July 31, 2012

B's buddies Spooner, Knight aim to achieve NHL dream

By Kirk Luedeke

 Jared Knight and Ryan Spooner are well-known commodities among the segment of Boston Bruins fandom that closely follows the team’s prospect pipeline. Although the two are studies in contrasts in terms of the style of hockey they play, both individuals have grown close in their shared pursuit of achieving their NHL dreams with the B’s. 

Jared Knight had 52 points in 52 games for his OHL team, the London Knights, in 2011-12. (Dave Arnold Photography)

If Spooner is the dynamic, highly skilled and creative center who brings fans out of their seats with his speed, finesse and slick hands then Knight is the throwback winger who symbolizes the blue-collar brand of hockey that has drawn Bostonians to the black and gold for nearly a century.

Knight may not have Spooner’s projected high offensive ceiling, but the 5-foot-11, 205-pounder is a hard-nosed, tenacious forward who can play either wing, drives the net hard and scores goals the old fashioned way. Spooner doesn’t have the size (a shade under 5-11, and weighing in at 181 pounds) or strength to do it the way Knight does, but he doesn’t have to. When you’re as shifty and dangerous the way the Kanata, Ontario native is, the production looks as natural and effortless as it comes.

“We’re obviously totally different players,” Knight told New England Hockey Journal recently from his home in Battle Creek, Michigan. “I like the apples and oranges comparison, because he brings something to the table that I don’t, and I bring something to the table that he doesn’t. Put the two of us together, and I think you have two guys who complement each other and it helps that we’re such good friends, too. There’s obviously a healthy competition going on between us, but we’re also pulling for each other and our goal is to make the team together.”

Spooner and Knight share the same agent, Murray Kuntz, of the renowned talent agency CAA Sports. That connection initially brought them together as rival OHL players, but being second-round draft picks of the Bruins in 2010 has cemented their friendship. Fans have taken to calling it the definitive “bromance” in the organization, something neither player denies whenever the subject comes up.

“One major thing about finishing the year in Providence this past spring is that Mr. Knight wasn’t there. I missed him—it wasn’t the same,” Spooner said with a chuckle after recently returning from a vacation in Cuba.  However, Spooner was quick to offer up a riposte based on a development camp story he read last month.

“I did see that he made a comment saying that I didn’t know how to cook,” said Spooner. “That is completely false. I can cook quite well, actually. I will just say that Jared’s dad was the one who was cooking his meals (at development camp), so that’s pretty much it.”

Knight’s response was typical of the good-natured ribbing that has come to define their friendship.

 “He’s nuts,” said Knight. “I think what he means is I get my cooking skills from (my father) Duane.”

All kidding aside, the two clicked from their very first Bruins development camp and have grown close in the several years since, most of it spent playing against one another in the OHL. Knight said that if the two are on the same team in the coming season, they plan to live together and are already talking about the division of key purchases and appliances.

 Of far more importance to the Bruins and their fans, both are players who rank near the top of Boston’s prospects depth chart, but for different reasons. Spooner joined the Providence Bruins at the end of the 2011-12 hockey season after his Sarnia Sting endured a disappointing first-round exit from the OHL playoffs. It was the second consecutive opening-round OHL disappointment for the 20-year-old, but he also benefited from the opportunity to skate in the AHL for a total of eight games and seven points in the two stints.

“I think the AHL experience really helped me,” he said. “I knew some guys from Boston development and training camps like (Craig Cunningham), (Carter) Camper, (Lane MacDermid) and others. They did a lot to bring me in and help me out right away, and I’ve really enjoyed playing there and being around the coaches in Providence the last two years.”

Knight did not return to Providence after seeing action there in 2011 because his London Knights captured the Robertson Cup as OHL champions and came within an overtime goal of winning the 2012 Memorial Cup, falling to the host Shawinigan Cataractes. Knight was a shadow of his normal self after suffering a high ankle sprain in the first round of the OHL playoffs.  Still, even with the reduced mobility, the 20-year-old impressed in some situational hockey, effectively taking offensive zone draws and playing a strong two-way role during Memorial Cup play. 

“I had to bring something to the table,” said Knight. “I wasn’t able to skate like I normally can, so winning faceoffs was a way I could still contribute when the offense wasn't going my way.”

More than three months after injuring the ankle, Knight is only now returning to normal.

“(Development camp) was the first time I skated since the Memorial Cup games,” he said. “It’s still a little bothersome, but it was the first time I skated without being taped, which was nice. Just being at camp was great and it got me going for all the workouts we went through.”

Knight is a known commodity for his diligent offseason strength and conditioning program. He told New England Hockey Journal that he hits the gym by 6 a.m. and then does boxing work at 4:30 p.m. four-to-five times a week.

“It’s the first time I’ve ever taken boxing (lessons),” he said. “I actually enjoy it. I’m a big fan of watching boxing and (ultimate) fighting matches, so this is something I’m getting a lot out of.”

Spooner’s preparation is more about eating right and improving his foot speed and puck skills. He knows that because of his naturally slight build, he won’t win many physical battles against the biggest and strongest of the NHL’s defenders, but with added quickness and a fast stick, he can more than compensate. 

Ryan Spooner chipped in four points in five games for the P-Bruins at the tail end of the 2011-12 season. (Dave Arnold Photography)

“I’m really focused on strengthening my hip flexors and groin muscles,” Spooner said. “If I’m injured, I can’t play hockey—no doubts about that. I’ve had some setbacks before, so I just want to do what I can to get stronger and be as healthy as I can be next season.”

Knight and Spooner finished up their third development camp with the club in late June since being selected 32nd and 45th overall in 2010. The two have gone from being wide-eyed rookies to “grizzled vets” among the prospect pool, imparting their own experiences and wisdom to the newest crop of draft picks.

“It’s weird that the time went by so fast,” Knight said. “I remember being so nervous coming in the first time (in 2010)—I had no idea what to expect. I had just gotten drafted and it was a whirlwind for me, but I’ve grown a lot as a player. The first year, I think I was more offense-minded, but now I’m more of a two-way player and just being around the other Boston prospects and coaches has taught me a lot about what is expected of me.”

Spooner echoed his friend’s sentiments.

“I remember the first and even the second year I was extremely nervous,” he said. “This time, I felt so comfortable around the Boston staff. It wasn’t that I didn’t feel comfortable before, but when you don’t know people as well or what to expect, you can be a little more tentative. I think everything comes so much easier when you’re comfortable.”

The pair emerged as leaders amongst their peers, returning the favor other more experienced players had done for them when they were new to the organization.

“It was definitely more of a leadership role for me and Knighter,” said Spooner. “(Development camp) goes by really fast with a lot of things jammed into the schedule, so it can be a little overwhelming the first time. I remember Joe Colborne in the room my first time and asking him, ‘What do we do here?’ or ‘Where do we go here?’

“It was our turn to help some of the younger guys get more familiar with what we were doing and I think it puts things into perspective. You just want to soak it all in and get the most out of every experience you have.”

The duo stood out for their skill and maturity, rising near the top of those in attendance according to multiple accounts. If past trends are any indication, after a complete pro hockey season under their belts, B’s fans aren’t likely to see Spooner and Knight on the Ristuccia Arena ice for 2013.

One player attracts great interest for his pure talent and potential to score in bunches for the Bruins one day. The other’s appeal is about ruggedness and smarts as a well-rounded winger who can play any role in Boston. In a world where fans increasingly play a one-or-the-other, zero sum game when it comes to professional athletes, the resounding message is that there is room for both Spooner and Knight on the B’s when their time comes.

If nothing else, the friendly rivalry and traded verbal barbs between the two promise to continue for the time being.

“I’ll put him on the mat,” Spooner said when informed Knight had taken an interest in learning more about the recent All-Army Combatives Tournament in Texas. “We’ll go down there and I’ll take him to the cleaners. Be sure to write that.”

Kirk Luedeke can be reached at kluedeke@hockeyjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter at @kluedeke29.