Oct 17, 2019

By Tom Witosky

Follow @toskyAHLWild

In professional hockey, sometimes it’s best not to work too hard and let the game come to you.

That’s a basic lesson Wild forward Nico Sturm is learning as one of Iowa’s top centers this season.

Once he learns when to go hard and when to be more reactive, the 24-year-rookie from Augsburg, Germany, is likely to be playing in the NHL.

“He has the tools,” Head Coach Tim Army said. “He just has to learn when to go after it and when to let it come to him. That’s why we’re here.”

Veteran Iowa forward J.T. Brown can see it as well.

“You're going to see it become a little bit easier for him,” said Brown, who has opened his ninth season in professional hockey on the same line with Sturm and forward Kyle Rau. “Sometimes, he is a little too fast or a little too far into play but at the same time, you know it's coming from a good spot. He's working hard and he's trying his best.”

Not surprisingly, Sturm agreed with the assessment in a recent interview. 

“Yeah, it's true. It's funny, it sounds silly, but I've always been a guy who has a strong work ethic both off and on the ice,” Sturm said. “I like getting on the scoresheet with ugly goals that come from going to the front of the net. It’s only every once in a while I might score a pretty goal.”

Last Friday, Sturm got the first goal of his pro career – and it was a pretty one. Sturm tied the game 2-2 with a slap shot from the right circle, set up by a pass from Brown. Sturm also played an instrumental role in the Wild’s season opener when he got the primary assist on Brown’s game-winning goal against Rockford with just 16 seconds remaining in the match.

That kind of play is what attracted Minnesota scouts, who signed Sturm after he led the Clarkson University team in scoring with 14 goals and 31 assists in his junior year in 2018-19. 

It’s been a long road for Sturm, which began when he learned to skate at the age of two and why he finds himself in Iowa as a 24-year-old rookie.

“It definitely was an ‘up the ladder’ type of experience for me,” Sturm recalled. “I wasn't a guy where people said, ‘Hey, this guy can play in the NHL one day.’ I was 18 and as far away from the NHL as you could possibly think.”

In addition, Germany, despite the strides it has made recently in world competition, hasn’t been considered a hockey hotbed where scouts look for top-notch hockey talent.

“My junior league wasn’t scouted at all,” he said.

Sturm, like many young Iowa hockey players today in search of attention, said he decided after finishing his high school years to look for a way to get noticed by a junior league in the U.S.

After looking at the quality of the United States Hockey League, Sturm and his agent, Jay Luknowsky, who played at Michigan Tech and in the German professional leagues, decided on approaching teams in the North American Hockey League. After sending out videos and e-mails to several teams, Sturm heard the Corpus Christi, TX team had an opening with about half the season remaining in 2014.

“I had no idea where that was, but I was just ready to jump in. I ready to go. I really wanted to try something new and go that route,” Sturm said.

He found out that playing hockey as a 6-foot-3, 165-pound beanpole at age 18 wasn’t the best way to compete with North American junior hockey players, who could be as old as 20, and were a lot bigger on a much smaller ice surface.

“I certainly didn’t punch a hole in any walls when I got there,” Sturm said. “I had maybe three points in my first 20 games.”

But Sturm’s work ethic got him another chance – this time with the NAHL’s club in Austin, MN, where he went after a summer of conditioning and strength work. When he arrived in Austin, he was more than ready to meet the challenge, scoring 11 goals and adding 30 assists in 30 games. He also had a plus-29 plus/minus ranking at the end of the season.

Austin is also where he met goalie Jake Kielly, who would play with Sturm not only with the Bruins but also joined him for one season with the Tri-City Storm, where the pair would win the USHL championship that year, and then at Clarkson for three years. Kielly signed a contract last year with Vancouver as Sturm signed with Minnesota.

It was after his freshman year that Sturm began to think he had a chance at playing professional hockey in the NHL. His notice came in the form of an invitation to the Winnipeg Jets development camp.

“That's when you know NHL scouts are watching. I realized that obviously there was still a lot of work left to do,” Sturm said. “But if I kept going on that track, year-by-year progression in getting better every day. I felt there was a chance that at the end of my three or four years, I could sign an NHL contract.”

Sturm’s friendship with Kielly and his family ultimately would enhance Minnesota’s chances to sign him when the Wild came calling along with a number of other teams.

“Jake is from Eden Prairie and so I have a really, really good connection with him and his family,” Sturm said. “I'm over there for dinner or whatever.”

Sturm’s girlfriend, Taylor Turnquist, is from Blane, MN and is senior defenseman on the Clarkson women’s hockey team.

As a result, Sturm signed with Minnesota because it appeared to offer the best opportunity as well as a place he was familiar with and felt at home.

“I felt like I could be at home there and that's really important for me -- to feel like I belong there,” he said.

As for this season, Army suggested Sturm is simply learning the professional game and becoming accustomed to how the game is played at that level. It isn’t always about being aggressive.

“He's an example of a guy that will go so hard that he takes himself out of the play,” Army said. “And then he ends up with the puck and has isolated himself or he's played himself into coverage.”

At the same time, Army said Sturm is open to the coaching he is receiving from the Iowa staff.

“He is very coachable and has a great work ethic,” Army said. “He wants to be a great player and he understands what that is going to take.”

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