When one of the Nashville Predators’ alternate captain slots was available prior to the season, most assumed defenseman Kevin Klein would receive the honors. In a surprise move, it was Patric Hornqvist who was named to the Predators’ leadership group alongside Shea Weber and Mike Fisher.
However, Klein doesn’t need an ‘A’ on his chest to prove to everyone he’s a leader. In his teammates’ eyes, he’s one of the best leaders the Predators have on the ice, in the locker room, vocally and by example.
“He’s a great teammate,” fellow defenseman Roman Josi said. “He’s a funny guy and always good for a laugh. He’s great on the ice, too. He helped me break into the league and helped me with my game. He was great for me to play with [as a rookie] and made it a lot easier for me.”
Just a short two years ago, the Predators had Francis Bouillon and Hal Gill on the back end. They were the veteran voices of the defense. At 28 years old, Klein is now the oldest member of the Predators’ defense corps; he is also third-longest tenured player on the roster, behind Weber and David Legwand. Klein and Weber are the ones that the young defensemen turn to for guidance on and off the ice.
Any of the five inexperienced defensemen currently on the Preds’ roster will tell you that Klein has meant a lot to them early on their careers.
“I’m learning things from him just by watching him in games – certain things he does with the puck or his positioning at times. I played with him a little bit in the preseason and it was fantastic,” rookie Seth Jones said. “He’s very easy to play with and talks a lot on the ice. You always know where he’s at; you always know what’s behind you. I’ve really enjoyed working with him so far.”
While Weber is the defense’s anchor on the top pair, Klein has become a stabilizing force on the second pair. He’s reliable in his own end and a key cog on the penalty kill. He’s someone Head Coach Barry Trotz can be confident in giving 20-plus minutes a night.
Klein is also someone where Trotz can put anyone on the same pair with him and that player is going to succeed. Klein has had many defense partners in recent seasons, ranging from veterans to rookies, but it hasn’t changed the way he goes about his business. This season he has played more minutes with Mattias Ekholm than anyone else on the blue line. That helped bring out the best in the 23-year-old Ekholm, who is trying to stick in the NHL.
Overall, Klein is one of the more underappreciated defensemen in the league.
“We played together for almost a full season in my first year and he was great,” Josi said. “He really helped me out on the ice and off the ice. He was definitely a guy I would to go to ask something I didn’t know. It doesn’t matter if it’s on or off the ice.”
Off the ice, Klein is known as one of the few vocal players in the room among many who lead by example. He’s the guy who tends to crack a joke to keep things loose no matter when things are going good or bad. That trait makes him one of many likeable characters in the Predators’ locker room.
“He’s always chipping at the right times and saying some good stuff. He brings a lot to the table that goes unnoticed,” Mike Fisher said. “Some guys get so uptight that they end up playing worse. Kevin is calm, cool and collected and is always on an even keel mentally.”
“He’s got a lot of good jokes and makes everyone laugh,” Jones added. “That was the easy thing for me when I came in because he would come up to me and make a couple jokes. That makes it a lot easier to try to get to know someone when they bring that level down.”
One of Klein’s biggest influences not just in his hockey career, but life as well, is his father. Robert Klein has a soccer background, but as Kevin put it, he became “the ultimate hockey parent” when Klein gave up soccer and baseball for hockey at age 11. Klein’s parents were diehard Toronto Maple Leafs as he grew up in Kitchener, Ontario, and he loves having his dad on the Father’s Trip every year.
Becoming a father of his own at the age of 24 is something that humbled Klein in a big way. He and his wife Jody have two sons, Joseph, 4, and Oliver, 1, and they still cause some sleepless nights.
“A lot of times you might have a bad night and you still have to come to the rink and be ready to go. You can’t control if the kid gets sick or if he’s up through the night. Those are all just learning experiences. Now with two of them it’s even more difficult,” he said. “I think we’re going to stop at two just because man-on-man defense is good. We don’t want to start playing zone or I’ll never get some sleep.
“Everyone tells you about how parenting is, but when you have your first child you realize it’s not only about your life and there’s someone that depends on you and looks to you for everything. When you’re younger you might just think about yourself or your girlfriend at the time. Now it’s a family. It’s an amazing experience and I wouldn’t change it for the world.”
The Klein family has slowly made Nashville their home. They still make trips to Canada every summer “to skip the two really hot months” in Nashville, Klein said, but they purchased a house in town last spring and love raising their two kids in Music City. He and his family enjoy parks like Radnor and Percy Warner, as well as the live music the city has to offer.
Last September, Klein signed a five-year, $14 million extension to stay with the Predators through the 2017-18 season. Assuming he stays with the team for the duration of that contract, Klein will have been with the organization for 15 years after being a 2003 draft pick.
“It’s one of those things where you’ve been here long enough that you call it home,” he said.
At the rink he’s become a leader by being the oldest guy on the blue line and a mainstay in the locker room. At home he’s had to become a leader in his family with the birth of his two sons.
The Predators hope Klein helps patrol the defense for years to come. If he continues to become more consistent and continues to mentor the young defensemen, the more valuable he will be to the team.
“Kleiner has grown from a young single guy to a married guy to a veteran leader,” Trotz said. “Just watching him on the bench and around the rink, he’s helping the young men along. I think that’s great. … Over time he has matured in his game; you get the consistency as you do in life, you get the professionalism that sets in. Kleiner has that.”