MINNEAPOLIS — Even on a muggy weekday evening in August, when Grant Cruikshank arrived at a Dinkytown coffee shop for a quick conversation, he skated there. Of course.
Life on skates -- hockey, speed, inline, whatever -- is normal for Cruikshank, a talented forward who chose the Minnesota Gophers among dozens of schools that had interest after he entered the NCAA transfer portal last spring.
Grant switched from ice skates at 3M Arena at Mariucci to Rollerblades to cruise around campus. Meanwhile, somewhere in Wisconsin it is likely that three other members of the Cruikshank clan were on skates as well.
To Grant, his parents Bonnie and Dave Cruikshank have always just been “mom and dad.” But he admitted that as a kid, when his mother would get stopped in the grocery store and asked for an autograph occasionally, he understood she was a big deal.
ABOUT THIS SERIES: In a four-part preview of the 2021-22 Minnesota Gophers' hockey season, The Rink Live's Jess Myers explores the transfer, the rookie, the captain and the legend of the program.
Over the course of five Winter Olympic games — in 1984, 1988, 1992, 1994 and 1998 — Dave Cruikshank and Bonnie Blair wore speed skates and some combo of red, white and blue. And Bonnie, quite often, added a shiny gold accent to her outfit. Blair won a gold and a bronze in Calgary (1988), two golds in Albertville (1992) and two more in Lillehammer (1994) as well as nine medals — three of them gold — from the world championships over the course of her career.
Today, both parents coach skating from their home base in suburban Milwaukee — Dave for the Los Angeles Kings, Bonnie for their daughter, Blair, who is ranked in the top 10 among American speed skaters and has her sights set on the Olympics, either this winter in China or in 2026 in Italy.
Grant admitted that last month in Milwaukee, he and new Gophers teammate Jackson LaCombe laced up the speed skates for a few laps around the 400-meter indoor track at the Pettit National Ice Center. But when it came to winter sports, he was always drawn to one with shorter blades, a stick and a puck.
“I just like hockey more, the team aspect, hanging out with the guys, being in the locker room,” Cruikshank said.
Trying times with the Tigers
When Cruikshank spoke to The Rink Live two years ago at NCHC Media Day, things were looking up for the sophomore who had just been named a captain at Colorado College. The Tigers had made their first trip to Xcel Energy Center for the Frozen Faceoff the previous spring, they had a new goalie incoming and their new on-campus arena was in the planning stages.
They started the season with wins over the Gophers and Michigan State, and Cruikshank finished among the team’s scoring leaders with 11 goals and 6 assists in 34 games. But the Tigers went through a month-long winless streak in the second half of the season, and finished with twice as many losses as wins. They were on a bus headed to Grand Forks in early March 2020 for a playoff series when they got the call that the games versus North Dakota, and the entire remaining season, was cancelled due to the pandemic.
Then things got worse. Cruikshank’s junior season at CC was a mess, to put it mildly. The Tigers had multiple battles with COVID, had to play games with very little prep, and understandably struggled on the ice. On Jan. 1, after a win over archrival Denver, the Tigers were 3-4-2 overall. They would win just one game the rest of the season, and coach Mike Haviland was fired on March 20.
Amid all of those challenges, Cruikshank suffered a burst appendix and was limited to just 16 games. When he learned that the coach who recruited him was gone, Cruikshank knew that his time at CC was at an end.
“Havy was fired and I made the decision to leave right after that,” Cruikshank said. “I had such a great relationship with him and all those coaches at CC. They treated me so well and gave me so much opportunity, I can’t speak highly enough of them.”
So he put his name in the transfer portal, and chaos ensued, with dozens of coaches contacting him in hopes of adding one of the rare top-level forwards who was looking to change schools. For Cruikshank it was a stressful, and exciting, time.
“It was kind of a crazy two, three, four weeks, on the phone a lot trying to digest everything and take things slow,” he said. “Slowly but surely I kind of narrowed it down to five schools I was really interested in ... It was a really great spot to be in and I was thankful and fortunate to be in that position where I could determine the next place to go.”
Glad to be a Gopher
Roughly 20 months earlier, Cruikshank had talked about growing up in Wisconsin, loving the Badgers, and naturally hating the Gophers. While playing two years of junior hockey in British Columbia, he had committed to play for Wisconsin under former coach Mike Eaves. In the transition from Eaves to current coach Tony Granato, there was some discrepancy about the Badgers’ scholarship offer, and Cruikshank headed west to the Front Range instead.
Still, there was some level of surprise when he picked the team he was raised to despise as his post-transfer destination.
It was a rare foray into the transfer portal for Gophers coach Bob Motzko and his staff, who have a loaded roster heading into the 2021-22 season, but in Cruikshank he saw offensive talent, high character and leadership.
“I don’t know if we’re going to play in the transfer portal a lot. I don’t think we need to,” Motzko said. “It’s a new game and I don’t know how it’s going to play out, so I don’t think we’re going to play in the portal often. But if we do, it’s going to be a situation that really adds something to our team.”
While the goalie and the defensive core returns for a team that won the Big Ten tournament last season, the Gophers lost the offense of three of their top six scorers — Sampo Ranta, Scott Reedy and Brannon McManus.
“We lost a senior power forward that scored 19 goals last year,” Motzko said, referring to Ranta, who made his NHL debut in the playoffs for the Colorado Avalanche. “Well, Grant is a senior power forward that has goal-scoring abilities and high character. We’re still in COVID. And from all indications, from last year to this year, it’s not going to go away. So adding depth to our roster is a very smart decision. We have a deep roster. And when we looked at Grant, there were a lot of checkmarks that made sense.”
For Cruikshank, embracing the opportunity with a team he used to root against was a part of growing up.
“I just went with my gut. It just felt right to be here in Minnesota and to be a Gopher. I grew up watching the Badgers play Minnesota and would go to the games if I could get the time. Obviously things changed a little bit with my history at Wisconsin and how that went down,” he said. “When you start maturing and getting older, you start to think less emotionally about it and try to make the best decision on a professional basis where you’re doing what’s right for you and what’s going to prepare you for the next level.”
Get to the net, quickly
As one would expect, knowing his family history, the things Cruikshank does on the ice, he does with a rapidity that is rare.
“I’m someone who brings a lot of character to a team, and some leadership. I’m someone with scoring ability and can finish,” Cruikshank said, admitting that he is a life-long fan of the Chicago Blackhawks and likes to model his game after Jonathan Toews. “Speed is maybe something that sticks out the most, where I can create opportunities or shut them down defensively.”
For Motzko, Cruikshank is one of six forwards being added to the team’s offensive mix. When a team is blessed with an abundance of offensive potential, naysayers like to point out that “there’s only one puck to share,” meaning that some stars may have to put egos aside and accept whatever role they are handed. Motzko says it is a good challenge for a coaching staff.
“That’s a chemistry project. I think we will be a much faster team than a year ago and I think we’ll be more explosive offensively. How we put all those pieces together, I think really bodes well for us. That’s what’s fun,” said the coach, admitting that he envisions Cruikshank as an important part of replicating offense that was lost in the off-season.
“We immediately replace a little bit of the Reedy/Ranta power forward needs with a guy capable of filling some big shoes there,” Motzko said.
For Cruikshank, there is nothing but excitement. His Tigers teams had potential that was generally unfulfilled. His first Gophers team is something different entirely, and their clear goal is to be playing in Boston in April, at the Frozen Four.
“I’m extremely excited for this year. This is by far the best team I’ve ever been a part of and one of the most loaded teams I’ve ever seen,” Cruikshank said, offering a quick scouting report on the Gophers. “It’s a team that can run you one through four lines and then you look on (defense) at how many studs we have there that can snap the puck up and make plays. Then you look in goal and we have the best goalie in college hockey. That’s why I think we’re all so excited for this year. It’s a team we believe can win the whole thing if we play the right way and stay on top of our details.”
The playoff games of March and April are a long way off. But knowing Cruikshank’s history and his family, he will get there with speed.
Coming next week in part two of Gophers hockey's fantastic four — the rookie.