EDMONTON - MINNESOTA ó For Jared Spurgeon, it all still seems surreal.
A year ago, the Edmonton native was playing junior hockey with the Spokane Chiefs, unsigned and uncertain about his hockey future.
Now, he's a mainstay on the Minnesota Wild's defence.
"He's a guy that we've talked about quite often with a lot of different people, because he seems to be the story on a lot of nights," said Wild head coach Todd Richards. "It's a great story, because he's a young kid that's come out of nowhere. He's opened up a lot of people's eyes in this organization and other organizations watching him play."
Heading into Thursday's contest against the Edmonton Oilers, Spurgeon, 21, had two goals and eight assists in 47 games with the Wild.
At the start of the season, he would have been content to play in one.
"Getting to play this many is a bonus," Spurgeon said. "I didn't think it would come this fast, I was hoping to get maybe one game in here this year.
"I'm getting more comfortable, but it's still surreal playing my first NHL season. When it's sort of unexpected and then you start getting a chance to play more games."
Selected by the New York Islanders in the sixth round ó 156 overall ó of the 2008 NHL Entry Draft, Spurgeon never signed and returned to Spokane where he had won a Memorial Cup.
After graduating from junior, Spurgeon was offered a tryout with the Wild, impressing enough to earn an entry-level contract. He was sent down to play with the AHL's Houston Aeros, but within two months was called up to play with the Wild.
"This year he proved that he can play at this level," said Richards. "He's struggled of late, as has our team. But over the course of the games that he's played, he's been one of most consistent and best defencemen.
"As he's played more and his confidence has grown, we've seen him become a little bit more offensive, which I think is his natural game. He's been a real good story for us and a real good find for us."
Listed at five-foot-nine, 185-lbs, Spurgeon was considered too small to play defence in the NHL. It's a stigma he's battled his entire career, getting cut from a local minor-league team in Edmonton and then nearly passed over in the WHL draft.
"When you go in the 10th round of the bantam draft, it's almost like you didn't get drafted," Spurgeon said. "But when I went down to Spokane, they told me that they liked my skill set but they wanted me to get stronger.
"They said they didn't care how tall I was, just as long as I was strong enough to compete. They definitely gave me the motivation to play."
The skills developed with the Chiefs are the ones Spurgeon is using to prove critics wrong at the NHL level.
"He's extremely smart, he's learned how to use his stick and use his body very, very well," Richards said. "I've watched him this year go in the corner, with more experienced, bigger, stronger players and he's won a majority of the battles, just coming out with the puck or being able to make a play by getting the puck out of the corner."