Kurt Kleinendorst

Manchester Storm coach 1997-2000

Although it had been coming for some time, the announcement that Kurt Kleinendorst was not to spend a fourth season behind the bench of the Storm still hit with a dull thud.

Oh dearHe was signed after the end of the disasterous 1996-97 season, in which the Storm had finished next to last in the club's inaugural season in the Superleague. But perhaps most surprisingly, he was to replace a man who was a legend in the British game, John Lawless. The first sighting of the new Storm supremo wasn't too impressive. KK's first publicity shot was smiling, wearing a baseball cap and eating fish and chips from Harry Ramsden's.

Given the General Manager reins, he swiftly set about clearing out the deadwood from the Lawless era. The organisation had undertaken a top-to-bottom evaluation and plenty of players were cast aside. There were a couple of surprising releases, Player of the Year Nick Poole left early, whereas Brad Rubachuk was kept on, despite an indifferent year.

In came many new faces, plenty of which were from KK's ECHL days with the Raleigh IceCaps. His first signing was defenceman Kris Miller, but other players with Raleigh connections included Jeff Tomlinson, Jeff Jablonski and Kevin Hoffman. The Storm were to be built as Kurt Kleinendorst's All Stars, players who were known to do a job at ECHL level. He wasn't afraid to trust European players, perhaps one of Lawless' real failings, as the signing of Stefan Ketola and Mikael Wiklander showed.

The first season was all that Storm fans could hope for. Perhaps a worst-to-first finish was unlikely, but at the time, the team almost pulled it off. They lost an epic B&H cup semi-final to Ayr and finished second to the Eagles in the Superleague. The playoff run never really got started, as the club were decimated by injury and walkouts from two of the more temperamental players, forward Dominic Maltais and netminder Jim Hrivnak.

Close upAfter going so close, the second season of KK hockey was anticipated to be a fine-tuning of the previous campaign. But as eight new faces showed, KK knew the team were further away than the fans thought. Perhaps the best signing had to be that of Frank Pietrangelo, whose netminding and experience was the rock on which the championship side was founded. It compensated for the loss of the hugely popular Craig Woodcroft, who departed for the riches of the DEL to the disappointment of many.

There is little that can be said about that glorious championship season. Statistically, the Storm led all categories, defence, offence, powerplay and penalty kill. Only seven defeats from 42 games means the Storm were simply the class of the field.

But the most satisfying thing for me wasn't the winning of the championship, but the style of hockey that won the title. KK has admitted that he favours skill over toughness, perhaps too much, but the three seasons here in Manchester have seen some truly sensational players. Stefan Ketola, Kelly Askew and Jeff Tomlinson are the three who most catch the eye with their speed and puck-handling ability. But the likes of Jeff Jablonski and Mike Harding are big guys who were allowed to play with the puck, rather than simply throw their weight around. Storm fans demanded and got quality hockey, rather than a win-at-all-costs Goon Squad.

If I had to pick one abiding memory, it would be the nights of European glory. Traditionally, and stereotypically, the Canadian-based Storm were supposed to act like a bunch of meatheads when faced with the superior skating and passing skills of the European teams. But in KK's very first EHL game, he posted notice of his intent, as Storm gained their first point in an overtime loss in Bolzano. But back at the Storm Shelter, at home to the great Moscow Dynamo, Manchester achieved a result that made the rest of the EHL take notice. Behind a marvellous netminding display from Grant Sjerven, the Storm had the Russians tied at 0-0 for two periods. And when Moscow did go ahead, Mikael Wiklander pulled one back. Another Russian goal seemed to be the killer, but with less than three minutes remaining, Brad Turner tucked home a rebound to pull off one of the most astonishing results in British hockey.

The 1999-00 season was inevitably going to be a comedown after the highs of the previous campaign. Other teams strengthened considerably and in perhaps the greatest complement of all, the Bracknell Bees won the championship with a squad that Bees coach, Dave Whistle, freely admitted was based on the victorious Storm squad of the previous season.

There were several acrimonious departures during the year, when KK's rule as coach seemed to be questioned. One was the release of Rick Brebant, a week after scoring the winning penalty shot to clinch the Benson & Hedges Cup. But there was more to Brebant's departure than met the eye. Clearly angered by what he saw as poaching, KK stepped in to stop the player's attempted move to Sheffield Steelers. Instead, Brebant ended up on loan to the London Knights in a swap deal for the Knights leading scorer, Ryan Duthie. Shortly afterwards, KK and Darren Hurley went their separate ways, and the Storm fans were stunned. Hurley was extremely popular, due to his total committment to the cause. But an on-bench row led to KK exerting his authority. The doubters were silenced when the Storm, minus Brebant and Hurley, regrouped and made a definite charge for the title in the second half of the season.

But my main memory of KK will be his conduct throughout his time as coach. While all in the stands were busy gnawing on fingernails, the coach epitomised calm and grace under pressure. He seemed almost emotionless behind the bench - I've often wanted to ask him how he deals with all the stress - but the answer came on TV once, "I'm kinda like a duck" he told Sky after Storm won the nerve-shredding shootout against the Knights, "I might look calm but underneath I'm going ten to the dozen". Every time I heard KK speak, he was always calm, considered and unfailingly polite. He has a philosophy that everything that happened in the dressing room between him and the players, stayed there. He refused to criticise his players in public and even in the awkward Hurley and Brebant incidents, he refused to sling any mud.

Whoever follows KK will have an incredibly tough act to follow. For me, he was the best coach I could have asked for. His teams won and won with style. If the Storm lost, they lost with grace. Off the ice he had time for everybody and he brought some great players to Manchester. He will be badly missed.