There are at least 307 reasons why Ken Klee’s Capital teammates have dubbed him “Bruiser.” On 307 occasions last season, Klee was credited with a “hit.” That works out to roughly four whacks a games and placed Klee third overall in the NHL in 1999-2000. The 29-year-old defenseman doesn’t go out in search of the big, board-rattling checks, either. He gets it done by playing a fairly simple game and letting the hits come to him.
Klee is arguably the strongest player on the Caps and one of the strongest in the league. When an opposing winger enters Washington ice with the puck, he has a good chance of getting rubbed into the wall if Klee has the right angle on him. Klee usually has the right angle.
“A lot of the game is mental,” he offers. “Everybody has skills and they try to do the best job they can with those skills. Obviously, one of my big skills is my strength. So I know if I can keep a guy to the outside, and then make contact, I can let my strength take over and do what I do best. Whereas if I’ve got guys crossing back and forth across the middle, then I’m trying to rely on my skating and turning and there are guys out there who are going to be able to turn me. So as long as I keep them to the outside, it plays into my hands better.”
Klee’s mixture of brains and brawn are what brought him to the NHL. Born in Indianapolis, he first hit the ice as an 18-month-old. When he was growing up in the 1970s, few NHLers hailed from the United States.
“I didn’t really think of that,” he says now. “When you’re a kid I don’t think you really think about it that way. You’re playing something you love to do and having fun. It was obviously a dream to play in the NHL – I never really thought it was a possibility, especially being an American. It was just something we did. I thought I might be able to get a college scholarship. That was my goal, which I thought might be attainable if things worked out perfectly for me. I didn’t exactly live in big hockey towns, either. I lived in Indianapolis, Colorado and Kansas City – which basically was down to one rink when I got there. I didn’t really think, ‘Oh, I’m not going to be able to make it because I’m an American.’ I just liked playing.”
It was Klee’s goal of landing a scholarship that led him to Toronto as a 17-year-old. He went there to play for the St. Michael’s Buzzers, a Junior-B team with a hallowed history. Scores of St. Mike’s alumni have played in the NHL and some of the very best – Tim Horton, Red Kelly, Frank Mahovlich – are now enshrined in the Hockey Hall of Fame. Klee looks back on the decision to go to St. Mike’s as one that ultimately helped lead him to the NHL.
“It was huge,” he says now. “That’s probably the best decision that my family and I ever made. Basically, I was going to go to prep school or maybe play junior hockey. Some friends said. ‘St. Mike’s has a program.’ Basically, it was a chance for me to go play hockey and I just heard that a couple of years before that, they had a bunch of scholarships. That was my goal, so I said, ‘Why not? I’ll give it try.’ I called them. I was a nobody, basically, and they said, ‘Hey, you want to pay your own way, you can come up and try out.’ I did and luckily it worked out for me.”
When he got to Toronto and soaked up the atmosphere of the school and one of the best hockey cities in North America, Klee began to seriously believe that he could play in the NHL.
“That’s when it really hit me,” he recalls. “When I went there, the only thing I had in mind was maybe a chance to get scouted by some colleges. I hoped Division I, but I wasn’t even sure. And then when I got there, I really didn’t even know anything about St. Mike’s. They have what’s called an ‘old boys’ room.’ It’s upstairs in the rink and all the pictures of all the guys who have played in the NHL [are on the wall]. There was like 180 guys, and then it kind of hits you that you’re playing at the same place they did. Maybe it could possibly happen. Then you’re playing with a kid like Eric Lindros on your team and we ended up having 15 kids get scholarships. So obviously I was with a lot of good players.”
After a year at St. Mike’s, Klee had his scholarship and was off to northwestern Ohio and the campus of Bowling Green University. He didn’t play much as a freshman, but he still improved his game.
“When you get there and you’re a freshman and you’ve got guys like Rob Blake, Nelson Emerson, Kevin Dahl – who was a great player, he played on an Olympic team and had a pretty good minor league career – Marc Potvin, there were a lot of guys who were seniors when I first got there,” he remembers. “That’s really when I thought that I might have a chance to go on past college. Because when I was a freshman, I didn’t play all that much but I got to learn. I got to play with those guys every day, so I knew I was getting better. At the end of the year, Rob Blake and Nelson Emerson – actually four guys – took off, didn’t finish school and turned pro. When I’m seeing my own teammates go [pro], if I improve a step or two then I’m right there as well.”
The Capitals saw enough potential in Klee to expend their ninth round pick (177th overall) in the 1990 Entry Draft on the young defenseman. When Blake departed the Bowling Green campus, it provided Klee an opportunity that he did not squander. Klee stepped into the void created by Blake’s absence and had a terrific year. He scored 35 points in 37 games and played in the world junior tournament. After another year at Bowling Green, Klee signed with the Caps and began cutting his pro hockey teeth in Baltimore and Portland.
Klee played on the Calder Cup-winning Portland Pirates in 1993-94 and relishes the experience of claiming the top team prize in the AHL.
“Even if you’re winning at the American League level,” he says, “pro sports are about winning. Whether you’re in the American League or the NHL, when you’re winning, you’re having a great time and it’s an incredible experience. We had a great run there and we saw it all the way through. It was a great run, very exciting, you’re happy to get up everyday. When you’re winning you’re having a great time.”
Klee made the Capitals out of training camp in the fall of 1994, but was sent back to Portland when the lockout erased the first three months of that season. He was recalled shortly after the season opened in January and made his NHL debut at the fabled Forum in Montreal on January 25, 1995. He tallied his first NHL goal against the Islanders on April 2 and registered the first two-goal game of his career a month later against Pittsburgh.
Klee’s first NHL coach was Jim Schoenfeld, who enjoyed a long playing career in the NHL as a rugged, defensive defenseman. Schoenfeld took a special interest in Klee and urged him to become a better player.
“He was a stay-at-home, aggressive defenseman, and that’s what he pushed me to be better at every day,” Klee remembers. “He was on me all the time. He wanted me to play harder, play more intense and play better. And it helped me. Obviously Ron [Wilson] sees the same type of things that he wants to do with me as well. He wants to push me to be better and by yelling at me or getting in my face, he knows that I respond to that. That’s something that both of those coaches do and [that goes] all the way back to my dad. Every player is a little different and every kid is a little different. Some kids need to be pushed and other kids need to be patted. One reason those guys are where they are – coaching in the NHL – is because they can figure out how to do that.”
Schoenfeld also aided Klee’s career by moving him up to right wing. Klee’s ability to play two positions helped keep him in the NHL until he was able to establish himself as a bona fide NHL player. Thereafter, his versatility not only proved valuable to the often injury-ridden Capitals, it helped Klee become a better player.
“I think it gave me a different angle on the game,” he states. “Since I was four years old, I always played defense. My backwards skating was always great so as a kid, I always played [defense]. For Schoney to say, ‘If you want to stay in the NHL, I need to use you as a wing for a while.’ It kind of taught me a different side of the game. It made me appreciate what wingers have to go through and to understand that if you don’t make hard [passes] to the winger, he’s going to get killed. I got to play games in their shoes in the NHL and not many guys get to change positions from forward to defense in the NHL. If a winger was a [defenseman], he’d understand when they soft chip and you’ve got to go back all night and get run, it’s not the most fun part of the game. It taught me to appreciate the positions better and I think it made me a better player.”
Now in his seventh NHL season, Klee is a staple on the Washington blueline. He regularly plays upwards of 20 minutes a game and sees occasional power play duty because of his hard, right-handed point shot.
Few players drafted as low in the Entry Draft as Klee go on to long and prosperous careers. All his life, Klee has been the exception. His dogged determination and his dedication to conditioning have enabled him to carve out a solid NHL career for himself and he is still in his prime years.
Klee and his wife, Robyn, have always been generous at sharing their good fortune with those in need. Among the Klees’ favorite charities are St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital, the Muscular Dystrophy Foundation and Canine Companions.
“It’s a lot of fun,” says Klee of he and Robyn’s charity work. “Obviously our life affords us a lot of luxuries and it’s nice to get involved with charities. My wife enjoys doing it. We have two small children but she still likes putting her time in to help out other people. Whether it’s Canine Companions – who help train dogs to help handicapped people – or St. Jude’s or the Muscular Dystrophy kids, who I worked with when I was a kid a lot, it’s just great to be able to help out other people.”
That charitable attitude is not at all evident when Klee is in uniform. When he is on the ice and clad in Capital black and blue, the Bruiser leaves a lot of black and blue in his wake.