Cetacean Nation has noticed that somehow, various marine or aquatic references keep appearing in the narratives of our players. We will have to check with our resident Marine Biologist Anya Battaglino for confirmation, but we believe that the migration of both eels and whale’s are both legendary and well documented. But at the end of the day an eel is an eel, it doesn’t become a whale. True, but not if your name is Grace Klienbach, who has been both. If you haven’t figured it out yet, we’ll explain as we chat here with Grace. Let’s begin with a little about her playing style. When she is on the ice with her Whale teammates, our #94 Grace Kleinbach has your back, literally. The speedy forward uses her quickness not just on offensive rushes, but to hustle back on defense to cover gaps and skate down opposing puck carriers. As Grace puts it, “to pickpocket them” to interrupt rushes and regain possession back for the Whale. One of the first things the Whale Fans of Cetacean Nation notice about Grace is her willingness and propensity to play both ends of the ice.
When we spoke to Grace, it was one of the first things we asked about, and she explained the origins of her style of play this way: “With my back checking, I think it is just something I developed over the years. With me starting later than most in hockey, I think starting out I had to be more conscious of my defensive play, because I was still developing my stick handling and shooting skills. As I got better in those skills, the backchecking became something I enjoyed doing, as funny as that sounds. It was something every coach emphasized on and something I could execute well because of my speed.”
Grace is one of four of our Whale players from the unexpected hockey state of Florida. She told us that in fact, all four of our current “Florida Whales” were teammates at one time. “We use to only have Team Florida which Rachael Ade, Meghan Huertes, Stephanie Mock, and I all played for. We had girls from all over the state on our team.” Cetacean Nation thought the experience of growing up as a hockey player in the Sunshine State had to be pretty different, and asked Grace to elaborate: “Thinking about where I grew up, I find it funny that I got into hockey in the first place. I lived on a farm for basically all of my life. We had all sorts of animals, everything from cows and pigs to peacocks and emus. I got into hockey because my older brother would play. But even though he was actively playing since I was born, I didn’t start playing until I was ten. During the majority of my youth hockey, I was basically always on at least 2-3 teams from then on until I went to play juniors in the JWHL. My two years with the Florida Eels were definitely memorable ones” she continued: “I went to Edison Prep for my 8th and 9th grade years where there were a total of 35-40 kids that attended the school. Of those, only five of us were girls. I played on the Ohio Flames, the Florida Eels bantam boys, and the Edison prep high school team,which was made up entirely of Florida Eels anyways.”
That is a lot of hockey for a young student to juggle with their academic schedules. Grace did not mention it in our conversation, but Cetacean Nation found out from her Eels Coach Frank Scarpaci that she posted a better than 4.0 GPA and had perfect scores on her SAT’s, so she seemed to thrive under the pressure. Grace acknowledged it was a busy schedule, adding: “But it was great exposure for me. I was playing with guys older and better than me, which made me have to work harder. I would even practice and train with the Florida Eels junior boy’s team which my older brother was on. My second and last year with them I was a Captain on the boy’s bantam team. It was definitely a great place to grow as a hockey player since you were completely surrounded by other people with the same goals as you.’
Cetacean Nation is always curious about the various hockey cultures our Whale grew up in before joining the Pod. Grace gave us these insights on her own experience: " Central Florida hockey is definitely different than being up north. Down there, in the hockey world, everyone knows everyone. And even if you don’t know someone you at least have half a dozen mutual friends or have heard of that person before. Hockey is a small world in Florida, mostly because of how uncommon it is compared to up north.” She continued “The first friend I ever made playing hockey was Rachael Ade. We played youth hockey, juniors, and now professional together. You grew up playing with and against the same people. It was common to be on 2-3 teams in one season and to fill in for other teams if they were missing players. Every weekend you knew you were going to be driving anywhere from 1-6 hours to get to a tournament or game.” Grace thinks that will not always be the case “It is growing though,” she said, “which is awesome to see. There are definitely more people getting interested in the sport, especially girls, and it is nice to see it starting to become more popular throughout the state.”
Other than bass fishing, which Grace acknowledged is huge in Central Florida, we wondered about what other sports may have attracted a young Florida hockey player. She told us this about her athletic experience off the ice “Growing up I was always very active, however prior to hockey I was never on any organized sports teams. I would just play whatever sport or activity it was that day with my brother or friends for fun. Hockey has really been the only sport I have played consistently. When I was in prep school for my 10th grade year I ran in cross country and ran and threw in track and field. In my 11th grade year my school attempted to have a lacrosse team that I played on for a short time before it folded due to lack of lacrosse teams in my area” She added “So I can’t say that I have really played any other sports that would have impacted my hockey. But I do think being involved in hockey helped with performing in the other sports I tried.”
As we know, Grace migrated north to continue both her hockey and education. Cetacean Nation asked her how that came about, and how she headed slightly south again for college. Grace responded “ I suppose my move to the Northeast all started around my Florida Eels days. While on the Eels I was also on the Ohio Flames girls travel team. We mainly played in tournaments on the weekend. But traveling up north so frequently got me noticed by Canterbury prep school in Connecticut where I went for my 10th grade year”. But Grace then suffered a major injury, that fortunately turned out to be an epiphany as well as a set-back. Grace told us what happened: “The following year I broke my tibia and fibula while playing in a roller hockey tournament and had to get surgery. I was out for almost a year. The following two years I played for the Boston Shamrocks in the JWHL.” The set-back was temporary and Grace found success and an old friend with the Shamrocks. She told us “My Shamrock days were a blast. It was two years of getting to hang out with some of your best friends and just play hockey. We would do our school work during the day and practice and/or train in the evening. This is also when Rachael Ade and I got to play on the same team again and we got to be roommates, so we had a great time.” And reflecting on those halcyon days, she added: “ I’d say the only downfall was being 17-18 years old and not being able to leave or go anywhere without a coach being with you.”
Cetacean Nation was also intrigued by the epiphany triggered by her injury. Grace revealed this moment as she replied to our question about making her career choice: “As for my career path. I started to become interested in sports medicine when I broke my leg while playing in a roller hockey tournament at Disney’s ESPN Wide World of Sports. The first person who came out onto the rink after it happened was the Athletic Trainer. She did a quick examination on the rink, splinted me on the spot, and then referred me to go to the local hospital. After that I started to think about how awesome the profession would be. You get to watch sports, be a part of a team, and help people as a medical professional. So I majored in Athletic Training in college with a minor in strength and conditioning. But, I want to go back to school to further my education in the medical field”. Cetacean Nation thinks this is a textbook example of turning lemons into lemonade, finding your calling in life ice through a painful incident in the rink.
After finishing up with the Shamrocks, Grace explained how her new found career path influenced her choice of colleges. She elaborated saying: “ I was recruited by a few different colleges and ended up choosing Neumann University in Aston, PA. It seemed like the best fit for me. With going to Neumann I was able to play hockey and still get a degree in Athletic Training. Some of the other schools I was looking at wouldn’t allow me to major in the field because of the demands of hockey. This was before I ever thought I would end up playing post-college. So I figured I might as well go somewhere where I can get a degree in something I actually am interested in, while still being able to play the sport I love at a high level.“ During her years at Neuman she played in one hundred games, scoring 29 points in 25 games as a senior, and was a two time ECAC All Academic Team selection, and graduated first in her class. And performed four hundred hours per semester of clinical work for her major. Therefore Cetacean Nation confers Grace with an honorary degree in Tiime Management.
Having played so much hockey in the Philadelphia area, we asked for Grace’s opinion on the hockey culture in the region, and what she thought of a future NWHL expansion to the city. She replied enthusiastically: “Hockey in the Philadelphia area is crazy. Everyone is all about hockey, at least in South East Pennsylvania. There are multiple rinks in close proximity and all of them are booked with practice, private lesson, stick and puck, or game slots. Almost every game, college, high school, juniors, or men’s league has fans. Youth hockey is huge there, both boys and girls. They were loyal fans in college too. They would come out with their jerseys on and signs made to watch our men’s and women’s hockey teams. Often we would go help with running their practices or make a guest appearance at their games. It’s just a great environment for hockey; everyone wants to learn and get better.” Her thoughts on expansion then were not unexpected: “I think Philly would be a great location for an expansion team. Like I said, people there just love hockey and I think they would be thrilled to be the home of a NWHL team. Philadelphia sports fans are proud and loyal. I think they would really take the team and run with it. Not to mention the amount of girls and even women’s leagues there are in the area. It’s a location where hockey is blossoming for females. I know the support from them alone would be awesome.”
After initially entering the CWHL draft, Grace joined the Whale last year as a rookie, and as all of Cetacean Nation knows, had an immediate impact. She scored the first Whale goal of the season and went on to play in fifteen games, covering every inch of the ice with her disciplined forechecking and backchecking. Now in her first professional offseason, we asked Grace about her off ice activities. She brought us up to date saying: “Currently Rachael Ade and I go to the gym/train, usually at least five days a week. Our training consists of weight lifting, cardio, and getting on the ice when we can. On the weekends we have taken up rollerblading to and from the beach too!” Very cool, and Cetacean Nation has in fact noticed that several of our Whale are prone to skate off ice on wheels from time to time. As to what else is going on this summer Grace answered: “Currently I work at Orthopaedic Specialty Group in the OrthoFast urgent care division as a certified Athletic Trainer. I’m the first one in the room with the patient where I go over their medical history and perform the initial evaluation. My other responsibilities include teaching patients exercises, the application/removal/or modification of splints and casts, fitting braces, preparing patient and room for injections, and first aid care, etc.” Before we said goodbye-bye, we talked to Grace about her other off season job. She explained: “I also coach at Fairfield Ice Academy. I coach learn to skate and hockey classes, as well as private lessons. I love it. I have so much fun with the kids and it gets me on the ice,a little more too. It’s nice working with the other coaches as well. You get to see other drills and coaching strategies that differ from your own. I know since I’ve started working here, I have definitely improved as a coach.” Cetacean Nation thinks that her Neumann University Knights Coach Gina Kearns McLaughlin, will be pleased, but not surprised at that final part. Fins Up to our #94, Grace Klienbach, the Florida Eel who became a Connecticut Whale.