(Courtesy of Perry Bergson, The Brandon Sun) — Dean Kletzel’s hockey path may not have led exactly where he once might have imagined, but his time in the Western Hockey League remains a key source of inspiration.
Now 42, the married father of one from Didsbury, Alta., played four WHL seasons with the Spokane Chiefs, Brandon Wheat Kings and Kamloops Blazers from 1992 to 1996.
He said all the Brandon teams he played with were family.
“We were tight and did everything together,” Kletzel said. “The work ethic, the working as a team, the being able to motivate yourself, being able to look at your life day to day and try to improve, not to be satisfied even if you have a great day.
“I actually try to teach my daughter the same thing, to keep pushing and keep pushing to get better. That comes directly from playing with all three organizations, but moreso Brandon because that’s who I played with the longest. I think that’s why we had success and that’s why we went to the Memorial Cup. We weren’t satisfied. If you had a great game, you wanted to push and wanted more and to be better … (General manager) Kelly (McCrimmon) and (head coach) Bob (Lowes), they were great that way. They didn’t let us be satisfied with just enough.”
It’s a lesson of continued perseverance that was never lost on Kletzel, who now works as an RCMP officer in Wynyard, Sask.
“I do that in my job day today,” Kletzel said. “In policing, it’s a new day every day and it’s something different every day but policing in small communities is a lot different than policing in cities. You have an opportunity to get out into the schools, you have an opportunity to try to make that community’s life better.”
Kletzel began skating and playing at age four in Didsbury, which is located halfway between Calgary and Red Deer on the west side of Highway 2.
He played minor hockey in the town until he was 14, and then went to Airdrie, where he skated with a midget AA team. He joined the Foothills Bisons for a season and was selected fourth overall by the Spokane Chiefs in the 1991 WHL bantam draft, the second year the league had dispersed players in that manner.
Kletzel’s older brother Derek played three full seasons for the Moose Jaw Warriors from 1989 to 1992, so Dean had an awareness of the league.
“I knew it was something that I wanted to do, watching him play junior for sure,” Kletzel said of his older brother, who still does colour on Warriors radio broadcasts in Moose Jaw.
Kletzel would get his chance as a 16-year-old and admits the move to Washington state was a big one.
“It was a big transition,” Kletzel said. “Not only was it a new league and a better league that I had ever played in before, but it was a new country. I had never really been out of Canada before so it was a big step for me to take schooling down in the States. But Spokane was a Grade A organization too and treated me tremendously well.”
The Chiefs went 28-20-4 that season, finishing fifth in the West Division and losing in the division semifinal on a team that dressed seven 16-year-olds that season, including Kletzel. The Albertan posted three goals and five assists in 55 games on a squad that also included future National Hockey League players Valeri Bure and Bryan McCabe.
Kletzel sat down with Spokane head coach and general manager Bryan Maxwell before his second season to get a sense of where the young team was heading, and what his role would be.
The answer arrived a couple of weeks later, when Kletzel was summoned back to Maxwell’s office and told he had been traded to the Wheat Kings for Strathclair’s Craig Geekie.
Kletzel was heading to a Brandon team that had turned the franchise’s fortunes around a year earlier. After missing the playoffs eight times in 10 years, the Wheat Kings improved to 43-25-4 in the 1992-93 season with McCrimmon as general manager and Lowes as head coach. That young team included Marty Murray, Wade Redden, Darren Ritchie and Chris Dingman.
Still Kletzel admitted it was a shock to be dealt.
“I took it hard,” he said. “That was really my first experience of feeling like maybe they didn’t want me. I wasn’t really looking that maybe Brandon did want me.
“It was a tough transition but day one when I walked in the door it was great. The staff was great and everybody welcomed me in. It was a real easy place to go to. I loved my time in Brandon.”
He said it was a tightly knit group that always had fun, even when Lowes worked them hard in practices following losses.
The Wheat Kings went 42-25-5 in the 1993-94 season, losing in the East Division final to the Saskatoon Blades. Kletzel played 44 games, scoring four goals and adding six assists. In 14 playoff games, he added six more points.
But the first signs of a string of bad luck that would plague the rest of his hockey career hit that season.
He broke his wrist, and played some games wearing a cast. A year later, on a team he had a feeling would do well, he blew his knee out early in the season and had total reconstruction of his ACL.
Kletzel played just 22 games in the 1994-95 season, scoring twice and adding five assists. He and his injured roommate, defenceman Gerhard Unterluggauer, both were close to returning but watched the Memorial Cup in Kamloops, B.C., from the stands as the Wheat Kings fell in the semifinal to Detroit.
The Wheat Kings qualified after the host Blazers won the Western Division title because the tournament needed a WHL representative.
“They were good enough to take me along on the trip and make me part of it,” Kletzel said.
Still, Kletzel had lost significant time in his 17- and 18-year-old seasons, and it would be extremely difficult to bridge that gap in his 19-year-old season on a leg that was still not completely healed.
“In terms of a future in hockey, it’s tough for people to want to put their money on somebody who’s been injured and had a tough time and a history of it,” Kletzel said. “I guess mentally it plays around with the player a little bit in the sense that he always seemed to be rehabbing, and to rehab it seems you have to work even harder to try to get to a place that you feel isn’t quite the same to what you used to be.”
Kletzel, now 19, re-injured his knee early in the 1995-96 season and needed additional surgery. He played just two games with Brandon before being dealt to Kamloops, where he dressed for nine more contests.
He was finally healthy enough to suit up for 11 playoff contests that season.
Kletzel played one game of his overage season and then headed to the University of Regina Cougars, where he hoped to be on the ice with his older brother. But with additional rehab needed, his brother graduated before he could join him.
While hockey didn’t work out how Kletzel would have liked, he doesn’t harbour any regrets.
“People ask me if I would change anything because I got injured, and not at all,” Kletzel said. “The people I met and the organizations I played for, I don’t think that I could have asked for anything better than what I had. Growing up and wanting to play in the WHL, I couldn’t have made a better dream than those three organizations.”
He later moved back to Alberta, where he worked with Calgary hockey development.
Kletzel met Harvey Smyl, the younger brother of former National Hockey League player Stan, at Stan’s hockey school in Whistler. Harvey asked Kletzel if he had ever considered coaching, and Kletzel joined him with the British Columbia Junior Hockey League’s Chilliwack Chiefs for six seasons.
“When he asked me, I didn’t hesitate at all,” Kletzel said.
The Chiefs went to the Royal Bank Cup in Halifax in 2002, where they lost in the semifinals.
Kletzel met the woman he would later marry and they moved back to Alberta following the 2004-05 season and had a child. (Because of Kletzel’s job as a Mountie, they will not be identified.)
Kletzel then pursued a career in policing with the RCMP at the urging of a Mountie buddy.
“When I was a coach, I felt like I got a chance to help these kids move on with their lives and better their lives,” Kletzel said. “That was very gratifying. When you’re a player in the Western Hockey League, you have kids who look up to you and come to the games to get your autograph and have people coming up to thank you for really not doing a whole lot. It’s a good feeling, and that’s part of the reason I wanted to become a police officer.”
He has served in smaller communities, and while in Eston, Sask., which is northwest of Swift Current, won an award for his role in bringing an anti-bullying initiative to the town.
“We were dealing with some stuff in the small town I was policing and there was an opportunity to try to make a difference,” Kletzel said.
He grew up in a small town and hadn’t experienced bullying himself, but the local school had developed a problem.
“Between myself and the school, we approached the town council and they were on board right away,” Kletzel said. “Really, it just went from there.”
They gave the council examples of what had been done in other communities, such as Blackfalds, Alta., where he had formerly worked, and Kletzel sat down with the council to craft the bylaw.
It set out the community’s definition of bullying in person and online, and then laid out the punishments, with fines ranging from $250 to $1,000. The initiative won second place at the Saskatchewan Municipal Awards in 2013 for innovation and the betterment of the community.
Kletzel has started golf tournaments in both towns with the proceeds going to KidSport, and clothing drives.
“That all comes from my hockey experience and putting me out in the community,” Kletzel said. “I’m thankful every day for the lessons that I learned in the Western Hockey League and specifically in Brandon.”