November 8, 2013

Brotherly bonds, can-do attitude energize B's prodigy Krug

By Jesse Connolly

Torey Krug's journey has seen him go from an underappreciated player from Livonia, Mich., to a playoff hero and power-play sparkplug for the Bruins. (Getty Images)

They say in life that we’re simply products of our environment, bound to be rubbed off on by those around us throughout our formative years and beyond.

That’s surely part of the reason Torey Krug has become who he is today.

The Bruins’ budding blueliner was born in April 1991 in Livonia, Mich., a suburb of Detroit that’s just a dozen miles northwest of downtown Hockeytown. The Krugs, through and through, are a true hockey family.

When Torey entered the world, his mother, Cheryl, already had carved out a role as hockey mom to his older brothers, Adam and Matt. His father, Kyle, had in the neighborhood of 10 years coaching experience under his belt. Kyle helped teach his younger brother, Carey, the game when he was growing up, and the two passed their wisdom along to the youngest members of the Krug clan.

Kyle and Cheryl’s third child was an eager student.

“When I started walking, I was put in skates,” Torey said. “Even if I could relay the message that I didn’t want to, I couldn’t. It was great. I was a kid that would be watching practices. I wouldn’t really be running around the rink playing tag with my friends, just because I was so consumed with the game and I wanted to learn.”

 Hockey is part of the Krug lifestyle. Above from left, dad  Kyle, Torey, Adam, mom Cheryl, Zak and Matt, after  Adam’s Adrian (Mich.) College team won the NCHA  conference championship.

Adam, 30, and Matt, 28, weren’t just brothers. They were idols. They were mentors.

“I was at a lot of their games and a lot of their practices as well. I was right there watching. I learned everything from them,” Torey said. “My two older brothers played hockey and I’m kind of a combination of those two players. I’ve got my oldest brother’s head and my other brother’s heart.”

Torey was lucky enough to have his dad behind the bench when he was growing up, but his father certainly didn’t handle him with kid gloves.

“His dad coached him his whole life and Torey played up a year, so he was always the smallest guy. The people that didn’t know hockey thought he was on the team ’cause daddy was coaching him,” Torey’s uncle, Carey, said. “Kyle was so much harder on Torey. If Torey made a mistake, Torey sat. It’s not like your typical case where dad puts you on the ice all the time. If Torey made a mistake, he was made an example of. It was good because Kyle was hard on him. He’s learned the game.”

Kyle’s tough love prepared Torey for the challenges that lied ahead. You’d be hard-pressed to name any hurdles the undersized defenseman couldn’t overcome.

“Torey’s first game in the USHL, he was playing with Indiana against the U.S. national team in Ann Arbor,” Carey recalled. “Before the game I said, ‘If you don’t play much, don’t let that bother you.’ … By the middle of the first period, he was playing every other shift. I was like, ‘Are you kidding me right now?’ And he was small, too. He’s just so smart and fast.”

After a year in which he led Indiana Ice defensemen in scoring as a 17-year-old and helped the club capture the Clark Cup as league champions, Torey became the third of Kyle’s sons to matriculate to a Division 1 college, heading to Michigan State in the fall of 2009. He spent the first two years under Rick Comley and was named team captain for his sophomore season. Comley retired from coaching at the end of that year, prompting the arrival of Tom Anastos, who was in the all-too-rare position of having a returning captain.

“I thought it was pretty amazing,” Anastos said. “I remember when I was commissioner (of the CCHA) and I saw a press release that a sophomore was going to be captain of the team. I’ll never forget just thinking to myself, ‘Wow, either they have major leadership problems — ’cause that’s pretty tough to be a captain as a sophomore — or this kid’s a leader off the charts.’ Who would’ve ever thought I’d be the head coach of the team months later?

“I remember meeting him and he didn’t take the captaincy for granted one bit. He told me how he understood that a new coach was going to come in with maybe a different vision, but regardless of whether he has a letter on his jersey, he really wants to work on his leadership ability. At that very moment, I knew that was the right guy to be captain of our team. Over the next period, it was clear why Rick chose him as captain.”

Krug earned the ‘C’ for the Michigan State Spartans as a sophomore and was a Hobey finalist as a junior. (Getty Images)

Just 19 at the time, the ‘C’ was sewn onto his sweater. Only one player on the Spartans roster that year was younger than Krug. Surely that must’ve been a little daunting, right?

“No, it wasn’t. I was able to take that by storm. I didn’t really have a choice, so I just said, ‘Let’s do it,’” said Torey. “That’s the way I’ve gone about things: If there’s a challenge, I’m going to meet it head on and I’m going to use all the resources I can. I was able to ask a lot of questions to a lot of people. I had a great group of teammates that really helped. I was able to talk to my dad a lot, talk to my brothers, there was a good group of alumni at Michigan State to lean on. It was definitely a challenge, but I was lucky to take it on because it helped me down the road.”

Anastos arrived on campus shortly before his team’s captain lived through the dreadful experience of getting passed over in all seven rounds of the NHL draft for the second summer in a row. Krug’s newly appointed coach was able to put a positive spin on the discouraging news.

“He was very disappointed. I know his dad was very disappointed by it. I told him it was the best day of his hockey career,” Anastos said. “Not many guys get to be free agents and pick where they play in professional sports. I told him, ‘If you do a great job and continue to perform at a high level, you’re going to have a pick of teams to choose from.’ A lot of people don’t look at it that way, but that’s how it is. Very few guys get to pick their employer.

“I said, ‘You’re going to miss out on having your name called at the draft and getting a T-shirt and a hat. But in the big picture, that means very little compared to what it’ll feel like signing an NHL contract with the team of your choice.’ ”

An even-more-motivated Krug had a dynamite year in his ensuing junior season with 12 goals and 34 points. He was a Hobey Baker finalist and the CCHA Player of the Year. 

“I remember the day he signed his NHL contract, it was in my office in the morning and we were walking up to the press conference we were going to have in the arena,” recalled Anastos. “I said, ‘Do you remember that day? Here’s to the best day of your hockey career, so congratulations.’ ”

So why, if Krug had his pick of the lot, did he venture to the East Coast and join the Boston Bruins?

“ ’Cause we win,” the 5-foot-9 defenseman said with a chuckle. “We didn’t have the most successful years as a team at Michigan State. That’s no secret. I was looking at options and opportunities to play, where I could fit in and play my style of hockey. Boston seemed like a great fit. Their expectations are to win the Stanley Cup year after year, and that’s my expectation as well. I didn’t want to go somewhere that I could just step in and play in the NHL right away. I wanted to go somewhere that I’d have to compete for a job and earn it, and then after I did earn it I was in a good group of guys with a winning attitude and high expectations. That’s what I have here.”

Krug’s first full season of pro hockey began in the AHL in Providence, thanks to the NHL lockout. The first half of the year was a disappointing one for the gifted rearguard, but he turned things around in dramatic fashion in the second half, establishing a team record for a rookie defenseman with 45 points.

“I was hampered a little bit by an ankle sprain. I don’t use that as an excuse, because even when I wasn’t physically up to par I wasn’t thinking the game the right way,” Torey said. “I got some tough love down there from the coaching staff. They really helped me every day. After practice I was working on something extra, watching video. Credit to the coaching staff and management for helping me to develop. After that, it was just fun to build some chemistry with those guys. That played a big part of it. Our power play struggled down in Providence for the first half of the year, and in the second half it was the best in the league. Hopefully while I’m up here (in Boston) I can build chemistry with these guys and get things going.”

After helping the P-Bruins advance to the second round of the AHL playoffs, Krug was summoned to the big club when the B’s needed able bodies to fill in for a few banged-up blueliners. The recall proved to be the chance of a lifetime. In the span of about a week, Krug went from a kid still looking to prove his worth down on the farm to a fan favorite in the Hub of Hockey and an NHL record holder, becoming the first defenseman in the modern era to score four goals in his first five NHL postseason contests.

“It was a whirlwind. It’s cool. It’s pretty unique,” Krug said of the experience. “You’re so indulged in the playoffs and you’re so devoted to the game that you don’t really take a step back to think about how special it is. I was lucky enough to have a lot of great friends and family support and, first and foremost, unbelievable teammates that helped me feel comfortable. It was good. A lot of good stories came out of it. I was able to go home in the summer, unfortunately without the grand prize of a Stanley Cup, but a lot of good stories. Hopefully that experience pays off the next time we go for a run.”

Torey said his dad missed just three of the playoff games he appeared in, as the young D-man’s four goals and two assists helped Boston advance to the Stanley Cup Final for the second time in three years. Not every member of the Krug clan could make it to TD Garden or the United Center in Chicago — a four-hour drive from Livonia — during the finals. But they were certainly overflowing with pride seeing Torey shine on the game’s biggest stage.

Adam spent most of his five-year career in the pros in the ECHL and is now associate head coach for Torey’s old team, the Indiana Ice, in the USHL. He’s also a cofounder of the Krug family’s hockey school: Next Level Development Camp. Matt, who has appeared in one AHL game to date, is now in his second season with the ECHL’s Evansville Icemen.

It might be easy for Torey’s hockey-playing brothers (who also have a younger sibling, Zak) to be just the slightest bit envious of his achievements, but Carey said you can forget about the notion of anyone in the Krug family harboring jealousy.

“When Torey scored his first goal, Kyle and Adam were at the game. I was talking to Matt and we just all started crying,” recalled Carey. “I’m ecstatic. I’m sure Matt’s saying, ‘Torey, start mentioning my name up there,’ but no, they’re all pretty level-headed kids. I don’t think there’s any jealousy. They’re as happy as they can be for him.”

 The Krug brothers: Adam, Torey, Zak and Matt.

And that’s how it’s always been.

“I’m surprised he didn’t have all of his brothers as his best men at his wedding,” Carey said of Torey, who married his college sweetheart, Melanie, in July. “They’re just so tight. They all beat each other up, but they’ll always back each other. That’s one thing I’ll say that my brother and sister-in-law have been good at with their kids: No matter what happens in family, when you leave, you say I’m sorry, you hug and you love each other. That’s the way they are and they’re very close.”

Now in his first full year as an NHL player, Boston’s playoff sensation surely recognizes his talent, intangibles and a tight-knit family serving as a stellar support system have helped him get to where he is. However, it’s clear a little luck has gone a long way for No. 47 in black and gold.

Were it not for the Bruins’ miracle comeback in Game 7 of their first-round series with the Leafs, which paved the way for Krug’s promotion, things could be a whole lot different right now.

“If you look at the last 10 minutes of the Toronto game, that changed his life,” Carey said. “Who knows if he’d have gotten that opportunity this year? If he wouldn’t have done what he did, Seidenberg didn’t get hurt and they didn’t come back to win, who knows if he would’ve got the shot this year to play. Things happen for crazy reasons.”

The 22-year-old himself recognizes the impact Boston’s improbable comeback has had on his career and, like he has countless times before, fully plans on making the most of a chance he’s earned.

“If it doesn’t go that way, I might not even be sitting here right now,” said Torey, who notched his first career regular-season goal against his hometown Red Wings Oct. 5. “It’s all about opportunity. When you get an opportunity, you have to grab it and go with it. For me, that was my lucky break. Some guys just need that to get in the league. Hopefully I can grab the opportunity, maintain it and don’t let it go.”

This article originally appeared in the November 2013 issue of New England Hockey Journal.

Twitter: @JesseNEHJ