NORFOLK, VA - The Norfolk Admirals will gather at Scope today to pack their belongings and conduct exit interviews with the coaching and medical staffs. But after the conclusion of a season that came up short, perhaps it's time to recognize a player who made the absolute most of his part in the campaign.
Eight months ago, Rob Klinkhammer was just a randomly-numbered jersey in the team's training camp crowd, an undrafted free agent with a 6-foot-3, 209-pound body and top-notch skating skills but little else besides a relentless work ethic. Admirals coach Steve Stirling is the first to admit Klinkhammer didn't fit into his initial plans, but forced his way into them with steady, unspectacular play.
“Out of anybody we have on this team, he's taken the most advantage of his opportunities,” Stirling said last week, shortly before the Admirals concluded their season with a three-game road trip on which they went 2-1 to finish 29-44-2-5. “He's been under the gun every night, because we've rarely been short players, and when he's been out of the lineup it's usually not been because he played a bad game.”
Had things not worked out in Norfolk, Klinkhammer could be a college student by now. He said he would have probably played with the Admirals' ECHL affiliate, the Mississippi Sea Wolves, until Christmas and would have then enrolled at the University of Calgary, where the 21-year-old's brief pro career wouldn't have affected his Canadian college hockey eligibility.
Instead, Klinkhammer has established himself as an AHL role player and can legitimately dream of cracking the NHL. Similarly unheralded players have done it before him, including Admirals such as Quintin Laing and Jordan Hendry in recent years.
“He's got NHL size and his skating is a little above average for the NHL,” said Stirling, a former New York Islanders coach. “I would say based on his tenacity and those attributes he would have an outside chance to be a fourth line player in the NHL. Go up and down his wing and bang and crash and muck it up. Kill some penalties.”
That was pretty much Klinkhammer's job description with Norfolk, but he surprised with 12 goals and 24 points in 66 games. Stirling said some of that is the product of the rookie getting some third-line time he might not have had except for injuries and callups. The coach cautions that getting too enamored of offense could be what scuttles Klinkhammer's big-league dreams.
“His hands are average and his offensive sense is average and he gets into trouble when he gets excited and his brain can't keep up,” Stirling said. “But he's always going to get 2-on-1s and breakaways because of his speed and he buried his chances this year.
“He's a classic 10th or 11th forward who you know is going to do the dirty stuff. That's what's going to keep him here or help him rise. Not the goals and assists.”
Klinkhammer grew up with a brother and sister in Lethbridge, Alberta, where his father is an electrician for the city and scouts a bit for the nearby major junior team, the Western League's Hurricanes. Rob wasn't drafted by the local club as a 16-year-old and was cut from the squad the next year.
It's the rare 17-year old Canadian who plays midget hockey and later makes the AHL, but Klinkhammer adjusted during a switch from defense to forward and scrapped his way back onto the Hurricanes' roster later that season. He played one more full campaign in Lethbridge before being traded to Seattle midway through the 2005-06 season and was then sent on to Portland, Ore., and Brandon, Manitoba during his final junior season in 2006-07.
Klinkhammer posted 124 points in 230 WHL games, hardly numbers to catch the eye of NHL or AHL teams. But his agent found him a slot in Norfolk's training camp and his client did the rest.
“Not having a contract, I didn't know what kind of chance I had,” said Klinkhammer, who eventually signed a one-season deal. “I was just determined to take someone's job away from them. Now, I'd like to give pro hockey a real shot and see if I can earn myself a nice contract someday.
“My first choice would be to re-sign with Tampa Bay. We were young here this season and things didn't work out early for us but I think we only need to add a few players to have a team that can make the playoffs.”
Whether Klinkhammer will be on Norfolk's 2008-09 team remains to be seen. But he's far ahead of where he started his pro career: an anonymous player among many faces at the team's practice rink.“He's established himself in the American Hockey League, where you might not have been able to predict that coming out of training camp or in the first month of the season,” Stirling said. “He just wouldn't go away.”