Late last night, I had a conversation with Kurt Kleinendorst, who lost his job Sunday night as head coach of the Wild’s American Hockey League affiliate in Des Moines. See this blog for that news.
Following a loss to Chicago that put Iowa’s record at 2-10, Kleinendorst met with Wild director of minor-league operations Jim Mill and was informed of the team’s decision that he was being dismissed as coach. It left a sour end to Kleinendort’s 29th wedding anniversary to wife, Deon.
After finishing last in the AHL’s Western Conference last year, this was Kleinendorst’s 25th year as a hockey coach and it was by far his toughest.
Kleinendorst said he’s disappointed, embarrassed, frustrated and relieved that it’s over. He says the Wild had little choice but to let him go. Whatever he tried the past two years didn’t work with a group that wasn’t responding to him in Iowa, so now it’s his friend John Torchetti’s chance to retake the reins of a struggling team that lacks confidence right now.
Here is a Q and A with the 53-year-old who now will enjoy eight months of paid vacation:
On getting fired: “It’s interesting. I’ve never been through it. You watch your peers go through it and you feel for them because it’s not fun obviously. These are high-profile positions. At the end of the day I do appreciate that [GM Chuck Fletcher] gave me an opportunity in the first place.”
Were you surprised? “Oh no, Jim and I, we go back, and anybody that knows me, would agree that I can self-evaluate. He and I have actually been having dialogue for some time because it’s been such a struggle. Since Day One, it’s been a struggle. You can’t let something like this go on too long. I understand that. The last thing any organization wants is for their young kids to be developing in a losing environment because it’s not healthy. We tried and tried and tried. We tried pretty much everything. At the end of the day, what options are left? This is what’s left, so I get it. I totally get it. I understand. I’m disappointed, but I understand why they felt they needed to do what they needed to do. I’m completely on board with it. It’s just disappointing because generally at some point you’d expect you’d get your players to kick a little bit, and it just didn't happen and that bothers me."
Why not? Looking at your career, this hasn’t happened to you at any level? Are the kids not the right kids? “I’ve been with these guys every day. I’ve got a good idea of why, but I’m going to keep that to myself. I will say this though: This needed to be done. Now Chuck is going to know it was either the guy behind the bench or it was the players out on the ice. What is it? So at the end of the day, Jimmy, Chuck, they’re in a good situation because they will be able to determine if it was the guy behind the bench or just maybe we’re not as good in Iowa as we think we are. It’s got to be one or the other. I totally understand that. I think the time was right-you just could not let this continue to fester.”
Can Torch jumpstart this team? “Torch and I go way back. I was in Raleigh when he was that taxicab driver (see previous blog for context). I love Torch. He’s a friend. I think he’s the right guy to come in and do what Chuck and Jim need him to do, plus he’s got a relationship with some of these players already from Houston, so I think that will be helpful. He’s a no-nonsense guy most of the time. I’m a no-nonsense guy most of the time with less bite and I think this group needs that extra bite. I think they need a guy that is going to be a miserable jerk, and I think Torch can be that guy – and trust me, that’s no disrespect to Torch. He's a solid person. You have to be who you are. The year that we won the [Calder] Cup [in Binghamton], I had a group of guys that connected with me. They wanted to play for me. They appreciated to be coached the way I coach. My Calder Cup year we did have a group that responded to my approach. That's how you win. Not every team is the right fit for every coach and vice versa. This group, I think they need 90 percent jerk. Maybe that's what they deserve and that’s what he’s going to give them. I will always be true to myself and stick to what I believe in.
They just didn’t connect to you? “It bothers me. It’s not often that I have a group that isn't willing to push for me. It does come down to the willingness to do what you’re being challenged to do. We challenged and we challenged and we challenged, and most every player will tell you, we put our time in, we did everything we thought would help this group click, and it just didn’t happen. It just didn’t happen. You get to a point where you have a big cloud over the locker room, and the only way you’re going to get rid of that cloud is by winning, by making a trade or by getting rid of a coach. And in this league and at this time of the year, it’s not the easiest thing to trade players. And you don’t want to be trading assets for the sake of the American League anyway, you really don’t.”
How tough was it with the Wild’s top-end prospects being in the NHL most of your tenure and guys shuttling back and forth because of injuries? “The NHL, we all know, is the best league in the world, but the hardest league to coach is the AHL in my opinion. No. 1 you’ve got a bunch of guys that don’t want to be here and a bunch of them who don’t think they should be here. That's an interesting dynamic in itself. You’ve got guys at all different developmental levels. You’ve got your veteran guys that get it, you’ve got your middle of the road guys that some get it and some don't but think they do, and you’ve got your young, developing guys that are just happy to be in the locker room. I mean, it’s a tough, tough league to coach, and that’s what makes it such a great challenge. But there are some good pieces here for sure. Justin Falk, Brett Sutter, Stephane Veilleux played their hearts out for me and are the veteran depth guys that every NHL team needs: Mark Hagel, Zack Mitchell are all in. Listen, when you’re winning, you’re not going to find out anything about anybody-not when things are going well. Anybody can be a good boy and a positive person and be uplifting when things are going your way. It’s when things aren’t going your way when we’re really going to find out about ourselves. Justin Falk is an unbelievable character. Brett Sutter is an unbelievable character. Stephane Veilleux is an unbelievable character. These are guys, that fought for me and their teammates every day, and as a coach, I respect that and appreciate that.
“You’ve got a third of your group, your core leaders, you've got your middle third and then you've got your bottom third. Your bottom third is generally your young kids, the middle third are the group of guys that could go either way. What we weren’t able to get to was, we had a really strong upper group, but we just couldn’t get the middle group to come up and join them, and because of that, you can’t get the bottom third to get pulled to the middle. But Falky, Sutter, Steph, I can’t express enough how much I appreciate them for what they did. Justin has come far. He's the one guy that I will walk away feeling the best about. In some very difficult circumstances, he's a guy that stepped up, did everything I asked of him. He wanted to be part of the solution and was a guy who was pulling for me, trying to make it work, and his game grew the most. Isn’t that how it is supposed to work? Listen, put in the time, work hard and grow. Crazy how that works. He’s taken a big step in getting back to the NHL. And Sutsy, you wouldn’t expect anything less from him.”
Can Torch turn this around though? “They’re bringing in the right guy. Don’t expect him to flip it in a day. The guys are just not in a good place right now. It’s more than likely going to take a little time.”
What’s next for you? “I’m going to do what I want to do when I want to do it. I feel bad that this didn’t work out. If there could have been a comedy of errors in a bad way, it would have been the start to this season- nothing went our way. It was almost like it was never meant to be-if you believe in such things. I have a daughter who is a grad assistant coach in Vermont at Castleton College so I’m going to go out and spend some time with her. We’ve got a place out in Park City I will get out there.
“When I left on Sunday, I was disappointed and embarrassed. I always feel that your teams are a reflection of you, and this team was by no means a reflection of me. It was difficult to get this group to buy in to what I needed them to do and I own that. I won't pass that off on anyone. I was disappointed, and in the end embarrassed for the way we were playing, but I was also relieved that it was over. It was like we had tried everything and it wasn’t happening-it happens. Time to move on from a bad experience. Plenty of good coaches have been let go and come back to have success. [Devils GM Lou Lamoriello] taught me to be a good self-evaluator and I believe I do. I know everything that needed to be done and what I could control was done.
“I’m going to take some time. I won't come back to coaching until my belly’s burning and I'm excited to get behind the bench again. My belly’s not burning right now. Hockey is a great game and coaching’s such a great profession. I’ve got something to offer. We'll just have to wait and see where that will be.”