BREMERTON — Each day Harri Kroll invests in the West Sound Warriors is another day that brings him closer to his dream of playing professional hockey.
Kroll is a native of Jõhvi, Estonia, which has a population of more than 10,000 and a climate similar to Kitsap’s. It’s one of the reasons why Kroll, 19, feels more and more at home in Bremerton.
“When you first get here you’re a little bit nervous,” he said. “It’s like all new place, and everything is new, but as time goes you get more familiar.”
Kroll, who speaks Estonian, Russian and English, translates for other teammates when necessary. He found it easy to understand hockey from his coaches thanks to television.
“It wasn’t hard for me because I watch a lot of hockey, like NHL hockey, and I can study from that a lot of things,” he said. “It’s usually the same things that our coach talks about.”
Kroll fell into Warriors coach Ty Smith’s lap last season when Smith was coaching in Butte, Montana, in the Western States Hockey League. Smith was asked by Kroll’s agent to take a chance on the kid from Estonia, who was coming off shoulder surgery that had limited his playing time. Smith trusted the agent’s instincts and figured he’d have nothing to lose.
“I couldn’t be more happy,” Smith said of Kroll. “He’s an unreal athlete. He looks like someone that could be in the Olympics. His vertical (jump) is unreal. It’s the highest vertical I’ve seen in a long time. His frog jump’s unreal. He’s fast off the ice. He’s fast on the ice. He’s an elite athlete.”
Kroll has all the tools to succeed at the next level, but what Smith appreciates is he’s a low-maintenance player.
“He’s a great character kid,” he said.
Kroll is one of a handful of international players for the Warriors. He played junior hockey in Estonia, including HK Viru Sputnik Kohtla-Järve, Viru Sputnik U20, and the Estonian Junior team before heading to Butte, Montana.
It can take a couple of days or a couple of months for the paperwork to clear the red tape that allows an international player to play in the U.S. Teams will scour the world looking for the next up-and-comer.
Meanwhile, players are looking for their best option to be seen at the next level. Serendipity can play a big part in teams and players finding each other across thousands of miles.
“They have so many options in Sweden and the Czech Republic and Estonia and so I mean it’s a competition everywhere,” Smith said.
Kroll chose to follow Butte’s coaching staff to Bremerton this season and didn’t hesitate in his decision to play for the Warriors.
“I really wanted to come back this year,” Kroll said. “Hockey’s not that popular in Estonia. I have more opportunity to play here and go pro, and more (of) a chance to get into a school somewhere, a college. I have more chance here. That’s why I like to play here.”
Kroll’s decision to follow Smith is something the coach doesn’t take that lightly.
“It’s a good challenge for me and an exciting challenge,” Smith said, “and it’s a challenge for these guys to find a way to come together.”
The Warriors are relying on Kroll’s experience.
“He’s a big leader for our team this year, and he was a big leader for our team last year,” Smith said. “I think he’s not 100 percent satisfied with what he’s put out so far. He’s still working hard … I think he thinks he can give a bit more.”
Kroll is leading the team in points with 14 in 12 games. He has nine goals and five assists. At 6-foot-3 and 205 pounds, Kroll attracts a lot of attention on the ice from opposing teams. His strength and quickness make him a threat whenever he touches the puck and defenders have a tough time getting him off the puck.
It’s one of the reasons why Kroll was invited to play for Estonia’s U20 World Cup team in December. The team camp was during the summer, and Kroll said the coach really liked him.
“He told me I should come and play for them,” he said. “I’m pretty happy about it.”
Junior Hockey On Tap
What: Seattle Totems at West Sound Warriors
Where: Bremerton Ice Center, 1950 Homer Jones Drive
When: Friday-Saturday, 7:30 p.m.
More info/tickets: 360-479-7465