Just over 17 years ago, an 18-year-old Kevin Klein took a seat in Bridgestone Arena on day two of the 2003 NHL Draft and anticipated hearing his name called. The hometown team didn't make him wait very long.
Only seven picks into Round 2, the Predators selected Klein at No. 37 overall, a thrilling moment for any young hockey player and his family, especially for someone who was about to slip on the same jersey worn by so many spectators in the building.
"My fondest memory was just hugging my parents and then hearing the whole crowd [cheer]," Klein recently told Voice of the Predators Pete Weber during a Fifth Third Bank Hockey at Home session. "In the section next to us where they situated us, we had a bunch of fans, lifelong Preds fans, screaming to my mom, 'We'll take care of him!' As an 18-year-old walking down, and my mom crying, she just thought that was the greatest thing. It was really exciting."
Klein's first impression of a Nashville crowd didn't disappoint, and over the course of his time with the Predators - parts of nine seasons through 2014 - he contributed to the ear-splitting decibel levels reached in the arena in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Of course, few become NHL regulars right away, and it took Klein a few seasons of development to become a mainstay on the Nashville blue line. One of those stops took him to Milwaukee and the Predators' primary developmental affiliate, the Admirals, where he got to know a certain goaltender.
"One of my favorites, [my former roommate], Pekka [Rinne], he came over as an innocent Finnish kid, and anyone that knows Pekka knows he's probably one of the nicest guys you'll ever run into," Klein said. "Very caring, very honest guy who just wears his heart on his sleeve. But there's many times I've had to be his alarm clock. At least three to four times a year, he would miss a meeting or be late for practice because he likes his sleep. But you can't blame him for that. As long as he's well rested for the game, everything's good.
"He's a competitor, and you can see that in practice. That's why he's been so successful, and the guys love having Peks around, and anytime you can laugh at him for being late… it's kind of one of those things where he just laughs, like, 'Peks slept in again, someone go wake him up.'"
Klein and Rinne eventually made the move from Milwaukee to Nashville, and the blueliner, along with fellow defensemen Ryan Suter and Shea Weber - also selected in 2003 - established themselves as one of the League's top D-corps as the 2010s arrived.
That success from the backend helped Nashville to their first-ever playoff series win in 2011 over the Ducks, and Klein will never forget the team's arrivals back to Nashville after those long flights from Anaheim.
"The best aspect of that was getting off the plane and having all our diehard fans that you saw around the community [at the airport]," Klein recalled. "When we came back and you had all of them, a couple hundred fans just cheering, you're overwhelmed because it was a milestone in the Predators' organization. [Now, the franchise has] gone on to do even more, and seeing all the success and how close the Preds have been to winning a championship - and it will come - we just loved the support in Nashville. The guys still tell me to this day it's getting more intense with the notoriety and everything else around town, so that's good."
Klein was traded from the Predators to the New York Rangers in 2014, but before he left, he played with another defenseman who was clearly on his way to stardom.
"When he came in, we all looked at each other right away, and you just knew," Klein said of Preds defenseman Roman Josi. "I remember having conversations with [Weber] and [Suter] and just being like, 'This kid is going to be a good player.'"
Klein wasn't wrong, and as his professional career concluded with two seasons in Josi's home country of Switzerland, he heard story after story of just how dominant Nashville's current captain was as he climbed through the junior ranks. Klein says he's even had the chance to hang out with Josi a time or two in Europe, just one of many unforgettable experiences throughout a career that included 627 games in the NHL, 403 of which came with the Preds.
These days, Klein is retired from the sport and living back home in Canada with his wife and two sons while focusing on his passion.
"I own a body shop now, so I can make everything in-house from interior, mechanical to paint," Klein said. "People laugh at me because this week I spent two days in the body shop wet sanding, putting on a fender, welding a new rocker panel on. So, I've got a, I got a '64 [Ford] Galaxie 500. It's gunmetal gray now, and I'm going to do a blood-red interior, and I've learned how to use a sewing machine… Guys are laughing, and my brother's there with me, and he's just shaking his head with me in front of the sewing machine. I'm learning, my sewing is coming along. It's not that great, but it's getting there."
35 years of age, Klein is no longer required to stand in front of 100-mile-per-hour slap shots, and even after all the wear and tear as a pro hockey player, he says he has no lingering issues from his time on the ice. Time in the gym doesn't come much anymore, but chasing around two sons, ages 11 and 8, provides plenty of cardio. Combined with healthy eating and a clean lifestyle, Klein is enjoying life after a hockey career that flew by from that day back in Nashville in 2003.
And even though he no longer resides in Music City, he still visits when he can, and he'll never forget his time in Tennessee.
"People love it," Klein said. "Never will you talk to a guy who doesn't love it in Nashville, and that that's a beautiful thing."