For some junior hockey players, taking the plunge and coming all the way to the Kenai Peninsula to play in the North American Hockey League can be a bit of a sell.
Kenai River Brown Bears forward Alex Klekotka, 19, is not one of those players.
“I was excited, actually,” Klekotka, who is from Grand Rapids, Michigan, said. “I kept my eye on Kenai River growing up.
“I like to hunt, fish and hike. It’s a good fit for me.”
Klekotka first got on the ice on skates at the age of 2 in an homemade ice rink in the backyard of his parents, Jerry and Sara of Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Jerry had been a football player in college, but fueled by a love of the Detroit Red Wings, Alex chose hockey and never looked back, even spending his summers Rollerblading in the basement.
He was groomed by the Fox Motors Hockey Club and signed a tender with the Brown Bears before last season. He joined the team midseason and had five assists in 24 games.
“I was a little slow to get acclimated to junior hockey coming from U18,” Klekotka said. “Once I got acclimated, I played decent, but the main thing it did was make me ready for summer.
“I worked hard and it’s paid off so far.”
Acclimation off the ice was not a problem. Klekotka moved in with Jeff and Beth Selinger of Soldotna. Jeff is the area wildlife biologist at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s Soldotna office, perhaps the perfect billet dad for an avid hunter and fisherman.
“It’s a great family and a good fit, for sure,” Klekotka said. “He has some great stories when he comes home and knows some good spots.”
Last season, Jeff Selinger took Klekotka ice fishing a few times on Skilak Lake.
Brown Bears captain Preston Weeks, of Soldotna, has introduced Klekotka to hiking trails, with Slaughter Ridge and Skyline Trail rising to the top of the list.
And Klekotka is trying to get Kenai Central product and fellow forward Ross Hanson to take him hunting. Klekotka’s dream is to shoot a bear, but he has no preference for which kind of bear.
With everything falling into place, Klekotka was thrown a curveball when the team nearly folded after last season.
“I felt bad for the fans at the end of the year, that they wouldn’t get a chance to see us on the ice anymore and wouldn’t be able to cheer us on,” he said.
Once the team was saved, coach Jeff Worlton was fired and Josh Petrich was hired, meaning more uncertainty for Klekotka.
A 25-minute conversation with Petrich set Klekotka at ease. His U16 coach at Fox Motors, Travis Richards, also knew Petrich and further put Klekotka’s mind at rest.
So he got to work this summer with Carrie Keil, who coaches skating for the University of Michigan and for the U17 and U18 USA National Team Development Program, and personal trainer Chuck Hofbauer.
When Petrich first saw Klekotka on the ice, the coach liked what he saw.
“Someone who was willing to go to the net, someone who is a no-nonsense type of kid, someone who is really coachable were my first impressions,” Petrich said. “He was also someone who didn’t know where he fit in junior hockey and needed guidance in that aspect.”
And so Klekotka found himself back on the Kenai Peninsula at the end of the summer, taking a memorable trip on the Kenai River fishing for silvers with his teammates.
As the season has progressed, Klekotka is having more and more success as his role is more clearly defined and as Petrich learns more about the 6-foot-1, 190-pounder as a player.
After a game Oct. 26 against the Minnesota Magicians, Petrich said he felt Klekotka didn’t play very well so he scratched him the next night.
When Petrich had more time to watch the film, though, he noticed Klekotka did all the little things that night, like getting his stick on the puck and finishing every single check.
Then before the Fairbanks series last weekend, Petrich had his quarterly meetings with each of the players. This refined Klekotka’s role even more.
“Alex really embodied the role laid out for him,” Petrich said. “In Friday’s loss and Saturday’s win, he stuck out all weekend.”
Klekotka had his second goal of the year Friday and now has eight points in 16 games. Just as importantly, Petrich said Klekotka showed he can be effective in holding down the other team’s top line.
“Alex went out and played perfect,” Petrich said. “He’s got a big, physical body, and he’s modeling his game off of a big, physical power forward who opens up the ice for two more skilled guys.
“At the same time, he’s holding the other team’s top player accountable.”
Klekotka is fine with that role.
“The goals will come,” he said. “I can put the puck in the net if I need to.
“We’re definitely on the same page. I just want to go out and do what I can to help the team win.”
Petrich said the role of shutting down the other team’s top line and producing a goal here and there isn’t the most glamorous, but he said it’s a player every team needs.
“My old coach said, ‘The world also needs ditchdiggers. Ditchdiggers don’t get any recognition,’” Petrich said.
Klekotka isn’t about to complain.
“It’s been an awesome experience,” Klekotka said. “I’m far from home, but I talk to my parents a lot. My dad always tells me what an awesome ride I’m on.”