First, it’s important to know how the smile creased the face of often-dour Don Nachbaur.
The subject was Spokane Chiefs forward and pugilist Darren Kramer and Nachbaur just lit up.
“He’d be a big help to us if he wasn’t such a (wimp),” the Spokane Chiefs’ coach said.
That tongue in cheek assessment passes as high praise in a locker room and barely scratches the surface of how highly the team regards the 19-year-old from Peace River, Alberta.
“He’s been a breath of fresh air,” Nachbaur said. “He doesn’t wear a letter, but this is a credit to him, I’d name him as one of the leaders on this hockey team and I think every guy in that locker room feels the same.”
“He has that charisma around him, you want him around you because he’s such a great guy,” said forward Tyler Johnson, an alternate captain. “He’s a leader on our team even coming in late. You can’t say enough about him.”
It’s not a stretch to suggest Kramer is a big reason the Chiefs are considered one of the surprise teams in the Western Hockey League, not just battling for a playoff spot but a top seed in the Western Conference as U.S. Division rival Portland visits the Arena on Wednesday.
In a recent game, after a lackluster first period, Kramer took it upon himself to ignite the team. He did it by dropping the gloves with the opponent’s tough guy. The Chiefs found their jump and within 3 minutes after the fight led the previously scoreless game 2-0.
“I notice when it’s time for a little momentum change and the arena’s dead, or the guys are down on the bench,” Kramer said. “It’s a good way to spark the guys; get everyone going again and turn the tide around.
“Going into every game you look at the roster, you know who their tough guy is. There’s always a chance it’s a premeditated fight but you always do it when the time is right. You never do it when the time is not right.”
His coach backs that up.
“He’s an intelligent player,” Nachbaur said. “He knows the situation. He doesn’t fight for himself. He’s the ultimate team guy, he does it for his team. I can’t think of an instance he got into a fight because some guy hit him too hard. It’s always been about the team first.”
But the 6-foot-2, 190-pounder wasn’t always the tough guy.
“On my midget teams, I had more points than I did penalty minutes,” he recalled. “Going into (Junior A) that turned around. I was struggling getting into the lineup so I decided to play a more physical role. I started fighting and found myself in the lineup every night. I continued to do that.
“I had 22 fights my first season, 25 my second year and this year I’m just running away with it.”
That’s a far cry from what his mother, Hanna Buruma, expected.
“I remember when he was maybe 12, we went to a game and he ended up in the penalty box,” Hanna Buruma said. “That never really happened. That was once, then he ended up there a second time. I went down, knocked on the glass and said, ‘One more time and we’re going home. We didn’t come to watch you sit in the penalty box.’
“Overall, he was a nice player. I was surprised that ended up as his role.”
Kramer doesn’t just lead the team in fighting penalties and penalty minutes, he leads the league, by a wide margin of more than 10 fights and almost 50 minutes.
Those first two seasons were with Grand Prairie in the Alberta Junior Hockey League. Kramer, who was once on Edmonton’s protected list, stayed there because he was entertaining thoughts of playing NCAA hockey.
Then he changed his mind. Early this season he was talking to a couple of WHL teams and was all but committed to one when Chris Moulton called. The Chiefs’ director of scouting was alerted by a friend of Kramer’s. The next day, Spokane listed Kramer and after a conversation with general manager Tim Speltz, he was off to join the Chiefs on the road.
“I was a little nervous coming into Chilliwack,” Kramer said. “I was kind of star-struck as the Spokane Chiefs’ bus pulled up at the airport to pick me up. Just walking into the locker room and meeting a bunch of new guys is tough (but) the guys welcomed me.”
Johnson said, “The first day he came in he was one of those guys that’s very energetic and into everybody’s conversations. We got to know him easily.”
And the Chiefs got the protection they needed.
“I play with Mitch Holmberg and Mike Aviani now,” Kramer said. “They’re smaller guys so I let the guys on the other team know they have to back out. I’m there to protect them.”
And he has also contributed with five goals, two of them game-winners, five assists and a plus-minus of plus-7.
“He has some things he needs to work on but he doesn’t hurt us in any situation,” Nachbaur said. “The positive he brings to our guys, he’s had such a huge impact on our hockey team since we got him.”
But he’s going to be known for his fighting.
“Of course I’m proud of him,” his mother said. “I never expected my child to be the one to do that. It’s a little scary at times.
“It’s sad to say, but actually it’s pretty exciting. I know people have different views of fighting in hockey, it’s a touchy subject. I think as long as nobody gets hurt, then it’s fine for me.
“I don’t want the other guy to get hurt, but I don’t want my kid to get hurt. If it stays within the limits it’s fine with me.”
Kramer knew exactly when he had his 30th fight a couple weeks ago and listed a couple of opponents, Taylor Jordan of Portland and Mitch Elliott of Seattle, as tough scrappers.
After a pause he added, “You better put Michael Ferland (Brandon) into that, too. He gave me a lickin’.”
Obviously, Kramer doesn’t exaggerate his prowess.
“I’d say my record is fairly decent,” he said. “I’ve lost a few pretty clean but for the majority of the time my hands are hurting more than my face. That’s a good thing. I like to be pretty honest and most of them come out draws.”
That attitude plays well with the Chiefs.
“Kramer is a great team player,” Johnson said. “He does anything for anybody; he’s one of the nicest guy on the team. He’s just a giant teddy bear, but obviously he likes to fight.”