Former Reed Larson award winner off to great start with Fargo Force
by Bryan Zollman
Leo Gruba slept better on Halloween night than he had in quite a while.
The former Hill-Murray star and 2022 Reed Larson Award winner as the state’s top prep defenseman committed to the University of Minnesota Oct. 31 after a long and arduous process that was keeping him up at night.
“It was a tough decision because there are so many great schools out there,” said Gruba, in his second season with the Fargo Force of the USHL. “In the end it was the game day atmosphere, the experience of being a Gopher and the winning culture that was all kind of wrapped into one big reason for me.”
Gruba was one of the top players around who hadn’t yet committed to a Division I school. He had committed to St. Cloud State University out of high school. St. Cloud is where his father, Tony, played from 1990-94, serving as the team’s captain his senior season. But he decommitted in September, choosing to play another season for the Fargo Force where he is excelling as one of the league’s top defenseman and leading all defensemen in the USHL in scoring with seven goals and 12 assists in 16 games, ranking him eighth overall. He is the only defenseman amongst the top 30 scorers in the league and is also fourth with a Plus-14 rating.
Gruba said decommitting from St. Cloud State was a tough decision, but he wanted to explore other options. He felt he rushed into his decision to follow in his dad’s footsteps.
“We went to St. Cloud State games when I was a kid and I loved it,” he said. “I am still a St. Cloud fan. So it’s ironic ending up being a Gopher. St. Cloud is a great spot. It just wasn’t a great spot for me.”
Gruba is a strong defender with good size at 6’2” and 210 pounds. He said playing juniors has helped him become a better defenseman, especially in the D-zone.
“It’s a big jump from high school,” he said. “One of the biggest differences is defending really dynamic players on a nightly basis. Every USHL team from top to bottom has a bunch of skill and a bunch of speed.”
Gruba has been a defenseman since he put on a pair of skates. He scored 12 goals and had 33 points as a senior at Hill-Murray and possesses strong puck skills and a heavy shot. He is currently serving on the power play for Fargo and said he has been laser-focused the past year to work both sides of the puck.
“I strive to be a two-way defenseman,” he said. “At one point I was more of an offensive defenseman, but I have really been refining the defensive part of my game. I am always looking for ways to become a great defender and you really never stop working on things until you retire.”
Gruba was passed over in the NHL draft the past two years despite hearing from a handful of NHL teams. He said he has accepted being undrafted, but it hasn’t changed his goal of playing in the NHL.
“Everyone wants to be drafted because it’s cool to be drafted,” he said. “But I have come to terms with it and use it as fuel. If you have the right perspective, it can actually be a good thing.”
According to Elite Prospects NHL Draft Guide, Gruba’s “a physical presence, launching him into opponents who venture too close to his side of the rink, whether that’s in the neutral zone, at the blue-line, or along the end boards. A tight neutral zone gap funnels attackers to the outside. In transition, Gruba uses small-area plays through opponents and occasionally manipulates with a quick change of pace to open a passing lane.”
Gruba said being physical is one of his strengths and admits it’s one of the favorite parts of his game.
“I’m not afraid to be physical,” he said. “I sort of have fun with it. I’m kind of old school and play more like how hockey was built. I like getting in guys’ way.”
Gruba takes his off-ice work seriously, spending ample time in the weight room.
“It’s been a focal point to get in the gym and making sure I am putting on muscle and have the durability for a long USHL season,” he said.
There’s no doubt the Gophers are getting a very good player in Gruba. He is added to a strong list of 2024 and 2025 recruits that include other stalwart blueliners such as John Whipple (Shattuck-St. Mary’s/USNTDP), Brady Yakesh (Benilde-St. Margaret’s/BCHL), Matthew Grimes (Sioux Falls/USHL), Maceo Phillips (Benilde-St. Margaret’s/USNTDP) and Jacob Rombach (Spring Lake Park/Lincoln USHL). Yakesh is the only recruit under 6-feet tall with Phillips and Rombach both standing at 6’5”.
Gruba with his good size and physical nature should fit in well with the Gophers defensive strategy. With strong offensive skills and now experience on the power play, he will give the Gophers a strong two-way player who isn’t afraid to jump into the play.
“I like to jump up and be that fourth forward without giving anything up on the defensive end,” he said.
He is a Plus-14 so far this season and was a Plus-24 last year in 60 games with the Force.
He is looking forward to joining the Gophers and good friends and former teammates Ryan Chesley and Axel Begley, both defenseman. The three of them were all on the same Squirt A team for Mahtomedi.
“I think we had a pretty good team,” he said. “There’s probably a team picture out there somewhere with all three of us.”
Gruba is glad the process of finding a home for his college hockey days are over, but he enjoyed it.
“The recruitment process was fun,” he said. “I was grateful to have that opportunity. Now I can focus on being on this team (Fargo) for the rest of the season.”
And he can finally sleep better at night.
“I went to bed not having to wrestle in my mind where to go,” he said. “I’m excited and I’m happy.”