Gary Klapkowski is one of the greatest players to ever play in the PIHL or in Western Pennsylvania for that matter. Gary dominated the PIHL as a freshman on the Serra Catholic Varsity team then moved on to play in the Ontario Hockey League. Nowadays, he is the Head Coach for the defending AAA Penguins Cup & State Champion Upper St. Clair Panthers.
Klapkowski has lived in the Pittsburgh area his whole life, other than when he moved around to chase his dream of playing in the NHL. He started skating at age three and began playing hockey at six. Mario Lemieux was his biggest inspiration. “I wanted to be Mario,” Klapkowski says.
Klapkowski played all throughout his high school career, graduating from Serra Catholic in 2003 before moving on to several teams in the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) and the Mid-Atlantic Hockey League (MAHL). His most memorable years came when playing for the Kitchener Rangers of the OHL.
“The atmosphere and the town were tremendous,” he says.
Klapkowski played for a few teams in the prestigious OHL, including the Sudbury Wolves. It was here that Klapkowski fractured his neck and received a concussion, keeping him off the ice for over a year and a half. He then moved on to play for the Saginaw Spirit where he received another concussion.
“It was a rough year,” he admits. “I took some time off to get completely healthy.”
Once he felt recuperated, Klapkowski moved on to play for the MAHL’s Mon Valley Thunder. When he was finally able to get back on the ice, Klapkowski felt a sense of relief.
“Being out as long as I was, I was happy I could play again,” he says.
Although he is completely healthy now and has no lingering symptoms, it still bothers Klapkowski to watch replays of Sidney Crosby
’s incident in January.
“It’s rough, it really is,” Klapkowski says. “It’s hard because you want to be playing, and you know your body’s not going to allow it. But it’s not worth going back early to do it.”
Klapkowski had attended a few different colleges over the years including Davenport University and CCAC, where he studied physical education.
In 2004, when he was injured, Klapkowski made the best of his situation. Being forced off the ice, he got his first coaching job with the West Mifflin Varsity team. He then moved on to coach the Upper St. Clair Panthers’ freshman team before being promoted to JV coach for two years. At the end of last season, Klapkowski was given the position of head coach of USC.
He has handled the adjustment well. Last year, in addition to USC’s JV team, he also coached the U16 AAA Predators.
This will certainly be a different year for the Panthers as the top ten players from last season have moved on.
“We are a very young team,” Klapkowski says. “It will be a rebuilding year.”
Klapkowski’s team will be spending a large part of their time working on player development.
“It’s a big deal to develop players and teach them systems,” he says. “I put an emphasis on hard work and discipline. The kids are excited and working hard.”
In fact, so many kids are excited to play that the board has come up with the idea to create two freshmen teams.
“There were a lot of kids that tried out,” Klapkowski says. “With two freshman teams, the kids get more ice time.”
The idea is to place players who are hesitant about playing at a high school pace in a more developmental team to better prepare them for varsity.
USC’s varsity team is one of the best in the division. The Panthers took home the AAA Penguins Cup last season.
“We have all intentions of ending up back there,” Klapkowski says.
Having had years of experience himself, Klapkowski knows what his players go through on a daily basis.
“It helps me approach different situations,” he says. “The attitude of the players really helps me get a good grasp on things.”
It is a positive attitude that this coach looks for in a good hockey player. Klapkowski also keeps an eye out for work ethic and vision on the ice.
“A kid who has good vision knows where to be and how to play the game,” he explains. “You can teach him everything else. It’s hard to have that hockey sense. A lot of guys fly around as fast as they can. Some kids have that hockey sense. They know where that puck’s going.”
Although Klapkowski is happy to be coaching, he admits he would still like to be on the ice.
“I’m always going to miss playing,” he says. “It’s more fun.”
“Work hard and stay positive,” he says. “You’ll have ups and downs. Keep working at it, and you will accomplish your goals.”