Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. (Dec. 20, 2012) – He backstopped the Soo Thunderbirds to the best finish in franchise history. With goalie John Kleinhans between the pipes, the club took home league, playoff and provincial championships last season, ultimately ending up in the RBC Cup.
Hailing from Sterling Heights, Michigan, just outside Detroit, the 21-year-old recently returned to Sault Ste. Marie, his first time back since last donning the red and white jersey of the Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League team.
The Thunderbirds communications department caught up with Kleinhans during a recent home game at the Essar Centre. “Playing here was the best year of my life,” he reminisced. “It feels great to see everyone again.”
Kleinhans first made the trek north in 2009, when he joined the Soo Eagles, then of the NOJHL. After spending two seasons with the American club, he was traded to the Thunderbirds at the start of the 2011-12 campaign, which culminated with the team winning the Dudley-Hewitt Cup.
“It was amazing (winning the championship),” said Kleinhans. “It was a dream come true. We had a great group of guys. We were a family – everyone was there for each other. It was the best year of hockey I’ve ever had.”
While a blast, playing Junior hockey also taught the netminder a lot of lessons. “I learned how to mentally prepare for a challenge,” said Kleinhans. “I discovered how important it is to never give up and never get too down on myself.”
These are lessons that allowed him to excel on the ice. And they’re coming in handy today, as Kleinhans pursues higher learning. Eying a future in the medical field, he’s now enrolled in the Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) program at Macomb College, in Warren, Michigan.
His time spent with the Thunderbirds allowed him to pick up skills he’s now using to excel in school. “I learned a lot about the importance of time management,” said Kleinhans. “And I learned how to stay positive no matter the situation.”
Put simply, the goalie was thrilled with his decision to head north and play Junior hockey in Sault Ste. Marie. Nevertheless, moving here from a major urban centre like Detroit took a little getting used to.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” admitted Kleinhans. But after getting to know the area, he soon took a liking to it, particularly its people.
Kleinhans’ family quickly developed a fondness for the area as well. His parents, Scott and Celine, often made the 5-hour trip down Interstate-75 and across the International Bridge to watch their son play.
“I love Sault Ste. Marie,” said Scott. “We met some great people and made some really good friend. The trips were a lot of fun.”
When not at the games in-person, the couple almost always viewed them live at fasthockey.com. Being able to watch the team online from the comfort of their home was a great feature of the NOJHL, said Scott.
When all was said and done, not only did Sault Ste. Marie and the Thunderbirds provide Kleinhans a place to learn some key skills – both on and off the ice – they also provide memories and friendships for the entire family that none of them will soon forget.