By Christine Troyke
Gwinnett Daily Post
DULUTH, Ga. – Tracking down Brandon Kaleniecki after practice isn’t difficult. Just check the stationary bikes. He’s almost always there, sweating some more.
Kaleniecki works hard on the ice and off. There probably isn’t room to print all the good things head coach Jeff Pyle had to say about the third-year forward during a relatively brief discussion.
But to start …
“He’s just such a great, great kid,” Pyle said. “He cares. He works hard. He keeps his mouth shut, which is awesome. He leads by example. He’s a perfect, perfect leader.
“He can play every situation. He can be a checker, he can be a right or a left winger. He could probably play ‘D’ if you put him back there. I just can’t say enough about the kid. He’s just got so much character.”
That’s why, when Pyle made the bold move of changing his alternate captains right before the playoffs started, one of those went to Kaleniecki. The other went to Adam Berti. Veteran defenseman Jeff Mason retained the captaincy.
“I wanted quiet leadership and I hadn’t been getting that pretty much until that point so I just figured, you know what, it’s time to make a decision,” Pyle said. “Berts is a quiet leader, Kal is a quiet leader and Mase has always been one. That’s what you need. You don’t need guys that are opening their mouth if they’re not doing anything.
“But bottom line, I just thought it would kind of calm things down. To me, I think the world of Kal. He plays hurt. He plays the game hard every night. He’s just a good kid.”
Playing hurt is, unfortunately, something Kaleniecki is accustomed to. He had a few injuries in college at the University of Michigan, but those didn’t keep him out of more than a handful of games.
Playing for Gwinnett as a rookie in 2006-07, Kaleniecki missed the vast majority of the regular season with an elbow injury. After a dedicated effort to return late in the season, the Michigan native put up 11 points in 19 games. He had a goal and an assist in four playoff games before the Gladiators were bounced.
Still, he was looking for a clean slate after a frustrating season.
“The first year he was here we had some (complainers),” Pyle said. “He just said he had a bad year because of the injuries and everything and just had a bad taste in his mouth.
“I’ve always told these guys, if you’re not happy here, let me know. He said he liked what I did, but he just wanted a fresh start somewhere. So he went to Vegas.”
Kaleniecki had 30 points in 60 regular season games with the Wranglers, who he almost signed with out of college instead of Gwinnett. He was hurt in the first game of the playoffs, but because his team got to the Kelly Cup finals, Kaleniecki was able to get back out there before it was over.
“It was a good time,” Kaleniecki said. “I enjoyed my year there. Obviously it’s a great city and everything, but it was a great place to play. It was a first-class organization. We obviously had a great team last year and went all the way to the finals.
“We were a couple games away from winning it so you can’t ask for much more.”
Despite that success, Kaleniecki did consider giving up hockey this summer.
“I mean, you think about it every year,” he said. “You never know what’s going on or where you’ll end up. It was just something I thought about. I mean, if you’re not moving up, you’ve got to worry about getting a real job at some point.”
Pyle feels like he could have gotten to the AHL though.
“He would be a guy that would probably get a shot in the American League had it not been for the injuries,” Pyle said. “If somebody called me and said, ‘Hey, I need a good checking guy to put on the fourth line, an energy guy,’ he’d be the first guy I’d send up.”
Kaleniecki re-signed with Vegas, but two games into the season the Wranglers were facing a numbers crunch.
“This year I had a chance to get him back,” Pyle said. “(Las Vegas head coach Glen Gulutzan) called me and I told him I’d take Kal in a minute if he ever ended up with too many guys.”
Kaleniecki readily admits he wanted to stay with the Wranglers. But he understands the way things work and appreciated Gulutzan’s efforts to send the 26-year-old to a place he’d be happy.
But you wouldn’t find Kaleniecki complaining even if he wasn’t.
“You don’t hear a bad thing come out of his mouth,” said Tom Zanoski, who plays on a power play unit with Kaleniecki. “It’s always positive. When he does have something to say, it’s always something good.”
More injuries plagued Kaleniecki upon his return to Gwinnett though. He played five games (and scored three goals) before being forced to the sidelines for almost a month. Kaleniecki returned to play 15 games and then missed the next two months.
“It was a huge loss, too,” Pyle said. “He’s just a stabilizing factor. I put him on the third line, not because he’s a third liner, but to help stabilize the third line a little bit.
“He never complains about it. He sacrifices everything he can for the team. He’s a good example for those guys. If they want to learn how to be professionals, that’s the guy you watch.”
Kaleniecki’s been in the lineup since March 10 and has made a big impact on the Gladiators’ once stagnant power play. It’s part of what has made Gwinnett competitive in its first-round playoff series against Florida.
“It’s important to have that guy that will quiet down, you can see them when they come to the bench and they talk about it, they’re ready for the next time they get out,” Pyle said. “You’ve got to have those guys. You can’t have the guys that get frustrated and come in and complain.”
Kaleniecki and Zanoski have two goals each on the power play in two games against Florida. The Gladiators will need more of the same if they want to climb out of a 2-0 series hole. They can certainly count on a full effort from Kaleniecki.
“He’s definitely a guy on our team that works hard and does everything he can,” Zanoski said. “There’s a reason why he has that letter on his sweater and why he got it.
“It’s all reflective of his attitude and work ethic. It reflects around the room, it reflects around our team and it definitely reflects on the ice – he’s been playing really well.”