COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. - Dave Cruikshank and Bonnie Blair, two of the most successful speed skaters in U.S. Olympic history, stumbled upon a unique way to deal with a fussing toddler about 18 years ago, and with it the realization that their son, Grant, was not going to follow exactly in their footsteps.
“I could take him to a hockey game and he would sit there and watch for two-and-a-half hours,” Dave Cruikshank said. “Then he would cry when it was over. It was the most bizarre thing. But it was pretty easy to tell that he had a fascination for the game unlike anything else.”
All these years later that fascination has not waned, and Grant Cruikshank, a 20-year-old freshman center at Colorado College, is well aware that his speed on the ice — both inherited and honed — holds the key to reaching his life-long dream of one day playing in the NHL.
Hockey has long been part of the family business. Dave Cruikshank, who skated in four Olympics, owns a skating training center for speed skaters and hockey players in Milwaukee, Wis., and has served as a skating coach for a number of NHL teams. Blair is a speed skating icon, having won five gold medals and a bronze in a career that also included taking part in four Olympics.
So it’s no surprise that Grant was on the ice by the age of 2. But he usually had a stick in his hand, which also could be said when he was off the ice.
“He slept in his crib with a shinny stick as opposed to a blanket,” Dave said.
His parents introduced him to speed skating at a young age with no strings attached, so there was no sense of letdown when he elected to go in another direction around the fifth grade. But signs were already pointing to Cruikshank being successful had he elected to pursue a speed skating career.
“A lot of it did come easy to Grant,” Blair said. “He’s got great technique, and that feel. That instinct is priceless. You could tell him something and he just got it. But the other part of it is that you have to really want it. He knew he liked hockey, and that’s why he chose that.”
Added the elder Cruikshank: “He raced from time to time up until the age of about 10. At that point it was like, ‘I’d rather play hockey this weekend than go to a speed skating meet.’ I train my hockey guys on speed skates and Grant is still on speed skates in the summertime. I think it is really good for their edge work because they’re on 1.1 millimeters of blade versus 3 millimeters of blade. So you learn balance and stability and how to control your edges.”
Meanwhile, Grant’s 18-year-old sister, Blair, is an emerging speed-skating talent who took part in the U.S. Olympic Trials last year. She was a gymnast in high school before deciding that she wanted to take speed skating as far as she could.
“It comes from within them,” Bonnie Blair said of the paths her children decided to go down. “You want them to choose what they want to do. And they’ve always been willing to do the things it takes to succeed. They’ve always been very self-motivated.”
Grant is grateful for the freedom and the guidance — and something equally valuable.
“I am trying to take advantage of the gifts that I have been given from my parents,” he said.
Speed has never been more of a valuable commodity in hockey than it is today, which puts both father and son in an enviable position. Dave is able to enhance it and Grant is able to call on it.
“When you look at skating there are a number of factors,” Dave said. “Genetics, technique, attitude, explosiveness all come into play. What Grant is good at is being good out of the box. He can get up to speed quickly. A guy who is really shifty below the hash. He has short-distance explosion.
“We’re working hard on the forecheck and forcing turnovers, where he can get to the puck when it gets in behind the defense and a defenseman thinks he has time to make a play. I think that can be his signature, not only in college hockey but moving on.”
Until last year it appeared set that Grant would be playing his college hockey close to home at the University of Wisconsin. He made a verbal commitment to the Badgers when he was 15, and after finishing high school he played Junior A hockey the past two seasons in Penticton, B.C. A coaching change at Wisconsin led Cruikshank to re-open the recruitment process last year.
“The numbers they gave us weren’t the numbers we had agreed to,” Dave Cruikshank said of Grant’s scholarship offer from Wisconsin. “That can happen with a coaching change, and there are no hard feelings. And things have worked out great. We’re a ‘Things happen for a reason’ type of family.”
Grant said he thoroughly enjoyed the recruiting process the second time around. He took official visits to Boston University, Penn State, Notre Dame and Michigan before picking Colorado College.
“They’re all great schools and programs, so a lot of thinking went into my decision,” Cruikshank said. “A lot of discussions with my family. It was the hardest decision of my life, but I know I made the right decision. I am very happy here.”
Colorado College head coach Mike Haviland worked with Dave Cruikshank in the Chicago Blackhawks organization in 2008 and the two remained in touch in the following years. When Haviland learned that Grant Cruikshank was looking for another school, he was thankful for the connection he had with the family. He knew Grant would be a key piece in his quest to rebuild the CC program.
“I think it came down to Grant being comfortable with me and the staff,” Haviland said. “You open the door with Dave and I having a relationship, but we had to build that relationship with Grant over the months of recruiting him.”
Cruikshank has another connection to the CC program, as well. His cousin, Scott Polaski (the son of Bonnie’s sister, Mary), was a forward/defenseman for the Tigers from 2001-2005, and his family lives in Colorado Springs.
“It’s very comforting for us to know that he has family right there,” said Blair, who plans to attend a number of games this season. As for life as a hockey mom, she said she loves it.
“There’s a learning curve for sure,” she said, “but I’ve definitely grown with the sport. I have a greater understanding of the game. I look forward to hockey season.”
The 5-foot-11, 185-pound Cruikshank had two goals and four assists through the Tigers’ first 12 games. Haviland said he has gone through the ups and downs that most freshman face but has been a valuable contributor who can play all facets of the game.
“He’s an elite skater,” Haviland said, “and the (other) thing you like about Grant is his hockey IQ. Just because a guy is quick doesn’t necessarily make him a good hockey player. He’s a student of the game. He understands how to play away from the puck and he knows how important that is. He and I have sat and talked about how he doesn’t want to have a six or seven-point freshman year. He wants to have an impact.”
Haviland believes that Cruikshank will get the chance to play in the NHL when his college career is over. In the meantime, he sees a player who will continue to work at his craft and do the little things that can make all the difference.
Haviland said that while Cruikshank’s parents taught him to be an elite skater, they also instilled in him the qualities that one day soon will have him wearing the “C” on his Tigers jersey. Cruikshank is very appreciative of the help and support he has received at home.
“Growing up, to me they were just Mom and Dad,” he said. “But as I got older I began to realize what they were able to accomplish. They have taught me so much about life; your character, how you treat people. The importance of taking care of your body.
“There are a lot of little things that go into being a good athlete. They taught me how to have that drive and that passion that is needed to succeed.”
Cruikshank looks to show off his speed this weekend as the Tigers travel to Omaha for a pair. Both games can be seen on NCHC.tv.
Grant Cruikshank going against rival Air Force earlier this season.
Cruikshank celebrates his first collegiate goal in his first game at Alaska Anchorage on Oct. 6.
Cruikshank gave up speed skating at the age of 10 to solely focus on hockey, despite having Olympian speed skater parents.