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Change working out for Klinkhammer

February 23, 2012
Photo: Chris Rutsch

by Michael Sharp || AHL On The Beat Archive   

A self-described health food nut, Rob Klinkhammer was sitting in his apartment eating a pregame meal of avocado, sweet potato and chicken on that early December afternoon when he got the call.

After three-plus seasons with the Chicago Blackhawks organization, he had just been traded to the Ottawa Senators for a conditional seventh-round draft pick.

The phone call, as it so often does, kicked off a whirlwind 24 hours. There were calls and e-mails from his new team. There were loose ends to tie up in Rockford. There was packing to be done and an early flight to catch Saturday morning from Chicago to Boston.

When the dust had finally settled later that evening, Klinkhammer was sitting in a dressing room in Worcester with his new team, the Binghamton Senators -- a valuable new start about to unfold.

“We needed him desperately,” said head coach Kurt Kleinendorst, whose B-Sens were battling injuries at the time. “And I think Rob needed a little bit of a change. (The IceHogs) were looking to go younger. So I think it was one of those situations that was a win-win for everybody.”

Indeed, since he first suited up for the Senators on Dec. 3, the stats paint a compelling picture of an undrafted left wing making the most of a new opportunity. Through 18 games with the IceHogs this season, Klinkhammer had two goals and four assists. Through 31 games with the B-Sens, he has 11 goals and 21 assists -- a surge that now has him just five goals, five assists and nine points away from setting career highs in all three categories.

“It’s definitely a case of opportunity,” Klinkhammer, 25, said this week. “In Rockford, they kind of had me labeled as one certain type of player. Just second-, third-line minutes type of thing. A PK guy. I didn’t really get a shot on the power play or anything like that. And that was fine. They really like their prospects there, and they want to develop their guys well. That’s an organization that really does that well, I feel.

“And then ... I come here, and they’ve got a lot of injuries to their top guys and stuff like that, and they just kind of immediately threw me on the first-line power play. (They’ve played) me first, second line ... (and) regularly on the PK. And I think I just ran with the opportunity, and I was lucky enough to bang a couple goals in.”

That includes his first professional hat trick against Adirondack on Dec. 28, and a two-goal night against those same Phantoms a week later. He’s been out killing five-on-three situations, and five times now with Binghamton, he’s also had two assists in a game, as he’s fit in smoothly alongside the likes of Corey Locke, Stephane Da Costa and Mark Parrish.

“He came at a good time in the season,” Locke said. “We needed some help when the trade was made, and he brought a big-body presence up front. Obviously, he’s a power forward that can skate very well, sense the game well, and he’s produced some great offensive numbers this season since coming over in the trade. So it’s been a trade that’s worked out very well for us.”

A native of Lethbridge, Alta., the 6-foot-3, 210-pound Klinkhammer averaged 13.5 goals and 18 assists over his previous four seasons with Norfolk and Rockford. He set a Rockford record with a goal in five straight games during the 2008-09 season, and as a rookie the year before, he actually made his pro debut against these Senators, notching an assist.

He got a brief taste of hockey’s highest level in December of 2010, when he played 18 shifts for Chicago in a 5-3 win over the visiting Dallas Stars. He finished with 11 minutes, 36 seconds of ice time and a plus-1 rating on that unforgettable call-up -- which had started with a sweet surprise.

Klinkhammer was actually just leaving to pick up his parents at the airport when he got word of the promotion. He headed back inside, packed up his equipment, then continued on to the airport, where he got to deliver the news in person that they’d be watching him play in Chicago, rather than Rockford.

“They were super excited,” he said. “It couldn’t have worked out any better. It was kind of a perfect situation. You always want your parents to see your first NHL game, and I was just so happy to have my whole family there.”

Of the game, he said: “I really just tried to take it in. I think everyone’s really nervous for their first game. You know, I was super nervous. I probably didn’t play my best hockey; I just tried to play mistake free and not cause any goals or anything like that. It’s just, you know the level of the NHL, everything’s quicker, faster. Guys are stronger. Everyone’s always in position. But you get a taste of that and it makes you want more, and I’d love another shot at the NHL.”

One December later, his phone rang again in Rockford. This time, with very different news.

“I kind of saw it coming,” he said of the trade. “I was there three and a half years, and I had kind of had a slow start, and I think we were 20-some-odd games in. I was sitting on the fourth line. I wasn’t playing a lot. I felt like I wasn’t really contributing to the team, and I’m sure they thought the same thing -- that they could have a younger prospect just sit on the fourth line, and fill that role, and get some experience that way. So when I go traded, you’re always a little shocked, but I could kind of see it coming.”

On the other line was Rockford GM Mark Bernard, a man Klinkhammer credits with being in his corner since Day 1.

“He said he thought it was the best thing for me, that he thought I needed a change and everything,” Klinkhammer said, “and he turned out to be right.”

Bernard, it turns out, also spent 30 games playing for Kleinendorst during the 1999-2000 season, with the Manchester Storm of the British Super League.

“We were just touching base,” Kleinendorst said, “and he said they were going to move Rob, probably sometime that day. So if we had an interest, to let him know. And it just worked out.”

Like Locke, Kleinendorst points to Klinkhammer’s skating ability and his off-the-ice preparation as two things that stand out about his new left wing.

“Probably spends more time at the rink taking care of himself and doing what he needs to do, than any other player that we have,” Kleinendorst said. “There are no shortcuts to what he does. He’s in early. He’s prepared to practice. What he practices, he practices honestly. After practice, after games, always the last one to leave the locker room. He always takes care of whatever needs to be taken care of. So, he’s pretty much got it figured out.”

That’s an ethic Klinkhammer traces back to his parents -- to his mother, Ruth, who would drive two hours each way to Calgary for work, and to his father, Gerry, an electrical lineman and his longtime youth hockey coach.

“They both worked so hard their whole life,” said Klinkhammer, who in his spare time is now taking a microeconomics course online from Athabasca University in Alberta.

“We’ve given him an opportunity, and he’s made the most of it,” Kleinendorst said. “That’s the way it works, and for me, that’s the way it should work. I think it’s the guys that step up and deserve more ice time, are the guys that should get more ice time. So, I think he’s done that.”

Two months ago, Klinkhammer nearly fell short in his bid for that first hat trick, missing wide on an empty net with about 45 seconds left in Glens Falls. With a little laugh, he admits to staying on the ice a bit longer, looking for one more shot. And eventually he did get the puck back, but “gassed” at this point, he just flipped it high down the ice and headed toward the bench.

At the opposite end, that puck took a funny bounce, then kicked back into the open net for his third goal of the evening -- a new direction, a dose of good timing, and a bit of hard work all paying off.