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Buffalo's Kaleta learning, giving lessons on ice

Im just trying to do whats best for the team, Kaleta said. "Im starting to feel a bit more comfortable, and Im doing everything I can to learn and better my game. (Photo Provided by Justin Swackhamer)
ROCHESTER (LGS) — Patrick Kaleta knows his role. It isn’t to make nifty passes, nor is it to do “dipsy-do's" around the opposition’s "D." No, his role is to knock the opposition into the front row.

“A big hit will always change the momentum,” Kaleta said Friday night.

Indeed, a big hit can in fact fire up a team and bring the crowd to its feet.

“It aggravates the opponents too,” Kaleta continued. “They get more worried about hitting me, and I like drawing penalties for our team.”

“He certainly frustrates people,” his head coach, Randy Cunneyworth, said.

Hitting is such a part of his game that Doug Gibson, an Amerk hall of famer and current professional scout for the Montreal Canadians, said recently, “I’ve always thought he hit like a football player.”

“He can take the body, and he enjoys that part of the game,” Cunneyworth added.

But to say that Kaleta is “just a checker” would be doing his game an injustice. Mix together a little bit of Vaclav Varada, Esa Tikkanen and Matthew Barnaby, and Kaleta is what you get. He is on his game when he is getting others off theirs.

Take, for example, the two contests Rochester played against the Grand Rapids Griffins in late January. After laying out Griffins' forward Darryl Bootland with a clean check at center ice, and knocking Derrick Meech to the ice trying to beat out an icing call, the Griffins were incensed. On Friday night, rather than playing the game, they were more interested in hitting Kaleta. In fact, on the night Kaleta himself drew over 15 minutes in penalties.

“They were more worried about me,” Rochester's number 25 said. “When that happens it opens up space for my linemates and my teammates. If you give our team space we’ll take advantage.”

Sabres, Peca an influence

Kaleta’s parents, Tom and Sandy, got him started in hockey when he was about 5 years old in suburban Buffalo, and Kaleta grew up a Sabres fan. “24/7,” he said with a laugh about following the Sabres. “I never missed a game. I followed (Michael) Peca and (Patty) LaFontaine.”

Ever the fan of the Sabres, Kaleta looks at “Captain Crunch,” Michael Peca, as an influence on his game.

“He’s multi-dimensional,” Kaleta said of the current Toronto Maple Leaf. “He’s a true leader on and off the ice. He could score, get a big hit, and basically change a game.

“I’ve skated with him in the offseason, and I’ve picked up things from him even in pick-up hockey. He positions himself so well.”

So did he tell Peca that he admired him? “No,” the first-year pro said with a grin. “I minded my own business and just watched from afar.”

Kaleta has made his presence known around the AHL, and it’s something his teammates have noticed. “I’m definitely glad he’s on my team” said Clarke MacArthur. “He’s the type of guy that you hate to play against. He’s a flat-out warrior, if he gets in a scrap and gets a black eye he’s right back out there on the next shift.

“He single-handedly produces three to four power plays a night for us.”

In addition to his physicality, Kaleta has started to produce offensively in Rochester as well. In 33 games, Kaleta has scored one goal and added seven assists for eight points.

“I’m just trying to do what’s best for the team,” Kaleta said. "I’m starting to feel a bit more comfortable, and I’m doing everything I can to learn and better my game.”

'Sooner rather than later'

Kaleta spent two years playing for St. Francis High School's Prep hockey team in Athol Springs, a few minutes south of Buffalo. During his sophomore year at St. Francis, Kaleta wowed OHL scouts at the St. Andrew's MacPherson Tournament in Toronto. His career received a kickstart that season when the Peterborough Petes selected him with the 31st overall pick during the 2002 OHL Priority Selection draft.

Playing with the Petes, Kaleta amassed 460 minutes in penalties while chipping in with 147 points (61g, 86a).

“It was such an honor to play for a great team in a great city like Peterborough. Everything was amazing, and I was lucky to have such great billets, Jim and Marilyn Gibson.

“I wouldn’t change a thing.”

He also had the unique opportunity to play with number-one and number-two overall draft picks in Eric and Jordan Staal.

“It was tremendous to play with Eric. He is such a great player, and he treated me with so much respect in my first year. He’s a great all-around player.

“Jordan is a great kid, with a good head on his shoulders. He’s one of the reasons we won the OHL Championship last year.”

Kaleta looks to make it more than one person from that Petes team to make it to the NHL, and MacArthur doesn’t think it’s too far away.

“He has the talent to play, and he’ll be in the NHL sooner rather than later.”

Life lessons

Once Kaleta retires, there is a chance that he could get into another passion of his. Teaching.

“I just want to make a difference. If I can make a difference in one person’s life I’ll be happy. During the all-star break I went back home to Angola and went in with my Mom for half a day. She’s a special education teacher, and I taught some math, health and science.”

Perhaps teaching lessons off the ice can wait, because for now Kaleta is more focused on teaching the opposition a thing or two first.

By Stephen Sickles, LGS Columnist
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