By Nick Christensen
Las Vegas Sun
LAS VEGAS – The seasons worked out well for Jon Krall, growing up in the small town of Temperance, Mich.
In the summer, he’d work on his grandfather Frank’s farm, growing everything from wheat to sweet corn in the fields between Detroit and Toledo. And in the winter, he’d head to the rink for hockey, a hobby that turned into his ticket to college.
Krall, a rookie defenseman for the Las Vegas Wranglers, isn’t your typical hockey player. He’s not looking to impress scouts or score points or get an AHL tryout.
“I’m realistic about my career as a hockey player,” Krall said. “It’s hard to put a timetable on it. We’ll see what presents itself for next season.”
Nine months ago, Krall was a senior at the University of Wisconsin, a standout defenseman on the Badgers hockey team and nearing graduation with a degree in agronomy (the science of agriculture) with a minor in business.
Las Vegas assistant Joe Frederick was trawling the colleges for late-season help, and called Wisconsin assistant Troy Ward for a scouting report.
“We were looking for a stay-at-home defenseman. He blocks shots, he’s physical, he’s strong on the corners,” Frederick said. “He’s a hacker and a whacker and he makes guys pay — that’s what we were looking for.”
Krall played in five games with the Wranglers last year, compiling no points and two penalty minutes. But the experience of the professional game was invaluable, even if it meant giving up a few weeks of his final semester of college.
“It’s an experience, a bit overwhelming,” Krall said. “The guys were pretty warm. I was just happy to be here and make contributions.”
Krall was the only of three siblings who wound up staying in agriculture, and the only one who pursued hockey to this level. He said his farming days have helped him with his hockey skills.
“You sacrifice a lot in life,” Krall said. “It just instills a lot of qualities, a work ethic, appreciating the little things in life — that you’ve got to work for everything you get.”
His short time with Las Vegas was enough to earn him an invite to come back in October for a second look. Wranglers coach Glen Gulutzan said Krall was the “biggest surprise” of training camp.
“I thought he was a guy that needed to get stronger to play at this level,” Gulutzan said. “He’s a good skater, he’s a good guy, and he’s really done that this year, become a good physical defenseman for us.”
It’s taken some adjustment. The amateur game is much more tightly officiated than hockey in the minors, something particularly tough on defensemen who need a physical advantage. Krall isn’t a fighter, and he’s had to learn to play a more physical brand of hockey.
“I was able to go out and play more physical and get away with it,” he said. “The freedom it gives you as a player, you can work on your niche, play your game and go out and do what we’re good at. I like the freedom and the opportunity I’ve been handed here.”
And what is that niche?
“I’m not a fighter, I’m not looking to mix it up,” he said. “I take pride in keeping pucks out of the net.”
It’s that attitude that’s impressed his coaches.
“He’s a stay-at-home guy,” Gulutzan said. “He’s been steady for us — he just goes out there and does his job.”
Frederick, who jokes that Krall is his one find as an assistant, sounds more like a proud dad when talking about his contributions.
“I can’t remember how many defensemen Gully has out of Calgary, but at one point I thought we had like eight defensemen, and Kraller earned himself a top six, the way he’s played,” Frederick said. “He came into camp in great shape, he’s a great character kid in the locker room — we couldn’t be happier with him.”
And while he’s enjoying his time as a Wrangler, Krall also fully intends to use his degree and experience — sooner, rather than later.
“I’d like to own my own farm, doing grain production, management of grain,” Krall said. “I could work for Nabisco, General Mills … it’s all wheat production going into making those products.”
Gulutzan, who himself grew up in The Pas, an agricultural community on the northern plains of Manitoba, said he knows of Krall’s goals but still thinks he hasn’t reached the zenith of his hockey career.
“He needs to make better reads on some of his plays,” Gulutzan said. “Other than that, the more ice he gets the better he’s going to get. He’s been playing a lot lately, that’s what’s going to make him a real good defenseman in this league, and he could possibly play games at the next level.”