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Love of hockey fuels ECHL's Kory Karlander at 40

10:27 PM, Dec 26, 2012   |    comments
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(KSDK Sports) -- ECHL veteran Kory Karlander supports locked-out NHL players the way a carpenter might hope all skilled tradesmen are paid handsomely for their ability.

But Karlander, 40, can't relate to what NHL players are experiencing, because he long ago abandoned the thought that he might become rich by playing his game.

"(He plays) truly for the love of the game," Kalamazoo Wings trainer Scott Allison said. "Guys like him love the game itself. They like the mental and physical aspects of the game."

Karlander is playing his third season with Kalamazoo and his 18th in professional hockey. This is his 12th team and his sixth league. This is his third tour of duty in Kalamazoo, and he has played with that team in the International Hockey League, the United Hockey League and now as the oldest player in the ECHL. He has played more than 1,000 pro games without being called up to the NHL.

"He's just one of those guys who you can see the pure joy he has when he's at the rink," Wings coach Nick Bootland said.

NHL players often extend their careers into their late 30s and beyond, inspired by the league's $2.5 million average salary. But it's not the money that keeps Karlander playing. The ECHL has a salary cap of $12,400 a week, meaning the average player salary is roughly $550 a week. Karlander, who tells only his family what he makes, would be on the high end, meaning he makes a good wage but not one that would allow him to summer in the Hamptons. He operates a lawn-care business in the offseason.

"Part of the reason I'm still playing is that it kind of feels like it's all I know," joked Karlander, who played at Northern Michigan University before turning pro.

With 25 points in 28 games, he is second on the team. He has 19 assists, tops among Kalamazoo forwards. He's also one of the league's better faceoff artists.

"I would not say I thought I was going to play in the NHL, but did I aspire to? Of course," Karlander said. "Everyone starts out that way when they start pro hockey."

He has been playing so long that he's not quite sure exactly when he realized he wouldn't make the NHL.

"Most pro players would be lying if they said they didn't think about playing in the NHL," Karlander said. "It really wasn't a far reach for me because I'm a veteran of the American Hockey League."

Karlander logged more than 100 games in the American Hockey League, the NHL's top developmental league. He last played regularly there in 2004-05, plus two games in 2007-08. Twice he has topped 40 goals. He is the nephew of former NHL player Al Karlander.

"He has always been a good minor league player, a very solid, two-way guy," said Detroit Red Wings assistant general manager Jim Nill, who watched Karlander often when he played for the Red Wings' affiliate in Grand Rapids, Mich. "He was a good defensive player with a pretty good touch around the net. It just seems like the timing of his career was never quite right to get higher."

Karlander lives in Grand Rapids and commutes 50 miles each day. He has played for the Odessa (Texas) Jackalopes, Milwaukee Admirals, Columbus Chill, Louisville River Frogs and Belfast Giants, among others. Yes, that's Belfast, Northern Ireland, of the British league.

"The 2003-04 season was probably the closest I came to the NHL," Karlander said. "I was playing in Grand Rapids, and Detroit called up a lot of guys that season. But it didn't happen for me."

Karlander is six years older than his coach. Bootland was his linemate in Kalamazoo from 2005 to 2008.

"That has been the biggest adjustment for us - to keep that separation," Bootland said. "We used to be quite tight in the back of the bus." And we did a lot of things on the road together."

Unquestionably, there is a romance aspect to playing minor league hockey that is difficult to describe. Think the movie Slap Shot without the cartoon-like brawling. Some bus trips can be more than 10 hours. Kalamazoo plays in 38-year-old Wings Stadium, averaging about 3,300 fans a game. You can watch them play for as little as $7 for children and $13 for adults.

The player of the game receives an engraved mug.

Karlander is not the only player on the roster cheating Father Time. Sam Ftorek, 37, son of former NHL player and coach Robbie Ftorek, is the team's best defenseman.

"They treat it like it is their NHL," Bootland said. "That's the reality. This is the level they play at, and they prepare and work out just as if they are in the NHL."

Karlander and Ftorek like to have fun with their elder statesmen roles.

"I just don't want to get a real job," Ftorek said. "Hockey takes a lot of dedication and hard work, but you get to come to the rink every day and hang out with 20-year-olds and have a blast."

Karlander and Ftorek both like the fact that on non-game nights they can be home from work at 1 p.m.

"If I had everyday 9 to 5 job, and the commute was two hours I would be living without seeing my kids and I would be coming home after they are asleep," Ftorek said. "With that kind of job, you only see the kids on the weekend. This is a lot more quality family time for me."

When Karlander played his first season in Kalamazoo, today's trainer, Allison, was the team's stick boy.

"He is close to my parents' age, and now we are teammates," jokes Kalamazoo forward Steven Anthony, 21, a Vancouver Canucks draft pick who was still in diapers when Karlander began his college career.

The curious aspect of the age difference, according to Karlander, "is that I don't feel that much older in mind or body."

"I love the bus trips with the guys," he said. "But now that it's 20 years, instead of 10 or 15 years, I'm an easy target for the 'old man jokes.' "

Karlander has no trouble relating to younger players. But he can go old school on the guys.

"Nothing bums me out more than going out for dinner with the guys, and guys have their faces in their phones for texting," Karlander said. "So sometimes we have a (rule) that if anybody checks their phone for the next hour then they have to buy everybody lunch."

Karlander also is highly desirable as a player because of his reputation as a high-character person in the dressing room.

"When I first met him, I asked myself, 'Is he for real?' " says his wife, Shelly, a registered nurse. "What I admire about Kory is what you see is what you get, 24/7. He is always the host. ... 'Can I get you anything? Does anybody need anything?' He has impeccable manners and he thinks about others all of the time. He's a great friend."

Shelly says she always has a difficult time describing time "without making him sound like a made-up persona or mythical creature."

Karlander has covered more ground in his minor league travels than most players do. He appreciates the charm of his sport.

"Here over the last two years in Kalamazoo we've had crazy long bus trips and plane trips with the championship round in Alaska," Karlander said. "We had guys on different planes, long layovers, missed buses."

But he wouldn't trade the inconveniences because he has accumulated too many endearing memories on this journey.

"Most older players will tell you to play as long as you can," Karlander said. "Ultimately it's the little things that keep you in the game. It's the team camaraderie on the bus and plane, and in the locker room, that players say they miss the most after they retire."

Karlander never thinks about the money he might have made had he played in the NHL.

"I never made a million dollars, and I never will," Karlander said. "I've had a couple of good years, but I've always believed when you negotiate your contract you shouldn't think about it again until you negotiate your next contract. When you are playing, it should not be about the money. If it is, then you aren't probably doing it for the right reason."

He said that when he brought up the idea of coaching to his wife, Shelly, and 4-year-old son, Karsten, neither seemed ready to see him wearing a suit behind the bench. When Karlander plays on the road, Karsten watches his dad play on the computer through an Internet feed. He made it clear to Kory that he wasn't ready for him not to play.

"Whatever Kory does, he will be passionate," his wife said. "He has seen it all during his career, and he has adapted. And that sets him up to be very successful in the next phase of his life. He is charismatic, and he connects with people. He's patient. I think I just realized that coaching should be in his future."

She has no doubt her husband will know when it's time to quit playing.

"He has such high standards," she said, "he will be the first to say, 'I'm not happy with my performance.' "

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