Kurt Kleinendorst’s senior year at Grand Rapids High School was just about perfect.
“We came to the state tournament undefeated, lost to Roseau in the first game and had to settle for the consolation,” Kleinendorst, the head coach of the Wild’s new American Hockey League affiliate in Des Moines, Iowa, said. “So we lost one game all year and it wasn’t good enough to be state champion.”
But it was 1979, and Kleinendorst, an all-conference and all-state forward, was living the dream. Three legends – Herb Brooks at Minnesota, Bob Johnson at Wisconsin and Lou Lamoriello at Providence – were beating down his door.
“I mean, can you imagine?” Kleinendorst said. “It was not an easy decision. Coming from Minnesota, you always want to play the Gophers, and Wisconsin was an incredible program. Why in the world would I choose Providence, other than my brother [former NHL defenseman Scot] was there?
“Lou’s a phenomenal recruiter and painted the picture.”
Kurt Kleinendorst became an All-American and Hobey Baker finalist for Lamoriello, now the longtime New Jersey Devils general manager, in 1983. He went on to forge a nice minor league playing career before transitioning into coaching in 1991.
He spent nine years with Lamoriello’s Devils, either as an assistant for Larry Robinson and Kevin Constantine, doing advance scouting (won a Stanley Cup with Pat Burns in 2003) or as coach of the AHL Lowell Devils.
“If you only know Lou from a distance, you can’t appreciate him because he’s so guarded,” Kleinendorst said of Lamoriello. “He doesn’t let people get close to him, but I’m 52 years old and I reach out to him and look for his guidance on anything I do.”
Kleinendorst was a finalist for the Houston Aeros’ head-coaching position in 2010. It went to now-Wild coach Mike Yeo instead, and Kleinendorst was hired by the Ottawa Senators to coach their AHL affiliate in Binghamton. Coincidentally, Kleinendorst’s Baby Sens rallied from a 2-1 series deficit to beat Yeo’s Aeros.
Asked if he got any extra satisfaction beating Yeo after being beaten out for the Aeros’ gig, Kleinendorst said, laughing, “What do you think? No, Mike did a phenomenal job, and I think it’s worked out for both of us.”
Kleinendorst spent two years in Binghamton before coaching the University of Huntsville-Alabama last year. He didn’t think it would be smart or healthy to not coach during the NHL lockout, so Lamoriello convinced Kleinendorst to take the challenge to clean up a program and help get the school into the WCHA.
But the periphery stuff about coaching college – compliance issues, recruiting, fundraising, wasn’t for him.
“I love pro hockey, and 95 percent of the time at this level, you’re coaching. That’s what I love,” he said.
The stars aligned for Kleinendorst when the AHL job for his home state Wild opened up again in June.
Aeros coach John Torchetti decided not to relocate to Iowa after being offered a lucrative position to coach Sergei Fedorov’s Kontinenal Hockey League team in Moscow. Kleinendorst is tight with Iowa GM Jim Mill, who actually goaltended for Kleinendorst’s Raleigh Icecaps in the East Coast Hockey League in 1992.
“It’s a miracle I didn’t kill his career 20 years ago,” Mill joked. “This will be great for our organization. Kurt is a true player’s coach – a great communicator and teacher.”
Kleinendorst, a father of four, knows that no matter who winds up making the Wild out of camp, he should have a number of talented young players in Iowa.
Several youngsters could see time there, including Jason Zucker, Nino Niederreiter, Mikael Granlund, Erik Haula, Justin Fontaine and Zack Phillips. He may even have some veterans with significant NHL experience, like David Steckel and Jon Blum. Prospects Raphael Bussieres, Tyler Graovac and Johan Gustafsson will start their pro careers. He’ll have leaders like Carson McMillan, Kyle Medvec and Brian Connelly.
“It’s all about development. Development comes first. Winning comes a close second,” Kleinendorst said. “But why can’t you do both? You can.”
He says the system he normally deploys is amazingly similar to Yeo’s, and his goal in Iowa is to always prepare his players to step right into the Wild lineup once they get the call.
“Their mind is going 100 miles per hour in 100 different directions when that call comes,” Kleinendorst said. “The last thing they should worry about is, ‘how should they play tonight?’ That should be in place, from knowing Minnesota’s forecheck to how they play in the neutral zone to coming out of the defensive zone.
“My job is to put their minds at rest so every player is ready and raring to go.”