Lane Krenzen sat in front of his computer in mid-April of last year, filling out an enrollment application for the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.
The Austin Bruins were in the midst of a first-round North American Hockey League playoff series against rival Aberdeen. Krenzen’s three-year tenure as a bust-your-butt, sell-out-your-body-for-the-team defenseman for the Bruins had resulted in some flirtation with NCAA Division I college coaches, but none of them were willing to pull the trigger on a scholarship offer.
“I have some buddies at Eau Claire and knew it was a big school, a good school with a good hockey team,” Krenzen said. “I texted the coach there and said ‘I’m filling out the application right now. That’s where I’m going. I’m coming.’”
Then his phone rang.
“It was coach (Tavis) MacMillan from Denver,” Krenzen said. “I thought it was probably a ‘we’ll keep our eyes on you’ type call, but as he kept talking, it sounded more and more legit and it sounded like he was trying to sell me on coming to Denver, which he didn’t have to do. I was sold already, I didn’t have other (Division I) options.
“Finally, he said ‘I think you should bet on yourself.’ I said ‘you mean come to Denver?’ and he said ‘yeah.’”
That quick phone call from MacMillan — a sixth-year assistant coach at Division I powerhouse University of Denver — erased for Krenzen three years of wondering, guessing, and being led down promising roads by a handful of Division I schools, only to see those roads turn into dead ends.
“It was the most amazing feeling I’d had in three years,” Krenzen said. “It felt for three years like I had some kind of cloud over my head, there was something that just wasn’t quite right. I loved my teammates, my coaches, my billet family, I loved going to the rink, but…”
Krenzen knew for three years what that “but” was: He couldn’t get a Division I hockey program to commit to him, even though he knew he could play at that level.
Krenzen was raised in one of the best places in the world for a hockey player to grow up — northern Minnesota, a small town called Twig, which is about 15 miles northwest of Duluth.
He progressed through the youth hockey program there, closely following the University of Minnesota Duluth men’s hockey team, but dreaming just as often about getting to play in packed arenas for Duluth Marshall High School, against rivals such as Hermantown, Duluth Denfeld, Grand Rapids or Duluth East.
“Watching UMD when they played at the old DECC (Duluth Entertainment Convention Center), an old rodeo building, they weren’t great back then, but that was our entertainment, it’s where everyone would go,” Krenzen said. “UMD kept getting better and better, so between them and the high school rivalries, we were exposed to all of that at a young age.”
Like many young kids, Krenzen had dreams of playing at the highest level of college hockey, but didn’t know about the paths that could get him there. He wasn’t familiar with junior hockey; there was no high-level junior hockey in northeastern Minnesota at the time, as the Cloquet-based Minnesota Wilderness didn’t join the NAHL until the 2013-14 season.
He first learned about junior hockey when he was in high school and a teammate showed up to practice wearing sweatpants with the NAHL logo on them.
“I was like ‘what’s that?’” he said. “It was completely new to me.”
Krenzen continued to focus on helping his Duluth Marshall high school team succeed, putting up 22 goals and 78 points from the blue line in four seasons. He was a team captain as a senior in 2015-16, when he recorded 36 points.
Making his way to Austin
By that time, Krenzen knew all about junior hockey and how it could help him achieve his goal of becoming a Division I player.
He had gone to some USHL teams’ camps the summer before his senior season at Duluth Marshall, but until the final regular-season game of his final season of high school hockey had never had a coach or scout from a junior team approach him after a game.
That changed after Marshall beat rival Denfeld 2-0 on Feb. 9, 2016. Krenzen assisted on both of his team’s goals — the game-winner just 3:43 into the game, and a power-play goal midway through the third period that sealed the victory.
“(Then-Bruins scout) Brad Clayton was in the stands that night,” Krenzen said. “The next day my phone rang and it was him. They wanted me to come to Austin and check things out, practice with the team, so I did that right before the high school state tournament. (Then-Bruins coach) Kyle Grabowski called me in and offered me a tender.
“I knew I didn’t have to sign it, but I knew if I didn’t there was a chance I could get drafted and end up somewhere way far away. I didn’t see a reason not to sign it. You have to make your own mark.”
The waiting game
Krenzen grew up playing with and against other players who received college offers. He knew he had the ability to play against them, but he also understood that he wouldn’t just be handed a spot on a Division I roster.
“I knew I had to improve the way I played the game if I wanted to get there,” he said. “If I just showed up every single day and kept working on the little things, all those details of where my game needed to be, I knew I could play D1 hockey. I also realized I wasn’t quite ready until a good chunk of the way through my third year in Austin.
“It was best for me that I played as long as I did in juniors. Dealing with that adversity there, it teaches you how to be ready (for college hockey).”
Krenzen had 10 assists in 53 games his first season in Austin. But his team-first attitude — his willingness and eagerness to drop and block shots and to stick up for his teammates — made him a captain in his second season with the team.
He held that distinction again in his third and final season with the Bruins, in 2018-19. He also held a growing concern and frustration that his Division I dreams were just that: Dreams.
“I wasn’t concerned about it my first year in Austin, and even into my second year it was something I thought was definitely going to happen,” Krenzen said. “It became obvious, playing in the North American league, you’re not going to get what you want right away.”
A steady stream of Division III coaches began knocking at Krenzen’s door in his second season in Austin. He was flattered and interested in their programs, but …
“By the end of that year, watching all these defensemen (from NAHL teams) commit to Division I schools was frustrating,” he said. “I thought ‘I played against him. If he can do it, I can do it.’ But part of me knew I wasn’t ready for that level. My skating and my game weren’t ready.”
Still, coaches from Niagara, Minnesota State University-Mankato, Nebraska Omaha, Michigan State and Arizona State were among the Division I coaches who inquired with Bruins head coach Steve Howard about Krenzen.
He thought he might spend his final season of junior hockey in the USHL, thinking he’d done enough to make the Cedar Rapids Roughriders roster out of fall camp. But the Roughriders decided to keep younger players and Krenzen wasn’t sure he wanted to spend another season in the NAHL, another season of hoping that just one Division I coach would see enough in him to offer him a scholarship.
“I told my mom ‘I’m so tired, I can’t do another year,’” he said. “That was a pretty brief moment of doubt, then I bucked up and said ‘I’m going to go get what I want.’”
That didn’t come easily, though. During his third and final season in Austin, Krenzen’s defensive presence and his skating continued to improve and he recorded career highs in goals (9) and points (29).
Division I programs continued to ask about him and talk to him. Halfway through the season, one college went so far as to tell him they wanted him to be part of their team and they’d send his paperwork over immediately. That paperwork never showed up. Krenzen realized it wasn’t coming when he saw that school had accepted another defenseman for that spot.
“I got in my car and drove home, thinking ‘you sacrificed and worked your whole life and you keep getting the door slammed in your face,’” he said. “At that point, I just started to have fun and enjoy the last few months of the season regardless of what happens. I relaxed and started playing some of my best hockey.”
After the first week of the NAHL playoffs, Krenzen assumed a Division I offer wasn’t coming. The Bruins were down 2-0 in their series and one loss away from his junior hockey career ending. He was eating a midweek lunch with teammate Ian Mageau when Bruins coach Steve Howard texted to say ‘DU is going to be calling you.’
“I thought ‘I’ve heard that before,’” Krenzen said. “I didn’t really expect anything.”
He went home after lunch and began filling out the application to get into UW-Eau Claire. Then his phone rang. Then Tavis MacMillan offered him a spot at Denver.
“When I said yes, everything came off my shoulders,” Krenzen said. “My head felt different, I had a feeling I hadn’t had before. I called my parents and said ‘I think I’m going to Denver.’ I said yes so fast it didn’t seem real; it all happened over the course of 35-40 minutes.
“I went from applying to a Division III school to playing for one of the best Division I programs in the country. I hung up the phone and broke down. It was three years of frustration, over.”