Photo By Matt Raney
One of the many rookies in the NWHL this season is Grace Klienbach of the Connecticut Whale and like a handful of her teammates, three to be exact (Rachael Ade, Stephanie Mock, Meghan Huertas), her path to this point started in the state of Florida. While her contributions haven’t always shown up on the scoresheet this season, she’s added character, depth, and flexibility to a rebuilding franchise.
“Grace is an awesome person and teammate,” said Connecticut’s goaltender Sydney Rossman. “She comes to practice every day ready to work hard and compete.” That’s a very important asset when you have a team with fourteen first-year players, which is the most in the NWHL. “I’ve known Grace almost my whole life and she’s one of the strongest people I know,” said Ade, her Whale teammate who knows her best. “She’s also one of the funniest people I know, but maybe I’m a little biased on that. In all seriousness though, I’ve only met a handful of people who can put their mind to something, and actually to take power over it to make it happen, and she’s one of those people. It’s been a great surprise to be able to be teammates with her again, and I’m trying to cherish every moment of it.”
Klienbach scored a goal in her first game, and last weekend in an exhibition against South Korea she potted a goal in the third period to end a lengthy drought —one that hopefully gives her a boost as the second half of the season gets underway. We spoke with the 23-year-old from Eustis, Florida following the game in which the Whale came away 4-1 winners about her path to the league and a bunch of other topics.
Photo By Matt Raney
NWHL: You haven’t played a game in a few weekends now, how’d you feel out there today?
Grace Klienbach: I felt really good. I wasn’t able to skate over Christmas break, but we had a really good practice right before (this game) that was definitely able to prepare us all for today. I felt really good about how we all came together since we haven’t been playing together for too long.
NWHL: You scored a goal today, although this game doesn’t technically count that has to be a boost of confidence for you, right?
GK: It’s funny, I had a decent amount of shots in the first period and I kind of felt one coming. Then a bunch of the girls on the team started saying, ‘I feel one coming for ya. You’re gonna get it, you’re gonna get it.’ So I told myself I was going to get one (smiles). It was a beautiful pass from Kaycie (Anderson) and I was able to get it in the net, it was an awesome feeling.
NWHL: Going back to the start of this season, what’s the story of how you came in contact with and signed with the Whale?
GK: After graduating from Neumann I didn’t think I was going to be playing (hockey) anymore — not that I didn’t want to — I just didn’t think it was in the cards. I started thinking about things and I knew that the CWHL and the NWHL were growing more and more. I entered the CWHL Draft, was drafted in the 7th round by Toronto. So I was in talks with them, figuring out the logistics of everything and I still was looking into the NWHL. I wanted to enter their draft but was told that it was only for juniors in college, so I couldn’t do that.
A while back I met this woman while I was playing at Neumann and I took her daughter out on the ice with me for the National Anthem at one of our games; it made a really big impact on her - her name’s Sarah and over the last two years I became close to her and her mom. Her mom reached out to me and asked if I had any interest in playing after college, and I said yeah of course. She told me her co-worker is good friends with the commissioner of the NWHL and asked if I wanted her to make a connection for me and I said yeah sure. So Dani Rylan emailed me and I replied with my player profile which she forwarded to the Whale and the Riveters. Coach Ryan Equale emailed me back, we talked on the phone and then we closed the deal that day. It was pretty cool and unexpected, it all happened really fast. But I’m very excited and glad that I have this opportunity.
NWHL: Was there any celebration for you to be able to continue your career?
GK: Haha, I was super happy. It came at a really crazy time because it was the day that I got this letter and found out that I passed my certification exam for Athletic Training - so I had all of these exciting things happening at once. I was really happy and called everyone that I was close to - including Rachael Ade, who I’ve known since I was ten-years-old. We were talking before all of this happened and I knew she was already signed with the Whale, so she was one of the first people I called and I said: guess what? we’re going to be teammates again (smiles).
NWHL: Perfect segway, you know Rachael from growing up in Florida, so how did you get into hockey while you were growing up?
GK: My brother Barron is four years older than me and he played, he started when he was younger and I was always kind of a rink rat, always going to all of his games and practices. One day I was at one of his practices and saw these two girls on this mini-rink in the back and I didn’t know girls played hockey. I went to my dad that night and told him: I want to play (grins). So he took me to go through my brother’s old gear to find what fit and the next day I was practicing. I was about ten-years-old, so I was a little late to the party.
Photo By Troy Parla
NWHL: Did you have a favorite player growing up or was your brother the Gretzky in your world?
GK: He was pretty good because he always made me look bad (smiles), so he always made me think he was way better. I didn’t really have one person that I was like super crazy about. I do like Jaromir Jagr, but I’m not really sure how that came about. Maybe when I started collecting his shirts for some reason, I got one and I kept it going — and he kept changing teams.
NWHL: Why do you wear no. 94?
GK: My favorite number was nine, so I used to wear that unless it was taken. Then I would choose four, but when that was taken I just put them together, and it happens to be my birth year too.
NWHL: First NWHL game, first NWHL goal. Easy stuff right?
GK: I wouldn’t say easy but I was like okay this is what you do. You’re in the right place at the right time - when we were talking about our systems and rotating…I rotated back to cover for a defender who had gone down into the corner. It’s just one of those things where if you do the right things and what coach asks, good things happen.
NWHL: In college, your scoring increased immensely your senior year, was that due to more ice-time?
GK: No it was a lot more about confidence, I always knew I was a good player but I kept getting more and more confidence each year. Luckily I always got a lot of ice-time and was one of the go-to players, which was nice - I was always on the power play and penalty kill. But some reason I just didn’t have my confidence in finishing and I really gained that my senior year when I was captain. I had that whole: this is my team I need to carry them, I need to set an example on and off the ice with everything I do mindset. I think it was that which gave me confidence in myself and as a hockey player.
NWHL: That had to be a tremendous honor for you to be captain of your team as a senior, right?
GK: Definitely yeah. I captained my senior year and was an alternate captain my junior year. Both were big honors because we had eight seniors (on the team) my junior year, so it was an honor that my coach picked me as one of the younger girls to be a leader.
NWHL: So how’d you find your way to a college in Pennsylvania as a kid from Florida?
GK: I got recruited. I played for the Boston Shamrocks before that in the JWHL. Neumann found me and I checked it out, I really like small schools - I guess bigger schools kind of intimidate me anyways - I liked the feel of it, liked all of the girls, and it felt like home; that family vibe.
NWHL: It’s a little colder in Pennsylvania than where you are used to…
GK: Yeah and here in Norwalk, Connecticut, where I live now, is even colder! So I’m trying to get used to this.
NWHL: Do you have a day job?
GK: I actually just got hired at the Orthopaedic Specialty Group, so I’m an athletic trainer there. I haven’t even started yet. But I’ve also been helping out at Fairfield Ice Academy with coaching, with my teammates Laura Brennan and Kelly Babstock.
NWHL: Transitioning from college to the pro game isn’t always easy, what have been some of the adjustments you’ve faced?
GK: Myself coming from Division III there’s obviously a difference between DIII and DI, so I was coming from a slower league. But the league we were in was a little faster than some of the other DIII leagues. The pace here (in the NWHL) is a lot better and more my speed and what I like. One of my struggles in college was I just felt like it was a really slow game. It’s really nice to be here and have everyone on the team being skilled and you can trust everyone that you’re out there with. It’s a nice feeling and a nice change, a very nice change.