Ken Klee is no hockey novice.
The rugged former defenseman played 14 seasons and nearly 1,000 games in the NHL and has been a student of the game his entire life. And since his retirement as a player, he’s thrown himself into a new passion: coaching.
But when the new head coach of the U.S. women’s national team first saw his team’s schedule for the IIHF Women’s World Championships that begin Saturday in Sweden, he saw something he didn’t expect.
There, in Game 1, Team USA was set to take on Canada, its biggest rival. There will be no easing into these championships.
“I was a little taken aback, I guess, when I first heard the way they do the format, but now that I’m here, there’s no better way to jump into the deep pool right away and get after it,” he said. “So, I think we’re real excited about it. It’s always a great challenge.”
Since the first women’s world championship tournament in 1990, the tournament always has come down to the United States vs. Canada. Team USA comes into this one as defending champion, having won the last tournament at Ottawa in 2013 (there was no tournament during the 2014 Olympic year). Since 2005, Team USA has won five of the past seven, breaking Canada’s streak of eight straight.
But veterans of this U.S. team know that as important as this first matchup will be, it’s not a make-or-break game.
This will be forward Kendall Coyne’s fourth world championships, and she remembers the 2012 opener when she and her teammates exploded for a 9-2 first-game victory over Canada in Burlington, Vermont. As exciting as that opening win was, however, Canada fought back to beat the U.S. team in the gold-medal game 5-4 in overtime.
Now she’s pumped again to start play against Canada, but knows it won’t determine the gold medal.
“We have to stay focused the entire tournament,” Coyne said.
This will be the third straight world championships in which the United States and Canada have faced off in their openers. In 2013, Canada won the opener 3-2, but the Americans came back to win the final game 3-2.
Coyne recalls that 2013 U.S. team as a veteran group that was especially talented and determined to win after finishing second the year before in Vermont.
“It was definitely a tight-knit, special group and, especially going into Canada, to their building, their home … I think we had a little bit of vengeance on our mind going into Ottawa,” she said. “We went in there with a purpose, and that was to get the gold.”
|Alex Carpenter #25 takes a shot in the women's ice hockey game at the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games at Shayba Arena on Feb. 12, 2014 in Sochi, Russia.
This year’s team is a bit younger than the 2013 group, but 14 players on this 23-woman roster were on that world championship team. Coyne is joined by Kacey Bellamy, recent Patty Kazmaier Award winner Alex Carpenter, Brianna Decker, Meghan Duggan, Hilary Knight, Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson, Monique Lamoureux, Michelle Picard, Molly Schaus, Anne Schleper, Lee Stecklein, Jessie Vetter and Alex Rigsby.
Duggan, who has played on five previous U.S. teams at the world championships, will be the team captain, just as she was on the U.S. Olympic Team in Sochi, Russia. Carpenter and Decker will be alternate captains.
To Coyne, the veteran presence is as important as the talent.
“We have great leadership, I think that’s the key, with Meghan Duggan an amazing leader,” Coyne said, while also mentioning several other longtime national teammates. “We start on the right note there.”
To Klee, too, the veteran makeup of this team makes it a joy to coach.
“It’s fun. I consider them pros,” he said. “I mean, my assistant coach, Bob Deraney, is always telling me, ‘Hey, I love being around them. I love their pro mentality.’ They’re professionals. They’re here to work, they’re here to learn, they’re here to get better and as a coach, that’s all you can ask.
“When you have that combination of work, willingness to learn and wanting to get better every day, to me that’s the perfect recipe for a coach.”
Also exciting, he says, is the influx of some new talent, such as Bemidji State forward Stephanie Anderson and 18-year-old defenseman Megan Keller, who just completed her freshman season at Boston College.
Klee has become very familiar with the players over the past year and a half, coaching the U.S. national team at the 2014 Four Nations Cup and the Under-22 Select Team to a three-game sweep of Canada in 2014. It’s been an education for him, too. He’s now familiar with his personnel and says he knows better which buttons to push at the appropriate times.
He believes his team has the depth and diversity to match up against any team or style.
“We’re an extremely fast, talented hockey team,” he said. “I think we can play fast, we can play physical, we can play any kind of game that would be required of us. And depth is a huge factor for us.
“When I look at the lines that I’ve put together, I ask my coaches, ‘Who’s our first line and who’s our fourth line?’ and they look at me like, ‘We don’t really have that,’ and I’m like, ‘You’re right.’ That’s what I want. I want to be able to go at them with four lines and just be relentless and pressure the puck and play an up-tempo, high-paced skill game that I know our girls are good at.”
Klee gathered his team for practices in New York before the team headed to Sweden Wednesday. He says he’s been telling the team that it needs to focus on the little things to win big.
He says he preaches the importance of looking for passing lanes, looking for shooting spots, looking for the right times to pressure players and the right times to sit back and contain. His focus is on “all the little plays and intricacies” that are so important, because in matchups of excellent teams, it’s going to be the little things — fundamentals, smart play, teamwork — that can make the difference between winning and losing in Sweden.
Coyne says Klee’s constant message is clear and concise: “Compete and make plays.”
“He definitely likes to keep it simple, and I think we’re all loving it,” she said. “It really helps as a player because we’ve all been playing this game since we were 3 years old, so when you keep it simple, I think it’s a lot easier to play.”
Doug Williams covered three Olympic Games for two Southern California newspapers and was the Olympic editor for the San Diego Union-Tribune. He has written to TeamUSA.org since 2011 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.