Eden Prairie’s Kyle Rau (left) and Lakeville South’s Justin Kloos (right) won the 2011 and 2012 Mr. Hockey Awards, respectively, and are both currently playing in the Minnesota Wild organization. Photos: Mike Thill
If you sit down and think about it, their journeys have almost been identical. Both dominated at the high school level and both eventually won the prestigious Mr. Hockey Award for their efforts. After high school, both skaters rolled through juniors before pulling a University of Minnesota Golden Gophers jersey over their heads. While wearing maroon and gold, both excelled under Don Lucia and served as team captain. Any maybe the most important stop on their trip to the top, this season both hometown products suited up for the Minnesota Wild. Not surprisingly, when asked about the moment their dream became a reality, both Kyle Rau and Justin Kloos had a hard time summing up the experience.
“Growing up being a Minnesota kid, I would probably go to three or four games a year, so it was definitely a dream come true to play for the Wild,” Rau said. “Playing in the NHL is really special and being able to do it with a Wild sweater on was a nice cherry on top.”
“Probably the first time putting on the uniform, it reminded me of a time early on when the Wild came to Minnesota, I quickly got a Wild jersey and would wear it outside,” Kloos said. “I would pretend to score goals in a Wild jersey when I was 7 and 8 years old, going out there and playing on a pond every day. It was a surreal feeling putting on a real jersey with my name on the back, playing for my home state in a game that actually mattered. I had those same kinds of feelings when I first put on a Gopher jersey and then was fortunate enough to be a captain. It was a real surreal feeling. These are things I wished for, dreamt of and had worked my whole life for, and I was fortunate enough to fulfill some of my goals and hope to fulfill a few more in the future.”
Rau had played in the NHL before. After finishing up his career at the University of Minnesota, tallying 164 points in 160 games, Rau capped off his 2014-15 year in the American Hockey League. The following season – his first as a pro – the third-round draft choice of the Florida Panthers started his 2015-16 campaign with the Portland Pirates before making his NHL debut on Feb. 20, 2016, with the Panthers. In all, he played nine games in the NHL that season.
The following year, Rau found himself in the show again, skating 24 games for the Panthers, scoring two goals and adding one assist. When he wasn’t playing for the big club, he was excelling for the Springfield Thunderbirds, posting 24 points in 48 games.
Despite the successes, after the 2016-17 season Rau was introduced to the business side of hockey, and more specifically, the numbers game that rules rosters all across professional hockey. Rau, then a restricted free agent, was not retained by the Panthers. Looking for a place to land, Rau signed a two-way deal with the Wild last July.
Assigned to the Iowa Wild to start the season, Rau eventually made his way back to the NHL, only this time it meant playing for the very team he grew up cheering for. On Jan. 20, Rau completed the trifecta – playing high school hockey, college hockey and now professional hockey for the state of Minnesota. In all, he played three games with Minnesota, tallying an assist in his Wild debut against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
“Those three games, it was a great experience and I was happy with the way I performed,” Rau said. “Obviously, you are a little nervous when you get called up and play at a different level, but as time goes on you begin to get a little more comfortable. You just try to be confident in yourself and believe in yourself. You just try to get out there and execute, and I thought it went pretty well.”
“The whole process with Kyle was very exciting,” head coach of the Iowa Wild Derek Lalonde said. “One, Minnesota has been healthy of late, whereas earlier in the year they had a bunch of injuries. We had anywhere from five to six forwards go through them early on, and unfortunately Kyle was hurt so he missed out on getting a look from Bruce (Boudreau) and his staff. He’s been an unbelievable character-type player; he does everything right. He’s a high-compete guy and he really earned his most recent call-up. I really think he forced our management team to give him those three games to get a look at him. I think that bodes very well for him moving forward in this organization.”
Kloos, much like Rau, has always had a nose for the net. As a high school puckster with Lakeville South, Kloos scored a jaw-dropping 81 points his senior season on his way to winning the 2012 Mr. Hockey Award as the best Minnesota hockey player in the state. From there, Kloos moved to the USHL and the Waterloo Black Hawks where all he did was score 87 points in 54 games, including 58 assists which ranked second all-time in the history of the program for assists in one season.
His next stop was Dinkytown and the University of Minnesota. Kloos spent his next four years punching his name into the Gopher record books. His first two seasons, the talented forward scored 64 points in 80 games. Serving as captain for the Gophers during those first two years was none other than Rau. After Rau left for greener pastures, the following year (Kloos’ junior season), the Lakeville product took over the captaincy role for Lucia and followed it up with 43 points in 37 games, followed by another 43 points in just 38 games as a senior.
In March of last year, Kloos signed a free-agent contract with the Wild. There was plenty of work still to be done. After beginning his rookie campaign with the Iowa Wild this past fall, he went to work with the mindset of being patient. He knew, or hoped, that the call would eventually come; he just didn’t think the phone would ring that quick. On Oct. 24, just six games into the Wild season, Kloos was called up to the NHL.
“I was thrilled and excited that I got the opportunity,” Kloos said. “My whole journey throughout my hockey career, I’ve never really skipped a step when it comes to my development. I played all of my high school years, then I went to juniors and then played all four in college. I guess I didn’t expect it to happen right away. I just assumed I would play a full year in the minors and try to get my game to a place where I could make the team in a couple of years. So I was obviously very excited, but I’m also realistic and know I need to keep working hard in Iowa to earn another opportunity.”
Opportunity, numbers and time – it’s a formula that every professional hockey player knows all too well. It can often be a cruel reminder that life in hockey after college can be complicated. It’s a sport, a dream and a business all rolled into one. Back in Iowa, all Rau and Kloos can do is control is themselves. After their stint with the Minnesota Wild, the duo were each shipped back to the AHL which means that they are once again connected in their journey from the ponds of Minnesota to the rinks of the NHL and all of the real estate in between.
Now more than halfway through the 2017-18 season, both have played more than 50 games for the Iowa Wild and continue to impress on and off the ice. Always known for his ability to pass the puck, Kloos, in his rookie season, has registered 42 points including 23 assists. The 42 points put him tied for fifth in the AHL in rookie scoring. Kloos is also sixth in the AHL in goals among rookies and tied for 10th in points per game.
Meanwhile for Rau, despite being injured earlier this season, the former Eden Prairie puckster has tallied 14 goals and added 16 assists. The 14 goals are just three shy of a career-high 17 he scored during the 2015-16 season with Portland. Along with the numbers, maybe more importantly, it’s been the consistency and work ethic both players have brought to the rink each and every day that has made the most impact on their team and their head coach.
“It’s probably a credit to their paths, whether it’s through high school or a credit to Don (Lucia) and his staff and what they did at Minnesota,” Lalonde said. “Both guys are loved by the coaching staff here. They are everyday-type guys. They both have a very high compete level, especially for guys who don’t exactly have a big stature – these guys aren’t 6-2 or 6-3. These guys are willing and fearless, and on top of that, they have the ability to make plays. They are true prospects in our organization and have been a huge part of why we’ve had a lot of success down here.”
“Whenever the opportunity does come up, you don’t know when it’s going to happen, so you just hope you are playing well in the minors at the time when the injuries or an illness or whatever else happens,” Rau said. “You just try to take it game by game and week by week and go from there.”
“Now it’s truly your job. If I don’t play well, there is no guarantee I’m going to have a job in a few years,” Kloos said when asked about being a professional hockey player. “I think when you are in an environment when you are still going to school, a lot of college kids aren’t necessarily in adult mode, so once you get to this level it’s different. I have guys on my team right now who have kids and who are married. It’s completely different. You realize that everyone is playing to put food on the table for their family; this is their job right now. You have to come to the rink every day and earn it.”
As they continue to skate ahead, both keep their eye on the prize, never knowing when their next opportunity is going to come. Never before have injuries, trade deadlines and salary caps had so much effect on where they play and where they might be playing in the future. Both admit that while they are living their dream, at times the stress can get to them if they let it. Helping to level things out is the relationship Rau and Kloos have developed over the years and the trust they have in each other as teammates and friends. Sometimes a familiar face can make all of the difference.
“We have been roommates before and have had a lot of fun together,” Rau said. “Growing up and playing against one another and then spending a couple years together at the U was a blast. It’s nice to have a good friend on your team going through the journey with you. It’s nice to have someone bounce ideas off of. You see something in a game, it’s nice to be able to ask someone what they think and you know you’re going to get a good honest answer from them.”
“It’s very special,” Kloos said. “Kyle was awesome for me the two years we played together at Minnesota. It’s good to be with him again down here. We have the same goals. We are supportive of each other. He’s in his third year of pro hockey, so I have learned a lot about what it takes to succeed at this level and how you need to be an everyday pro if you want to get to the next level; you have to do everything a little bit better than the next guy. It’s been fun doing it with him and then other guys I played with at Minnesota. You see Vinni Lettieri having an awesome time in New York playing with the Rangers right now. Just being able to build those relationships and then see other people succeed the same way I want to, it’s pretty cool.”
That success is coming. As both players continue to make a name for themselves thanks to a lethal combination of skill and speed, many in the Minnesota Wild organization suspect it’s only a matter of time before Rau and Kloos find themselves back in St. Paul. Helping their cause is the ever-changing style of play in the NHL that seems to be trending towards speed and scoring as opposed to the grit and grind that dominated the league in years past. Gone are the days of enforcers who roam the rink looking to take over a game with a monstrous check or a well-timed fight that shifts the momentum. Today the emphasis has turned to speed, odd-man rushes and players who control the puck as if it’s attached to the stick with a string. Needless to say, both Rau and Kloos are excited about what that shift in philosophy might bring.
“It’s not so much the clutch-and-grab style it was back in the day,” Kloos said. “You are even seeing the fighter-style player being taken out of the game. You can’t just be in there to fight. You have to be able to do some other things to help your team win. You are seeing a lot of open-ice hitting being taken out of the game which I’ve personally never had a problem with. I think it’s good for the game, but I think with all sports, they have realized everything that is going on with injuries and concussions and that has trickled into hockey as well. Guys like me and Kyle might get a bigger look these days than we once would’ve gotten. I’m certainly not disappointed that things keep trending towards some of the smaller guys. There are a lot of smaller-type guys out there right now who make the game a lot of fun to watch.”
“You just look at how the league is cracking down on certain things, so you can’t really play that game anymore,” Rau said. “You have to be able to make plays and use your hockey IQ. I think the game has changed a lot. It seems like every team has a couple smaller guys on their roster now, whereas maybe five or 10 years ago that wasn’t the case as much. It definitely helps me out.”
“They are benefiting from where the NHL is trending right now,” Lalonde said. “I think the game has turned into youth; the game has turned into pace and playing fast, and they both do that. Both those guys have a hockey sense where they sense danger and they make plays to help our team out. A lot of times, things like just getting out of our zone or making the right play that our team needs at the moment. I think the future is bright for both of them. I think they are both true prospects and they are going to see some time in the NHL in the near future.”
Of course, when that happens, don’t be surprised if they make the jump together. They wouldn’t have it any other way.
Andrew Vitalis can be reached at email@example.com.