Although the season prior to lockout would prove the Maple Leafs last playoff foray in half a decade, neither year that straddled the infamous labor disputes would be remembered with any particular fondness. Ushering in the reign of John Ferguson Jr., 2003-04 became, in hindsight, a defining landmark in an era of decline when overblown hype would manifest a country club malaise. Regardless, those lockout sandwiching years can also be remembered, at least in a very in a small way, for the gracing of the Toronto blue line by a cult stay at home defenseman who defied the “new” NHL dictum and refused to be culled from the game.
Yesterday, 14 year NHL veteran Ken Klee called time on his career. Having played 934 games, Klee amassed 55 goals and 140 points alongside a career plus 30 and an impressive game winning goals percentage. While Washington fans have perhaps the greatest recourse for sentimentality regarding Indianapolis born Klee who played 9 years in DC, Klee would also suit up for a 122 games in the blue and white of the Maple Leafs with the unwaivering solidity that came to define his career.
Noted as a hard checking playmaker at Bowling Green University, Klee was selected 177th overall in the draft of 1990 and capped his three year college career with an appearance in the bronze medal winning Team USA at the World Junior Championships in 1992.
Honing his indomitable work ethic with two and a half seasons in the AHL helping the Portland Pirates to the 1994 Calder Cup along the way, it would not be until the second half of the lockout truncated ‘94-’95 season that Klee would break into the NHL.
Establishing himself as a mainstay thereafter, Klee became a byword for durable reliability on the Caps second defensive pairing. Invited to play on the 1997 Team USA World Championships side, Klee’s never-say-die board play would become a facet of the Capitals run to the Stanley Cup Final in 1998.
Although Washington would fall short to a rampant Detroit side, Klee would rebound with back-to-back twenty point season in ‘98-’99 and ‘99-’00, rekindling the playmaking reputation he earned at college.
Always one step slower, Klee was already a 32 year old veteran when he reached the Leafs in 2003 after signing on as a free agent. One of John Ferguson Jr’s first acquisitions, Klee’s age provided a litmus test of what was to follow. Nevertheless the rugged D-man acquitted himself well in the 3-4 slot, playing alongside the likes of Karel Pilar, Aki Berg and Bryan Marchment.
Staunchly unspectacular in every possible way, whilst in Toronto Klee was never proffered the affection he earned in Washington owing to his vanilla game. Foregoing the lukewarm appreciation, Klee established career highs in his first year with the Leafs posting 25 assists on route to 29 points in a mere 66 games. Never an offensive warrior, Klee’s numbers were easily good enough for third in defenders scoring in 2003-’04 while his big bodied defense demonstrated an then-and-now retrospective of the game when compared to the likes of Tomas Kaberle.
Old school to the very core, Klee’s game became an overnight evolutionary throwback in the aftermath of the lockout. With the tightening up of obstruction based calls, Bettman et al were on a crusade to free up the game in an effort to improve the leagues televisual marketability. Much as the strictures placed on fighting had effectively ended the days of the immobile goon to make hockey a more civilized, family orientated pursuit, so the legislature on obstructive defense created a survival of the fittest in a lockout bloated talent pool.
For an old dog such as Klee, the renewed rule book required a lot of new tricks and it would be in his second year as a Leaf he would have to learn them. Tainted by his affiliation with an already reviled GM, Klee would witness a precipitous rise in his PIM’s as he adapted to the increasingly Europeanized game. Meanwhile his decreased ice time bore the marks of decreased confidence in his utility under Pat Quinn. Still, despite his offensive numbers effectively halving, Klee would remain the third highest defensive scorer and the least mobile on a corps sorely lacking talent.
With his contract running up and managements confidence dwindling in the face of stagnation, Klee was dealt for New Jersey prospect Aleksander Suglobov a day before the 2006 trading deadline. While Suglobov would prove a bust, Klee would enjoy his last playoff excursion with the Devils, the first of four teams he would suit up for in the next three years as he wound toward the NHL basement.
Subsequently a journeyman in the twilight of his career, Klee became a mentor on three young teams (Colorado, Atlanta and Phoenix) enduring the pain of early youth movements and all while remaining a serviceable defender in his own right.
Now as he hangs up his skates for the final time it seems a shame Klee exited Toronto in disregard, never to make the 1,000 game milestone. The epitome of how far hard work can take a person, Klee survived the genesis of the new NHL as an aging veteran and was one of the final links to an era of hockey slowly dying out. Concrete footed and stone handed, Klee shaped an contemporary career with an often unappreciated intelligence and simplicity that was underscored with a tenacious ability along the boards and an intimidating talent for earth shuddering hits.
Seemingly synonymous in Maple Leaf memories for twisting his ankle against his parenting Washington Capitals, Klee’s retirement marks one of the most significant alumni calling it a day this summer. Unfashionable and ever dependable, Klee leaves as a bygone dinosaur deserved of respect.