Grant Cruikshank’s junior hockey career didn’t end March 26 when the clock struck zero in game seven against the Trail Smoke Eaters. No, Cruikshank’s junior hockey career ended much earlier than that. The night of December 8, when the Vees hosted the West Kelowna Warriors, was the final time Cruikshank threw on the jersey he’d worn 114 times before. With eight minutes remaining in the first period, Cruikshank finished his hit on Warriors defenceman Stephen Kleyson, a hit he’d thrown 1,000 times before. But this time was different.
“It was kind of a freak thing,” Cruikshank recalled. “Somehow my foot got stuck and bent the wrong way as I went down. Sometimes you sprain your ankle and a couple shifts later you’re fine, but I tried to take one stride and I knew that wasn’t going to work.”
It wasn’t going to work for quite a while, as the prognosis was not only a broken ankle, but ligament damage that required surgery, effectively ending Cruikshank’s season and junior career. It was the cherry on top of a bad-news sundae. Just weeks earlier, Cruikshank’s scholarship to the University of Wisconsin, for reasons out of his control, fell apart leaving him as a free agent of sorts.
People are taught to always look for the positives in hard situations. Sometimes they aren’t easy to see, but for Cruikshank the obvious one was the ability to visit other schools to find his new landing spot. He didn’t have to look much farther than Colorado College.
“Having seen my cousin play there, I remember wearing the jersey and cheering him on with all my family,” Cruikshank explained. “My whole family on my moms side lives either in The Springs or in Denver, so to be able to see them on a day-to-day basis and have them at all my games, it’s going to be so much fun. My family will be able to come out and have a place to play. For a guy like me that holds his family so close to his heart, it means a lot to me.”
Scott Polaski played for the Tigers from 2001-2005, reaching the Frozen Four in 2005 when Grant was just six years old.
The next time Cruikshank plays in a game he’ll have a different colour jersey on, but that doesn’t mean he’ll soon forget about his time with the Penticton Vees.
“I went out to a camp in Los Angeles, which was the same camp Tyson Jost and Dante Fabbro had been to,” Cruikshank said of how he first began considering Penticton. “I asked them what they thought of it and they suggested I get in contact with Fred. It all came together pretty quick. I came up to visit for a week, fell in love with the city and the organization.”
Having never played in Canada before didn’t cause Cruikshank to hesitate about uprooting his life for the next few years, and it didn’t take long for him to get settled into a groove.
Despite a huge change in the hockey from his midget league in Milwaukee, Cruikshank had high expectations for himself heading into his rookie season in the BCHL, and exceeded them.
“It was kind of a goal of mine, I knew I could come in and make an impact right away,” Cruikshank said. “Being able to see guys like Jost and Conway in practice and games, I try to compare myself to them a little bit and see what they do to allow them to succeed. With the help from Fred and the rest of the staff, it’s a week-by-week thing about what we can do to get better. Being a team sport, helping shut down plays in the defensive zone and translate it into offence, that’s what I love to do.”
Cruikshank finished the 2016-17 season with 32 goals and 21 assists, being named to the BCHL All-Rookie Team. He played in all 21 playoff games, helping the Vees win the Fred Page Cup before exploding for eight points in six games at the Western Canada Cup, pushing the Vees to the National Championship in Cobourg, Ontario.
“It was incredible, definitely something that’s going to stick with me and the rest of the guys for the rest of our lives,” Cruikshank said. “Playing in so many elimination games, having our backs against the wall, I think that’s honestly how we liked to play. Third period, down by one or two, I think that’s when we played our best hockey.”
Coming off a terrific season, Cruikshank almost certainly could have stepped into the NCAA ranks as a 19 year old and had success. While his 2017-18 season didn’t exactly go as planned, Cruikshank knew it was the right choice to return for a second season.
“I think that was kind of the plan heading into my first season,” he admitted. “But you look at guys like Nick Jones who came back and had a ton of success. Playing junior for as long as you can isn’t a bad thing at all. For a guy who was a bit of a late bloomer like I was, you get to learn a lot from guys like Jones and guys who have played more hockey.”
Coming back for a second season also allowed Cruikshank to take on a leadership role with the Vees, as he was named co-captain of the team alongside Owen Sillinger. A position that was not unfamiliar to Cruikshank.
“It was unbelievable. Something that was very humbling and I was truly honoured to be named co-captain with Owen,” Cruikshank said. “I think that’s one of my biggest strengths, my leadership, whether it’s on the ice or off the ice. Having had experience in my previous seasons, I was always one of the captains on my teams. Owen did a great job taking it on his own after I got injured.”
Cruikshank’s humble attitude and drive to succeed as an athlete shouldn’t be surprising when you consider who his parents are. His mother, Bonnie Blair, is one of the most decorated Olympic athletes in speedskating history with five gold medals over three separate Olympics. His father Dave was also an Olympic skater, and has worked as an NHL skating coach for over a decade. While Cruikshank says family is important to him, it’s impossible to explain just how much they’ve done.
“It’s impossible to put into words how much they’ve done for me,” he said. “Whether we’re at the dinner table or out for a bike ride or sitting on the couch, they’re always teaching me lessons. What it takes to be a professional and to be a good person. All the things that successful people have, they’re teaching me every single day. There really are no words for what they’ve done for me and I can’t thank them enough.”
While Penticton was only in Cruikshank’s life for two years, the thought of summing up what his time in the city means to him began a laundry list of memories.
“There are so many things that stick out,” Cruikshank explained. “Playing in front of three or four thousand fans every night was something you dream about as a kid. All those guys you played with and had those ups and downs with. The billet families, for me it was the Hildebrand’s and the Brydon’s, I can’t speak highly enough of them. It’s a beautiful place to wake up every morning. I believe it’s the best junior hockey organization in North America and I’m truly lucky to have been part of something so special.”
Cruikshank’s recovery from surgery has progressed to the point where he’s able to get back on his skates and work on the speed he wow’d the South Okanagan Events Centre crowd with over the past two seasons. The blur that flies up and down the ice may change from black and blue to black and yellow, but the excitement Cruikshank brings to the rink will never change.