The Sheriff on the Ice: Garrett Klotz
Garrett Klotz is one of the most unmistakable players to identify on the ice in the entire ECHL. Wearing #88 for the Rapid City Rush, Klotz is almost certainly the largest man on the ice regardless of who the Rush play against, standing at a near-Goliath level 6'6" and over 240 pounds. Because of this immense size and strength, Klotz has taken a role in hockey that isn't for the faint of heart, a role he's held for 13 years and 570 games across four leagues in two continents for 15 different teams.
Klotz is "The Enforcer".
As "the enforcer", Klotz' job is quite complicated to the uninitiated. For those well-versed in hockey, Klotz utilizes his strength and size to play a heavy game, crushes the opposition into the boards, kills penalties on special teams, creates energy for his bench when needed in a tight game, and "polices" the game to make sure no one takes any liberties against his high-skilled teammates, hence the "Sheriff" nickname.
For those not in tune with the finer points of the game, Klotz, simply put, fights the other team's toughest and strongest players, while standing up for his own teammates. His story begins in his hometown of Regina, Saskatchewan. His father, a diehard hockey fan, got him started in the sport at a young age. After playing in midget-AA and midget-AAA briefly, the Western Hockey League, one of the three major-junior leagues that makes up the all-encompassing Canadian Hockey League, took notice of Klotz and his play. Specifically, it was the Red Deer Rebels, who offered the then 16-year-old forward a try-out in training camp in 2005-06.
"Me and my father drove up to Red Deer, Alberta for the tryout," Klotz recalled. "Brent Sutter, who won two Stanley Cups as a player with the 1980's New York Islanders, was the Head Coach and General Manager of the Rebels. I knew he was a hardnosed player, and that's how he coached his teams, especially in the WHL which is considered the more physical league of the three CHL leagues. I was pretty nervous during camp, but I played hard and physical, and I think that started to stand out amongst the other skaters and the coaches."
Eventually, physical tensions came to a boiling point during the Rebels training camp. It was in that moment, everything would change everything in his hockey career.
"I got into a scrap towards the end of camp, just kind of happened out of the blue. It was legitimately the first hockey fight I'd ever been in," he expanded. "I got into a fight with Shaden Moore, one of the older guys that played for Red Deer in the previous season. We kind of just got into it and before you know it, we're dropping the gloves and I gave it to him pretty good. It surprised a lot of people, actually. It wasn't that Moore was 'the team enforcer', but he was much older and pretty tough in his own right. Maybe it was my body's 'fight or flight' response and adrenaline, but something just snapped in me while I was throwing these punches. It almost came too easy for me. One second I'm hitting hard in a drill in camp, the next moment I'm chucking overhand rights with ease.
"Prior to that, I never really considered myself a fighter, honestly," Klotz continued. "Back in midget-AA you weren't allowed to fight. I wouldn't say I was always the biggest guy on the ice either, but I was definitely one of the bigger ones. Coach Sutter took a liking to it, apparently. At the end of the camp, I thought he was going to cut me. Instead, he offered me a WHL contract, and I played my entire 17-year-old year in Red Deer. Ever since that fight against Moore in camp, Coach Sutter expected me to drop the mitts anytime the situation called for it. I basically fell into the role and developed from that moment.
"I realized that if I wanted to get to the NHL one day, I'd have to do this. A switch just flipped in my head," he concluded. "I knew I wasn't a goal scorer, but I could play the physical role. I could lay a big hit and get an energy shift going, but then I'd have someone challenge me, basically saying 'If you want to hit like that, you need to step up and fight,' so I'd have to back it up. Hockey was different back then because if anyone laid a hit, you had to answer the bell. I had to find my way through hockey, and being the enforcer was it. If I wanted to make the NHL, I'd have to use my size, my skating, and my fists."
Klotz scored two goals in the 2006-07 season with the Rebels, logging 26 PIM. After the season, he was traded closer to home to the Saskatoon Blades, where he played the final two seasons of his WHL career.
"The Head Coach at the time, Lorne Molleken, wanted me, and wanted to see what I could do. I went there and absolutely loved it in Saskatoon. In 2006-07, I had a really good season...at least as far as fighting goes," Klotz remembered with a laugh. "I had two goals and four points, but 107 penalty minutes in 63 games. That summer after the season, I got a phone call that I never imagined I'd get in a million years."
To add context to the upcoming exchange, Klotz grew up as a fan of the NHL's Philadelphia Flyers as a kid, specifically because of 2017 Hockey Hall of Famer Eric Lindros, the Captain of the Flyers from 1994 to 2000. Lindros is the reason Klotz wears #88 for the Rush this year, as it was his number for the entirety of his 13-year NHL career. Like Klotz, Lindros was brutally strong, and was a heavy, hard-nosed player and leader.
"It was an early Saturday morning, and I got a phone call from this random Pennsylvania phone number," Klotz reminisced. "At first I thought it was a scam or a telemarketer, so I answered with an angry attitude. Turns out, it was Paul Holmgren, the GM of the Flyers, and I was just stunned.
"He proceeded to say 'This is Paul Holmgren, the General Manager of the Flyers. I'm calling to inform you that we drafted you with the sixth pick in the third round of the 2007 NHL Draft. We'll send you camp information soon. Come to camp ready to go and in shape.' I hang up, and I'm sitting here thinking 'WHAT??? Did that just happen?' I just got drafted by my childhood team. Next thing you know, I'm running around losing my mind, then I have my dad on the phone and we're both losing our minds. It was just surreal. That summer, I trained like an animal and I went to Flyers prospect camp."
Klotz had a great performance during Flyers camp, showcasing his strength, his skating, and his playing ability. After camp, Klotz earned a three-year entry level NHL contract. He went back to the WHL and finished out his major-junior career that season in 2007-08, adding a goal and 4 points in 52 games with an additional 96 PIM. After the 2007-08 season, the Flyers expressed to Klotz that, because he was a "man amongst boys" at the WHL level, they wanted him to turn professional as a 19-year-old and join the team's AHL affiliate, the Philadelphia Phantoms.
"After I went through Flyers camp again, they told me not to worry about my overage year and to report to the Phantoms as a full-time player. That transition was interesting," he explained. "I basically went from fighting boys aged anywhere from 16 to 20 in the WHL, to fighting 25 to 30-something year old grown men that were playing professional hockey for a long time. Plus, to put this in perspective, fighting wasn't something I really 'trained' for. It wasn't until I started regularly playing in juniors that I started to take boxing lessons and work on that. But fighting isn't something you can just 'practice' for because the 'fight or flight' response and adrenaline are huge variables. I was still fairly raw when I started fighting in pro."
Klotz officially made his professional debut on October 11, 2008, logging one shot on goal in a 4-3 loss to the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. The next month, he registered his first professional fight against Grant McNeill of the Hershey Bears, dropping the gloves at 2:56 of the first period in an eventual 5-2 win on November 1st. By the middle of the 2008-09 AHL season in January, Klotz had fought seven more times. Some of his challengers included recently retired Vegas Golden Knights defenseman Deryk Engelland, longtime AHL enforcers Nicolas Blanchard and Pierre-Luc Letorneau-Leblond, and Aaron Boogaard, brother of the late NHL enforcer Derek Boogaard.
On Friday, January 23, 2009 against the Manchester Monarchs, Klotz engaged in arguably one of the toughest fights of his career, and it produced a gruesome memory. He fought Kevin Westgarth, a man who almost touched 200 PIM in a single season three times in the AHL and logged over 100 PIM in 2010-11 with the NHL's Los Angeles Kings. Between Klotz at 6'5", 230 pounds at the time, and Westgarth at 6'4", 235 pounds, it was quite the heavyweight showdown.
"That fight really started the last time we had played Manchester on November 7, 2008," Klotz recanted. "In that game, Westgarth knocked out one of my teammates, Jeff Szwez. The next time we played that night at home in January, he was in the starting lineup. John Paddock, my Head Coach, countered by starting me up front. I thought to myself 'Well geeze, I guess I have to answer the bell here.' I went out and challenged him for what he did to my teammate the game before, and he obliged."
Right off the faceoff, just two seconds into the game, both players dropped their gloves and removed their helmets. It was a close fight at the start. Klotz came out with a few rights, then both combatants exchanged blows. Shortly after, Westgarth caught Klotz with an uppercut, and that's where things got scary.
"It was a pretty good scrap, honestly. We were both trading punches and going back and forth. Eventually, he caught me with a right and dazed me. At that point in the fight, we moved over near the boards. When he caught me with his punch, I fell back and hit the side of my head into the boards. I went unconscious right in that moment. While I was blacked out, I dropped to the ice and hit my head really hard against the ice. I started to convulse and had a seizure."
The video of the fight is online but be warned that it isn't for the faint of heart. As he seized, the Phantom's training staff tended to him and he was eventually carted off the ice.
"It was pretty scary, honestly. I watched the fight after and couldn't believe it," Klotz recalled. "The first thing I remembered when I came to was getting carted off. My brother just drove from Saskatchewan to bring me my car, and that was the first pro game of mine he'd ever watched. First shift in and that's what he saw, so that was tough. They took me to the hospital and ran a bunch of tests. Thankfully, everything turned out fine. The doctors diagnosed me with a seizure and a concussion, and after two weeks of monitoring in the team's protocol, I was back out on the ice playing. I'm extremely grateful I haven't had any side effects since then. That was the only time in my career I've ever been knocked out."
With a clean bill of health, Klotz went back to playing for the Phantoms, only appearing six more times before the end of the season. His next fight came on the very last game of the regular season against the Hershey Bears on April 11, 2009. Once again, it produced another tough memory for the Phantoms rookie enforcer. His opponent this time was Kip Brennan, a career AHL enforcer with almost 1,600 PIM in 323 games over 11 years, a 2009 Calder Cup Championship, and an additional 222 PIM in 61 NHL games. Their bout came at 13:43 of the first period.
"My next fight was a crazy one," Klotz began. "We were in Hershey and it was in the first period. My d-man rimmed the puck up to me, and I was the winger. I went to pick the puck up on the wall and got absolutely blown up by somebody and put onto my back. I looked up and it was their tough guy, Kip Brennan, that hit me. Before you know it, I drop my gloves, he follows suit, and we square off.
"This was my first fight since that Westgarth fight, but I wasn't timid," he continued. "I couldn't be. I knew I was going to have to get back on the saddle with fighting and my role as the enforcer, and this just happened to be that moment. In the early stages of the fight, he absolutely rocked me with an overhand right and hit me in the face. I knew he rocked me because I got dazed a bit. I thought to myself 'Oh no, here we go again...' with a flashback of Westgarth in my head. We got tied up, but still traded a few punches and then the linesmen broke it up.
"I remember going to the penalty box, and something just felt off," Klotz concluded. "I was still a little dazed, and my face didn't feel right. I didn't really think much of it, honestly. The fight was in the first period, so I played the rest of the game. I felt a little dizzy at times, but I finished out the rest of the game. Afterwards, I went to shower and cleared my nose. When I did that, my cheek puffed up, my nose was leaking blood, and my cheek started making a clicking noise. I couldn't even eat my postgame meal, so I went to the trainer. The next day, I got x-rayed. Turns out, I broke my zygomatic bone, or my cheek bone. So, within two fights over the course of four months as a rookie, I got KO'd and basically broke my face. It was wild."
That offseason, Klotz had reconstructive surgery performed on his face, and had two metal plates put in. Despite the adversity and trauma sustained, he used it as an opportunity to develop his fighting skills.
"My first year was obviously really tough, and it made me evaluate my fighting style," Klotz explained. "In the WHL, I was always so used to opening up and just going off, trying to overpower the other fighter and not really caring if I got hit or not. I learned in those instances that I can't do that in pro. I had to be a little more defensive. I couldn't go toe-to-toe with the AHLers like I did with the kids in junior. I didn't have a 'fighting coach' or anything, so I took it upon myself to watch film on other fighters and how I fought and tweaked my style on that."
The adjustments paid off. Klotz played in all but three games in the 2009-10 AHL season when the Phantoms moved to Adirondack and racked up another 94 PIM. After his NHL contract expired at the end of the 2010-11 season, Klotz remained a physically dominant force throughout the minor leagues, playing one more time for Adirondack before playing between the ECHL, the EIHL in England, and the Central Hockey League, the latter of which he logged a career-high 257 PIM in the 2013-14 season as a member of the Allen Americans. There, he and Rush Head Coach Daniel Tetrault, his teammate back then, won the 2014 CHL Championship.
Over the years since Klotz first turned professional, fighting has faced new legislation that limits or restricts it further. For instance, starting in 2013, fighters have to keep their helmets on during their bouts, otherwise they'd suffer an additional two minutes in penalties for removing the helmet. Additionally, the ECHL added the stipulation in 2019-20 that when a player reaches 10 fights, he will be suspended for one game. For each additional fight after 10, it's another game suspension. Get to 14 total fights, and that increases to a two-game suspension per fight.
Despite the legislation, Klotz' role hasn't changed. No matter what team he plays for or what league he plays in, he still remains the enforcer of the team that signs him.
"It's definitely evolved since the olden days," Klotz said. "Nowadays, there aren't too many enforcers, simply because there aren't many players willing to actually do it. In that sense, it's kind of getting phased out, and it's more of a skilled man's game now. In a way, enforcers, including myself, are almost like the last of the dinosaurs.
"Personally, I think fighting has a place in the game, and that's not bias coming from a guy that's done this for 13 years," he continued. "Fighting, in my opinion, keeps players honest. Hockey is a physical game, and emotions do run high. Because of that, there has to be a way to protect your skilled guys from that physical element. You can't have opposing players just taking runs at your skilled players and not have any consequence for their actions. Without a consequence, they'll just keep pounding your skilled players and possibly hurt them. When you have an enforcer that makes them answer the bell, those players will think twice about even looking at your skilled players because they know what's on the other side of that altercation. Plus, it's a real momentum builder. The fans love fighting and it gets them back into the game, especially if it's close. Additionally, it gets your teammate's blood pumping and they'll run through a wall for you and each other after a great fight."
It's no secret that Klotz has built a vaunted reputation as probably the toughest player in the ECHL, taking on various ECHL heavyweights like Tulsa's Mike McKee, Utah's Teigan Zahn, Florida's Cody Sol, and former Idaho Steelhead Kale Kessy, currently with the AHL's Hershey Bears, to name a few. During his career, however, sometimes that reputation has worked against him, resulting in suspensions and fines.
"It's been tough to deal with that sometimes, I won't lie," Klotz said of battling suspensions. "Back when I first started playing, you could really do whatever you wanted and only get a five-minute penalty. Now, if you're in the wrong place at the wrong time, and in some instances a large man like me, you're sitting out games. The game certainly isn't as tough as it once was.
"Since joining the Rush in 2018, I've really worked hard to change my image and approach to the game in that respect, and just play my game, which is hard hitting and physical," he expanded. "I think one of the biggest changes too in my game is that I don't go looking for fights anymore. If anything, fighting comes to me. It's very rare for me to challenge someone anymore, although sometimes it's necessary for me to fulfill my role in creating energy."
That was evident two weeks ago when the Tulsa Oilers played the Rush in a three-game set from February 10th to February 13th. Klotz and Tulsa's Mike McKee seemingly had an ongoing feud throughout, resulting in two fights in the final two games of the series. Both fights were entertaining, but Saturday night's second round between the heavyweights went viral.
"It all started on the Friday night game," Klotz remembered. "They went up I think 3-0 or 4-0, and they started taking some runs at our guys. It was getting out of hand and heated. In my mind, I'm not only thinking about getting momentum for my team, but also try to set the tone for the rest of the series. We were getting embarrassed in our building, and I wanted to show them that they weren't going to get off so easy. Friday night was one of those rare moments where I asked someone to go, and that was McKee. I asked if he wanted to dance, and he obliged. I thought it was a great fight. He had me tied up for a good bit of it, but I switched to left-handed jabs and got a few shots in. We got to the boards and the linesmen broke it up.
"Saturday night was the complete opposite," he concluded. "We were up 2-0 at the end of the second period. It was the same thing, just roles reversed from the last night. McKee tapped me on the shoulder and said 'You want round two? My team needs the momentum.' I told him you know me, I'm ready to go whenever. I obliged to his request. This time, I was more heated and dialed in for battle. I told myself I'd open up a bit a throw everything and the kitchen sink at him. We dropped our gloves, took off our helmets, and I unloaded machine gun lefts and rights at him until the linesmen separated us. I was pretty pumped. It was unreal to hear the crowd go nuts afterwards. Safe to say, the momentum swing worked for us and we won the game 2-0. It was also pretty cool to see how viral it went. That's definitely a scrap I won't forget."
Occasionally, fighting has produced some interesting opponents for Klotz. Teigan Zahn of Utah, mentioned earlier, is actually a good friend of his, and has fought him a few times over the years.
"My mindset has always been, and should be for enforcers across the board, that when you put that helmet on, everyone not wearing your jersey is an enemy," Klotz explained, emotionally. "Teigan Zahn and I are both from Saskatchewan. We were teammates on the Saskatoon Blades in the WHL, and we were teammates last year on Utah in 2019-20. We have each other's numbers, we text, and in the summers, we skate together back home. We're friends for sure, but we also realize that this our job, and sometimes that pits friends in a head-to-head tilt.
"The weekend after I fought McKee and we played Utah, Zahn was running around with some questionable hits on our guys," he finished. "I went out on the ice and warned him if he kept hitting like that, he'd have to answer for his actions. He didn't stop, so I stepped in and challenged him. He went down early because I don't think he wanted it, so that was a short fight. He stopped running around after that moment, it got us some momentum, and I left the penalty box with my 'enforcing job' essentially completed, so I was able to just play hockey the rest of the way."
As he mentioned before, Klotz generally doesn't seek out fights, but rather they come to him. In his older years now, Klotz takes time after practice to teach his younger teammates the finer points of fighting. His goal isn't to create a new era of enforcers, however.
"When it comes to teaching my teammates fighting, it's more for defense than it is to satisfy some kind of rage, in reality," Klotz said of his post-practice fighting lessons. "Take Tyson Empey for example. He's a tough kid. It's his first year professional, he just got out of college, and he plays a hard-nosed game. Fights are going to come in his line of work, so I'll teach him the proper way to fight and how to defend himself.
"Fighting really is a science. Most fans see punches being thrown, but it's a lot more complicated," the enforcer expanded. "There's a lot of grappling involved, where to grab at the jersey, jabbing at the point of contact on the jersey grapple, and some other technique and strategy behind it. At the end of the day, adrenaline will take over in a fight, so you still have to find a way to think clearly about what hand to throw punches with, how to counter, and everything in between."
Although he never reached the NHL, Klotz has enjoyed a fulfilling professional hockey career. After 13 years, 570 games, four different leagues, and almost 1,400 PIM, Klotz doesn't regret the journey one bit. Despite the physical grind of fighting and playing hard-nosed hockey, he is far from done playing the game he loves.
"I'm not ready to call it quits, that's for sure," Klotz said. "Being a husband and an expecting father, it makes me think a bit about what could happen with fighting, but I'm playing more hockey now because I'm not fighting nearly as much. I absolutely don't regret how I got to where I am. It's been a crazy road, that's for sure, but I love it. I wouldn't change a thing."
This much is certain: however much longer Klotz decides to continue to play, especially in his new permanent home in Rapid City, Rush players can rest easy knowing that "The Sheriff" will always have their back on the ice.
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