning the details of playing that position and being consistent defensively. But he definitely has the skill set and competitiveness to impact the game on both ends of the ice."

And Gruba is looking forward to working with Oliver, a former St. Cloud State and Force captain.

"That will be awesome because I think it will give me a little head start on learning the St. Cloud system," he said. "Obviously, coach Oliver will run his own team. But his former experiences at St. Cloud will probably carry over, some of the same methods. It will be nice to pick his brain on stuff."

18-year-old from Calgary, Alberta, is listed at 6-foot-2, 180 pounds. His father works for the Calgary Flames, he is bilingual and 3 former NHL players coached him in youth hockey

Gruba will likely be one of three St. Cloud State recruits on the Fargo roster in the fall. Tyson Gross, a 19-year-old forward from Calgary, Alberta, will be returning to the Force. Verner Miettinen, a 19-year-old center from Espoo, Finland, was also taken by Fargo in Phase II of the USHL Draft. Miettinen, the younger brother of SCSU wing Veeti Miettinen, played last season for Kiekko-Espoo Blues Under-20 team in Finland.

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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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