Thursday, 4 November 2010

Great Manitoban Story

There have been a great number of excellent hockey players that have come out of the province of Manitoba. Legends such as Terry Sawchuk, Bobby Clarke, Turk Broda, and Billy Mosienko are some of the men who have made the province proud with their long careers and many successes in the NHL. Others such as Jonathan Toews, Nigel Dawes, Eric Fehr, and Duncan Keith are still writing chapters into their own histories that will one day make Manitobans proud of their achievements. The stories that are rarely talked about, however, are those of the career minor-league players who have given their lives to various cities around the globe with little or no fanfare outside of those cities. Credit goes to Mr. Bob McKenzie of who wrote an excellent article about one of these men, and a native Manitoban.

It all started with the Chill in Columbus, but it wasn't long before he was a Riverfrog in Louisville and then an Icecap in Raleigh. Twice.

He was an Admiral in Milwaukee, a Riverman in Peoria. Twice. A Viper in Detroit, a Griffin in Grand Rapids. Twice, in two different leagues. A K-Wing in Kalamazoo. Four times, in four different leagues. A Giant in Belfast. Twice. A Bandit in Jackson, a Fury in Muskegon and a Jackalope in Odessa.

By our count, it's been 12 cities, six leagues (American, International, East Coast, United, Central and British), 904 regular-season minor pro games and counting and more bus miles than you could possibly imagine in the 16th pro season for 38-year old Kory Karlander, the oldest active player in the ECHL.

"The years kind of creep up on you and that's true for me," the Kalamazoo K-Wing centre from Melita, Man., says. "It's my 16th pro season and if anyone asks why I still do it, I guess the answer is pretty obvious...I love what I do. It's never stopped being fun for me."

If the name sounds vaguely familiar, it should. Kory's uncle, Al Karlander, played 212 NHL games with the Detroit Red Wings in the early 1970s, after being drafted out of Michigan Tech by the Wings in the second round of the 1967 amateur draft and added another 269 games in the WHA with the New England Whalers and Indianapolis Racers.

Kory's dad Ken, along with Al, came from Lac La Hache in the Cariboo region of British Columbia though they attended and played hockey at the famed Notre Dame College in Wilcox, Sask.

"My dad and my uncle used to hitch-hike all the way (1,600 kilometres) from Lac La Hache to Wilcox at the beginning of every school year," Kory says of a story he likes to regale his younger teammates with each season. "When my Uncle Al went to Michigan Tech for his first year of college, he was hitch-hiking from Lac La Hache to Houghton, Mich., and he phoned then to say he was on his way and they told him he was already a week and a half late, that he should have been there already. I guess he was having a tough time getting a ride."

With bloodlines like that, we shouldn't be too surprised that Kory Karlander is still grinding it out in a minor pro hockey odyssey as he heads towards age 40.

The ECHL is no longer the dead-end loop it used to be. It's two rungs below the NHL, one below the well-respected American Hockey League and there's a fair bit of traffic between the AHL and ECHL. It's not unheard of for ECHL grads - Chad Larose and Alex Burrows come immediately to mind - to make it to the NHL. That said, there are three types of players in the ECHL. A limited number on the way up, many who think they still have a chance to be on the way up and those just marking time, collecting somewhere between the league minimum of $410 per week ($370 for rookies) and the $850 weekly that the veteran Karlander gets from the K-Wings, as well as a housing allowance that helps take care of Karlander's mortgage on his permanent residence in Grand Rapids, Mich., about an hour from the rink in Kalamazoo.

"I obviously haven't gotten rich playing hockey but I've done well enough to help support my family," Karlander says. "I've got a lot of memories. I wouldn't trade any of it for anything. I love playing the game."

Karlander is married. His wife Shelly is a registered nurse who works in Grand Rapids and that obviously helps the family's financial picture. Kory and Shelly have a three-year-old son, Karsten, and Shelly has two sons of her own, 15-year old Ethan and 23-year old D.J., who attends Ferris State University. Karlander admits it takes a very understanding wife to allow him to follow his hockey-playing dreams and he couldn't do it without Shelly's support.

It is not lost on Karlander that he has a 23-year-old stepson who is older than many of his K-Wing teammates.

"That's pretty funny when you think about it," Karlander says.

The average age in the ECHL this season is 24.4. There are 18 players age 30 or older in the league, so it's not as if Karlander is the only thirty-something still kicking around.

In fact, K-Wing teammate Sam Ftorek, the son of former NHL coach and WHA scoring star Robbie Ftorek, is 36 and the second oldest player in the league.

"It's nice to have some company my own age," Karlander says of Ftorek.

Mind you, age is a matter of perspective. Karlander played the last two seasons before this one in Odessa in the Central Hockey League and he was a veritable kid compared to the elder statesman in the CHL.

Jeff Christian, a former London Knight who was a second-rounder of the New Jersey Devils in 1988, is 40 and still playing in the CHL with the Mississippi River Kings, having logged 1,259 regular season games and counting as a pro, including 18 games in the NHL. Ex-Hull Olympique defenceman Guy Dupuis, a Detroit Red Wing third-rounder in the 1988 draft, is also 40 and a fixture with the CHL's Fort Wayne Komets, with 1,379 regular season games and still counting.

Small wonder then that Karlander still feels like a kid, who has no plans to hang 'em up just yet.

"As long as I've got a place to play, why not?" he says. "I've always thought to get to 1,000 (regular season) games would be special. If I stay healthy and I am able to play next season, I'll hit it. That's a goal, for sure."

He hasn't given any thought to playing into his 40s but he's not ruling it out either.

It's been years now since he's thought about playing a game in the NHL, the dream that keeps many in the minors going. It was probably about five years ago, while playing for Grand Rapids in the American League, that his hopes were raised to a realistic level only to come up short and realize that if it didn't happen then, it wasn't going to happen.

"It was my second tour of duty in Grand Rapids and, like it is now, that was Detroit's affiliate," Karlander recalls. "Detroit ran into a real rash of injuries and a lot of guys were getting called up. I was off to a real good start that year, a point a game, and I really thought there was a chance I might get up for a game but it never happened. That was the closest I ever got. Once that moment passed, I knew that was it for me (as far playing a game in the NHL). Having played more than 300 pro games, I had to get veteran status in the AHL and with no NHL experience, I knew the writing was on the wall for me (playing in the AHL regularly) and that's probably when the (NHL) dream died."

But he still enjoyed playing the game for the game's sake. He won a UHL, aka U-Haul, championship in 2006 with Kalamazoo, one of two championships (the other was in Belfast with the Giants) on his resume.

Karlander plays the game now the way you would expect a 38-year-old to play it. Wisely. He moves well for a senior hockey citizen but is usually on the right side of the puck and uses his guile and experience to read plays both offensively and defensively. I watched him in a pair of games recently against the Florida Everblades and he won just about every face-off he took. He's always been good on the draw and killing penalties.

"You know why he wins so many face-offs, don't you?" my (then injured ECHL player) son told me as we watched the game together. "Because he's probably taken more faceoffs than any man in all of professional hockey. Think about it, 16 pro seasons, playing mostly in leagues where they only have three lines. I bet you he has the unofficial world record for most face-offs taken by a still active player."

Karlander laughs at the recounting of that story and doesn't disagree.

"I have taken an awful lot of face-offs and if you talk to me, I'm not sure I'd ever admit to losing one," he says, laughing. "I actually became a lot more valuable player when they changed the rules to put all the face-offs in the offensive zone after a penalty. Face-offs have become a lot more important so I find myself on the ice taking them a lot more. It's been great."

Being around the kids has helped keep Karlander young, too.

He says he gets a hybrid of respect, reverence and ridicule for being 38 and still playing a young man's game.

"The kids are really great, for the most part," he says. "They'll ask me a lot of questions about the game or what it was like and they're genuinely interested. And they're really respectful when it comes to things like taking a seat in the bus. They're always saying, 'I'm not in your seat, am I?' But they also like to have some fun at my expense and that's fine and I kind of contribute to it. I should know better. They were talking about XBox 360 the other day and I mentioned that I was underprivileged as a kid because my parents wouldn't buy me an Atari or Nintendo, the best we had was a Commodore Vic 20 and they really had a good laugh at that. My idea of video games is Space Invaders and Asteroids.

"One guy said to me, 'Hey, you've been around so long you have the seen the entire evolution of the hockey stick.' Stuff like that is pretty funny."

One can only imagine the stories Karlander has from 16 years in the low minors.

"Yeah, you could say I'm like Reg Dunlop I (of Slap Shot fame)," he says. "Lots of stories, not many you can print."

He remembers playing for Raleigh in the old ECHL in a game in Las Vegas, which was the first arena he'd ever played at where they had a video scoreboard. As he was being introduced skating onto the ice as part of the starting lineup, he looked up to see himself on the scoreboard screen. He was so mesmerized by the technology and seeing his visage on the scoreboard that he took a header over the red carpet that was laid out for the anthem singer.

"Definitely the most embarrassing moment," he says.

Great memories, for sure. He no doubt knows where a lot of minor league bodies are buried, but also where to find a lost pay cheque or two, notably in the Kalamazoo dressing room he now calls home. He's played more games in Kalamazoo than any other city and knows every nook and cranny of the room.

"They have the benches in the dressing room bolted to the wall and the seats flip up to store your stuff underneath," Karlander says. "There's a space though between the wall and the bench and I can't tell you how many times I've dropped my pay cheque down that crack. Once it goes in, there's no getting it back, so you have to get another cheque issued. I played with Marty Turco in Kalamazoo way back when. I know exactly where Marty sat and I know he lost at least one of his pay cheques down there the same as I did. I've often thought about getting the benches unbolted from the wall and getting that Marty Turco pay cheque out of there. I could get him to sign it. They wouldn't cash it now but it would be pretty good hockey memorabilia."

Karlander has played with plenty of guys who gone on to play in 'The Show', including Turco. When Karlander was in Grand Rapids five years ago, he played with Jiri Hudler, Tomas Kopecky, Joey MacDonald and even Curtis Joseph for a couple of games. In Belfast, he had ex-NHLers Paul Kruse and Dennis Vial on his team.

He cites Mark Reeds (now with Owen Sound in the OHL), with whom he won a championship in Kalamazoo, as the best coach he ever played for, but has a special place in his heart for his first pro coach, Moe Mantha, with the Columbus Chill in 1995-96. It was Mantha who may have had the most profound impact on a young kid fresh out of Northern Michigan University.

"Moe inspired me and taught me what it was to be a pro hockey player," Karlander recalls. "Moe said just because you're getting a pay cheque to play hockey doesn't make you a pro hockey player. He said being a pro was about accountability and playing the game the right way. He gave us a motivational booklet to start the playoffs and there was a quote on one page that is something to the effect of, it's easy to work hard and do your job when you hear of the roar of the crowd but it's a lot more difficult to do the hard work when there's no one there to see you or cheer you on. That's always stuck with me. I had that page laminated and I hang it somewhere I can always see it. In the summer, it's on the squat rack when I'm working out.

"I guess, if anything, that's the message I try to pass along to the kids I play with now. Be a pro. Respect the game. Our captain (24 year old) Wes O'Neill noticed that (36 year old) Sam (Ftorek) was unloading the bus and Wes apologized to me and said he'll make sure that never happens again, but you know what, if Sam or me unloading the bus makes some kid think twice before he complains about getting stuck with the job next time, well, that's a good lesson for that guy to learn. For me, playing the game now is all about how you conduct yourself. Being the age I am, you're going to get a certain amount of unconditional respect just for being old, but I still want to earn it."

So Karlander will just keep on playing. And when no team in no league will have him any more, only then will he hang 'em up, hopeful that he'll be able to coach at the pro level and impart the wisdom of the ages on more young kids.

"I still like to compete," he says. "I still like to play. I just love this game."

I really appreciate a story like Mr. Karlander's being told. If playing was only about making it to the NHL, there would be a lot of unhappy hockey players across the globe right now. Instead, Mr. Karlander shows that he's happy, doing very well, and still playing the game he loves so dearly.

If there is one thing we can teach children today, it's that you don't have to be rich and famous to enjoy doing the things that you love. Lots of people would like to be rich and famous, but they really only make up about 5% of the world. If given the opportunity to live Mr. Karlander's life, I'd jump at it in a heartbeat because he sounds like he really loves what he does.

What really makes it great is that he is teaching kids and young hockey players about life lessons. One has to work hard, earn other people's respect, and never give up to be successful at anything one does. If one does that, one will be a rich person until the day he or she quits. Those are the lessons that all kids should be taught, and Mr. Karlander lives and breathes those lessons daily on top of doing something that he loves day in and day out.

Wouldn't it be great to find a job like that? It's a great story from a great Manitoban kid who is still living his dream. And that's the lesson that needs to be told to all hockey players regardless of age - never give up on the dream!

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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