“My dad was always pissed at me because I couldn’t stand up after I shot,” the Avangard forward shared of his early hockey years. “I’d be skating at full-speed—which probably wasn’t that fast at the time—then I would shoot, and then I would slide into the end wall head-first. My dad wanted to kill me!” Of course, Klinkhammer will forever be on solid-footing with the city of Kazan. Ak Bars celebrated its third Gagarin Cup after the left-wing’s perfect finish in Game 5.
Klinkhammer, 33, has accumulated an impressive number of passport stamps across the course of his hockey career. The former NHLer logged appearances with the Chicago Blackhawks, Ottawa Senators, Arizona Coyotes, Pittsburgh Penguins and Edmonton Oilers before crossing the ocean to Dinamo Minsk in 2016. Klinkhammer represented Canada at the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, logging two assists en route to a bronze medal. He now finds himself under Bob Hartley’s watch at Avangard Omsk, and is raising two children alongside his wife Jessica in Moscow.
I caught up with Klinkhammer before the team’s first-round clash with Salavat Yulaev, arguably the toughest matchup in the Eastern Conference. We discussed the upcoming Gagarin Cup playoffs, his 2018 Olympic experience and Slava Kozlov’s pushup pyramids.
Gillian Kemmerer: You are under Bob Hartley’s leadership at Avangard. Tell me a bit about his coaching philosophy.
Rob Klinkhammer: Bob is super detailed. He has to be able to trust you out there—that’s a big thing. If you are a wild card and he doesn’t know what he’s getting out of you, then he’s not going to play you. He wants to be safe. The puck’s got to get out, and it has got to get in. There’s no ifs, ands or buts about defense. You have to be in the right position and your stick has to be in the right spot. He’s one of the most detailed coaches I’ve ever played for, and I think that’s why he has had so much success.
GK: Speaking of attention to detail, I’ve heard that Hartley is among the first coaches to incorporate the KHL’s puck technology.
RK: We had an analytics meeting the other day, actually. We looked at a heat map of where other teams’ chances are coming from versus ours. They are using a bit of that.
GK: Avangard will face Salavat Yulaev in the first round of the playoffs. What are some of the elements of their game that you will need to neutralize?
RK: Obviously they are a highly-skilled team. I don’t know what [Linus] Omark finished in league scoring, but he’s one of the more dynamic players I’ve ever played against. They have [Teemu] Hartikainen who is a big body, basically a Finnish Jagr out there! He’s a big boy, protects the puck very well and has a really good nose around the net. I think they are driven by that line offensively. They have another Finn—[Sakari] Manninen—who can just buzz around, he’s very fast.
Ufa’s got [Alexander] Burmistrov for some secondary scoring. I played with Burmi in Kazan, and he’s one heck of a player. You have to be careful with him. It’s a tough first-round match to have, that’s for sure. They have some big defenseman who like to play physical, [Mikhail] Pashnin and [Pavel] Koledov. They’re pretty tough to play against. And [Juha] Metsola in net, he’s one of the top goaltenders in the league every year. We’ve got our hands full.
GK: I chatted with your assistant coach, Slava Kozlov, for one of my first Faceoff interviews. He was a man of few words, but a ton of impact! What has been your experience?
RK: He’s the same way. [Kozlov] does not say a whole bunch, but when he does talk, you listen because he’s a smart hockey mind. I am respectful of his career, what he’s done and how much success he’s had. If you look at his stats, they’re pretty incredible. [Laughs] He’s still a horse though. He rips out the push-up pyramids, takes his shirt off and the guy still looks like he’s 25 years old! He’s a pretty big name over here and I respect the hell out of him.
GK: Kozlov was praising the culture that Hartley has implemented behind-the-scenes.
RK: One big thing is a monthly schedule. Sometimes [in previous seasons], I didn’t know what I was doing the next day until 10 or 11 pm the night before. Bob has a monthly schedule printed out and you know exactly when all of your days off are, and it doesn’t really change.
The huge thing on the road is the travel. He has made everything so efficient. After the game, the training staff traditionally would not start packing up right away because of a superstition. It was bad luck or the team would lose if they started packing up early. In Bob’s first road game in the KHL, it took about an hour or an hour and a half for everyone to get out of the locker room and he wasn’t too happy about that. He changed things right away so that our bags have to be out of the room within 10 or 15 minutes. We don’t have to wait too long once we get on the plane before takeoff, maybe twenty minutes. It maximizes our sleep and puts a bit of a damper on the travel in the league.
GK: You scored the game-winning goal to clinch the Gagarin Cup for Ak Bars Kazan in 2018. What do you remember from that moment?
RK: I don’t really remember because it happened so fast! It wasn’t like a play where I had the puck on my stick the whole time. It was a deflection in front. I was getting hit or pushed as the puck was coming, so I didn’t even really see it. Kindof an accident, but managed to get my stick on it. It was my first championship and obviously a pretty big one. The second year [in Kazan], we couldn’t go anywhere without stopping for pictures. I’ve never been that recognized at any level! If we’d go to the mall or out for lunch or dinner anywhere, people were asking for photos and signatures. The people there were really good to us.
GK: I saw the reception that the fans gave Emil Garipov recently on his return home. I can imagine you are always welcome in Kazan.
RK: The first time I was there, I stuck around after the handshake and saluted the crowd. They were chanting my name and gave me a really good round of applause. I really appreciated that. I played [in Kazan] for two years, and it was one of my favorite places to play. My family loved it there and we made a lot of good friends. The staff was so good to us, and so helpful. I was only there for two years, but obviously when Emil went back, they had a big reception and signs for him.
GK: I got Justin Azevedo’s thoughts on chak-chak last week, so now I feel that I need to gather yours. For or against?
RK: No, I don’t like it at all. There are not many Russian desserts I like, to be honest.
GK: My favorite is the honey cake.
RK: Yes, the Medovik! That’s exactly me too. Everything else is a little too sweet. I don’t know if Azevedo said anything, but he’s like a celebrity in that city. He’s obviously very recognizable—the short guy who never has his tooth in—but when we go anywhere, people are always stopping him. He’s like the mayor of Kazan.
GK: Did you ever dream that you’d be “big in Kazan?”
RK: It’s so weird what happens. Your NHL door closes, and you don’t realize another one opens. You go through it, and kindof like life in general, you don’t know where it’s going to take you. The places that we’ve been able to go since coming over to Russia have been quite the experience for us. It has been extremely positive for me and my family. We’ve seen so much of the world, and gotten to experience so many new things that we never thought we would. It has been quite the ride.
GK: The Ak Bars coach you won under in 2018, Zinetula Bilyaletdinov, was heavily focused on defense. How do you compare him with Hartley?
RK: [Bilyaletdinov] was much more defensive-style. There were a lot of set forechecks and set breakouts. The set forecheck with Bil was basically a 1-4. If the puck gets dumped in your corner as a winger, you’ve got to be the first guy back. That’s very unusual—I’ve never played that style or seen it played, but obviously it has worked very well for him. He’s huge on defense. I guess that’s a similarity because [Hartley] is not going to budge on defense. If you’re not going to play D, you’re not going to play.
With Hartley, we play probably with a little more pace. It’s more up-and-down, North American style. Pucks have to get out, but they have to get in. He wants shots from everywhere and high-volume. A shot from the goal line is just as good as a scoring chance from the slot. He wants mobile defenseman who are pumping pucks toward the net.
GK: Which young guys were the toughest to play against this season?
RK: Kaprizov. I think he’s going to be a stud in the NHL. He’s such a bull out there and has such an incredible nose for the net. He’s a pure scorer and he doesn’t lose a lot of battles either. He doesn’t give up on pucks, he’s hungry. I don’t know how tall he is, but he’s super strong on his feet and it’s hard to get the puck off of him. I am sure he is going to have a great career.
GK: What did the adjustment from the NHL to the KHL look like for you?
RK: My first year was definitely tougher, because all of the ice surfaces were Olympic-sized. I don’t think there should be Olympic-sized ice anywhere; every league should get rid of it. There is so much ice to be taken, and the open ice is always on the outside. The players automatically stay outside and people are looping back all of the time. There are fewer mistakes made because the defensemen have an extra second to get the puck out or make a play. That was the toughest transition. In North America, you want to get rid of the puck—especially if you are a third or fourth line guy like myself. You feel uncomfortable when you’re holding on to the puck for too long, whereas when you come to the KHL, you can’t panic with it. You need to have more control and realize that you have that extra half-second.
GK: You’re raising two young kids in Moscow. Is your older son speaking better Russian than you yet?
RK: When he was in school in Kazan, he took a Russian lesson. He’s the kind of kid who keeps to himself and is in his own world when he’s playing. It’s really hard to get anything out of him. We saw a video of him at his school one day, and they were showing him pictures. He named off twenty things in Russian, and we had never heard him say a single Russian word before. We were like, “What is this?”
GK: Have you picked up any local superstitions?
RK: Sometimes I do stuff just to mess with people—maybe I’ll whistle inside. Some of it is pretty funny to me, but that’s just one of the differences in the way we were raised and the things we believe in.
GK: What are some cultural differences you’ve noted in the hockey world?
RK: The KHL training camps are long and hard—they can be hell, to be honest! The Russian guys do not complain ever. They put their heads down and go to work. Meanwhile the imports are like, “I’m quitting hockey! This is my last year, I can’t do this again!” The Russian guys don’t complain about anything, they do what they’re told. They are very respectful of authority.
GK: The answer I tend to get is that imports talk more on the ice.
RK: Yeah—the Russian guys don’t shut up in the dressing room, [laughs] but nobody talks on the ice! The hardest part is when you’re near the bench and you don’t know if the players are yelling “chip” or “time” to try to help you. So sometimes I’m like, “I don’t know what to do…I’ll just chip it…no, that was the wrong play!” That happens every once in a while.
GK: Describe the moment you got the call that you’d be representing Team Canada at the Olympics.
RK: Like I said before, it was one of those doors that opened without me knowing it. I think I had a really good first year in the league with [Dinamo] Minsk, and that put me on the map. It was a pretty stressful year, actually. We had just had a new baby, I got traded to Kazan and then I was trying out for the Olympic Team all in the same year. It was pretty wild. All of the national team breaks, I was gone for tournaments.
I definitely remember exactly where I was when I got the call. I was having breakfast in Riga, and just about started crying at the breakfast table there. Being a fourth line guy, I was just happy to make the NHL. You never even think you will play for Team Canada at the Olympics - it’s not even a question. Not even a possibility. We heard rumors for about a year that the NHL wasn’t going, but even the 2-3 weeks leading up to the tournament, I thought they would cave and still go. When we finally got there, it was pretty surreal.
GK: What was the most exciting part of the experience?
RK: Probably the Opening Ceremony. Walking in with Team Canada and everyone cheering, that was one of the coolest moments.
GK: What are some of your first memories on the ice?
RK: My dad was always pissed at me because I couldn’t stand up after I shot. [Laughs] I would try to take a huge wrist shot over the goalie all the time because I knew they couldn’t reach it. I’d be skating at full-speed—which probably wasn’t that fast at the time—then I would shoot, and then I would slide into the end wall head-first. My dad wanted to kill me! Every time I came back to the bench after I scored, he wouldn’t really congratulate me on the goal. He would just give me shit for going head-first into the end wall.
GK: It’s a shame you haven’t tried that in the KHL.
RK: My skating hasn’t improved that much, so it’s pretty similar now.
GK: Was there any particular coach or mentor who influenced your career?
RK: I’ve had so many good coaches. Even if you don’t agree with everything, you try to look for elements of their philosophies that you can agree with. They’ve made it this far for a reason, so you can always look for whatever diamonds you can pluck from everyone’s philosophies.
My dad coached me most of my life growing up. He told me that the most important thing was to work. You’re not always going to be one of the best players on the ice, but I always try to be one of the hardest-working. That’s something he always taught me—whether you’re going to school, or cutting the grass. If you put in the work, everything else will fall into place.
GK: Lastly, what are you watching and reading on the road these days?
RK: I really like documentaries. The book I just finished is called The Boys in The Boat. One of the best books I’ve read. Now I’m reading Man’s Search for Meaning.
The last two [documentaries] I watched were Minding the Gap and The Pharmacist.