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In '84 Kleinendorst took one for the team

Thursday, 01.28.2010 / 1:00 AM / All-Access Vancouver

By Mike G. Morreale - NHL.com Staff Writer

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In '84 Kleinendorst took one for the team
Kurt Kleinendorst was a guaranteed Olympian in 1984, but he knew he couldn't take the roster spot of a more deserving player.
There were some pretty tense moments leading up to the final roster selections for each country participating in the 2010 Winter Games, with sleepless nights abounding for players on the bubble and executives charged with shaping the rosters.

For some, there is great joy. For others, terrible disappointment. Kurt Kleinendorst knows all about it and can't help but recall what might have been the most glorious moment of his playing career.

The All-America forward from Providence College was one of 10 players guaranteed a spot on the 1984 Olympic Team headed to Sarajevo, Yugoslavia. That is, until he reconsidered less than a month from the opening ceremonies.

Now the coach for USA's Under-18 National Team Developmental Program in Ann Arbor, Mich., Kleinendorst says he always wanted to be an Olympian. The problem was, he wanted to justify that label with his play and not solely because he owned a piece of paper that reserved his roster spot.

"I was a young man, and to give that up … that's failure," Kleinendorst told NHL.com in a very candid interview. "That was one of the first times as a hockey player that I really failed at my craft so it was very humbling. As a player, I don't know if I ever really recovered from that."

Looking back, he wouldn't. But Kleinendorst never sought pity. Instead, he rolled up his sleeves and, today, is considered one of USA Hockey's most respected coaches.

As a star center at Providence, Kleinendorst was the school's all-time goal-scoring leader and an All-America his senior year under the tutelage of the school's then-athletic director and coach, Lou Lamoriello. The Olympic brass for USA Hockey offered him a guaranteed spot on the team in order to keep him from turning pro.

But Kleinendorst struggled from the beginning of Olympic training camp in the summer of '83. That goal-scoring wizard at Providence had produced just 8 in 44 games with Team USA, and to add to the misery, he missed seven games with a shoulder separation in November. Kleinendorst, just 23 at the time, tried to rush back but was ineffective.

It was around that same time he began having doubts. Kleinendorst ultimately would come to his decision following a meeting called by Team USA coach Lou Vairo.

"I didn't have a good year -- I lost my confidence and I think I lost the coaches' confidence," he said. "I could feel it and it just snowballed and it never got better. I knew at that time I just didn't deserve that spot, so I just gave it up."

Was it a difficult decision? You bet. And while he harbors some regret, he still feels it was the right thing to do.

"Basically it was just a conversation I had with Lou (Vairo) and I just said, 'I don't deserve it,' and I didn't. It's a regret because all my life, I'm telling you, I wanted to be an Olympian and I did have an injury and maybe that contributed to my performance -- I never recovered after the injury."

The lessons learned from that disappointment were life-changing.

"I can't even begin to tell you the lessons I took with me from that year and have used as a coach today," he said. "Here's the thing -- the year before that Olympic year I was an All-American, I was a Hobey Baker finalist, I led the East (ECAC) in scoring, I'd been to the World Championships as a junior coming out of college. I mean, did I just all of a sudden become a bad hockey player?"

Of course not. Kleinendorst was an exceptional player at the time with an injury that curtailed his performance. He admits being the type of individual who needed some reassuring feedback from time to time, as any aspiring person in any profession would certainly benefit from. But that was something that just wasn't there and he'd eventually be relegated to fourth-line duty.

"Looking back, the lesson I learned was that every player has to feel their worth because, if they don't, you'll never get their potential," Kleinendorst said.

"It wasn't Lou (Vairo) because Lou was always good to me," Kleinendorst said. "But I sensed a lack of confidence from some coaches on the staff and I think that affected me in the way I performed -- and that's my honest opinion."

Sometimes he wishes he would have just kept battling.

"I look back, and sometimes I wish I just sucked it up and said, 'You know what? First of all, I'm better than this. I know I could play better and I'm going to prove to you I can play better.' But we were running out of time and it just wasn't working."

It's been well-documented how Herb Brooks was the last player cut by coach Jack Riley from the 1960 Men's Olympic Team that would win gold in Squaw Valley, Calif. The legendary Brooks later headed Team USA's 1980 "Miracle on Ice" in Lake Placid. The '84 Olympic Team finished seventh in Sarajevo.

Kleinendorst certainly has earned the respect of every player he's coached -- from the ECHL's Raleigh Icecaps in the early 1990's to the American Hockey League's Lowell Devils from 2006-07 through 2008-09. He also was an assistant coach for the New Jersey Devils in 2001-02.

"I wanted to be a part of that Olympic team because they wanted me to be there, not because I had a piece of paper that said I would be there," Kleinendorst said. "Like I said, I didn't become a bad player overnight. There were some things that led up to that, so that experience as a player has helped me become a better coach today."

"I didn't do it to be courageous. I was raised to do the right thing. Honestly, I never would have been able to live with myself if I kept them to that piece of paper when, in their eyes, I didn't deserve to be there."
-- Kurt Kleinendorst

It's pretty obvious Kleinendorst lives by the notion everything happens for a reason. To this day, he holds no grudges.

"I didn't do it to be courageous," he said, "I was raised to do the right thing. Honestly, I never would have been able to live with myself if I kept them to that piece of paper when, in their eyes, I didn't deserve to be there.

"I'm the kind of guy who knows all players need to be held accountable, just in a different way. Some guys need a kick in the butt and other guys need it with your arm around their shoulder. As a coach, it's my job to know that."

Contact Mike Morreale at mmorreale@nhl.com.