The sports world is one where athletes and coaches tend to move around. Yet sometimes a change of teams is one that takes time to get used to, particularly if an individual has been in one place for a long time.
Whether it is Ron Lancaster showing up on the sidelines of the Edmonton Eskimos, Wayne Gretzky taking the ice for the first time with the LA Kings, LeBron James making his “decisions” to leave for Miami or the LA Lakers, moving from a longtime team or community can be jarring for fans and also for the individuals making the moves.
It is certainly true for Brayden Klimosko, who was introduced in June as the new head coach and general manager of the Battlefords North Stars.
If you check into his DNA a little further, you’ll find the colours green and yellow run deep in his veins.
As hockey fans throughout Saskatchewan and Canada know, those distinct colours belong to the Humboldt Broncos.
For almost all his life, the Broncos were Klimosko’s team. Not only was he a player and an assistant coach with the Broncos in the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League, he was also born in and grew up in that community east of Saskatoon.
The fact that he now wears the silver and black of the Battlefords North Stars is something Klimosko himself is still getting used to.
“It’s been awkward at times, to be honest,” said Klimosko.
“Honestly, it really hasn’t sunk in yet. I think it might take me to that first game to be on that opposite bench where you’re standing to say, ‘Wow! I’m here, I’m a Star now.’ And I’m proud to be one.”
It was a hockey journey that began in one of the most passionate hockey communities you will find anywhere. Growing up, Klimosko was well aware of the omnipresence of the SJHL within his home community.
His family had season tickets and went to the Broncos games, and had even billeted some of the Broncos players. His dad, Tim, was actively involved in hockey in the Humboldt community, eventually serving as assistant coach for the Broncos.
“It was the team we grew up cheering for,” said Klimosko. “Just to be part of that experience was awesome.”
Klimosko says being so immersed in hockey was what motivated him to get involved as a player. Mainly, he played simply out of his enjoyment of the game.
“Dad built me an outdoor rink at home, and [I] just really got into it that way. You know, it was something your friends did, and you wanted to do it, too.”
Klimosko spent his early hockey journey immersed in Humboldt’s minor hockey system. He learned early on he “wasn’t a goaltender, I hated the position,” so he played forward, for the most part.
Eventually, he played midget hockey with the Humboldt AA Midget Broncos.
That squad, Klimosko says, was made up of a group of guys who didn’t want to leave town to play midget hockey. They wanted to stay home to try to win something for Humboldt, which they did.
In 2005, that midget Broncos team went undefeated and won the provincial title. It was the most dominating team Klimosko was ever part of.
The players on that team were a tight-knit group, and Klimosko says many of them played for the Humboldt Broncos in the SJHL.
Klimosko got to be one of them. When he was ready to move to the junior ranks, the Broncos selected him to play for them.
What seemed like a pipe dream of playing for the local Junior A team became a reality for Klimosko.
“Was it a goal of mine to make the Broncos? It probably was, but I never really thought I was going to at that point,” said Klimosko.
“I never thought too far ahead. I just enjoyed the game more than anything.”
Brayden Klimosko played for the Broncos for three years. He has good memories of his playing days, and of the contests against their rivals the Battlefords North Stars.
Klimosko remembers one memorable scrap he had with North Stars player Mitch Woods around 2007.
“He was an intense guy,” said Klimosko. “He was one of the top guys in our league, not only scoring, but would fight if he needed to.
Klimosko described himself as a “meat and potatoes guy” on the team. He scored a few goals, but the assists outnumbered the goals by a considerable amount.
“My job was to get the guys the puck, and they scored,” Klimosko. “Yeah, I had some good years for sure.”
2008 RBC Cup
The high point for Klimosko’s junior career came at the very end, when the Broncos won the RBC Cup in 2008.
Having that experience is something Klimosko has often been asked about by the players he’s coached.
“Obviously, they want to know, they want to win it too. So they want to know what it took to get to that level.”
It could not have been a better ending to Klimosko’s junior hockey playing days. Often, college hockey is the next step for Junior A players.
Klimosko went a different direction, joining the Saskatoon Hilltops where he played junior football for two years.
He also played football in high school.
“I probably was a better football player than I was a hockey player,” said Klimosko.
This brings up obvious comparisons to another two-sport athlete, Bo Jackson, who played both football and baseball at the major league level at the same time. But Klimosko admits Jackson was better at it than he was.
“Not quite like Bo. Bo was something special,” he said.
One might assume Klimosko would have added another title to his resumé by playing for the Hilltops, but somewhat surprisingly, his time there coincided with the rare times when the Hilltops didn’t win the title.
Klimosko enjoyed playing football, but realized it couldn’t go on forever.
“You wish you could play when you’re older, but … your body can’t take it, either.”
So Klimosko returned to junior hockey and the Humboldt Broncos, where he began his climb up the coaching ranks in the SJHL.
He started as an assistant coach/assistant general manager under the legendary Dean Brockman, who had also coached him during his playing days there.
After Brockman left for the WHL’s Saskatoon Blades, Klimosko stayed on under new coach Ryan Smith.
Klimosko ultimately served under three different head coaches in Humboldt, and while those comings and goings could get frustrating, it was a learning experience.
“I learned lots from all of my coaches,” said Klimosko. “I think that’s the one thing you learn from all your coaches is no one knows everything. You’ve just got to be a learner and a guy who’s willing to adapt all the time, because the game is changing all the time.”
In his last two years in Humboldt, Klimosko was assistant coach to the late Darcy Haugan. He got to see first-hand how Haugan developed as a head coach.
“He probably started off a little slow, but the ways he improved and got a little bit better every day, it was actually pretty cool to see how he’s transformed into a great coach.”
Haugan was also a great person, Klimosko said.
“He would do anything for you. I know the first time I met him, he worked in Kal Tire in Peace River, and, as a gift to me, he bought me winter tires, for all the work I’ve done and everything. He’s just a generous guy all the time and that’s what you’ll remember most is his generosity and how nice he was as a person.”
The years as an assistant coach in Humboldt were good ones for Klimosko. “I can’t say enough good things about the town and how I was treated there and everything.”
Hasselberg a Mentor
Nevertheless, by 2017, Klimosko decided he “wanted another experience outside of Humboldt, just to spread my wings a little bit and see what the whole coaching aspect is outside of Humboldt, Saskatchewan.”
Klimosko’s decision to accept an assistant coaching job with the Drumheller Dragons proved a fateful one for all kinds of reasons, although he did not know it at the time.
A big motivation for him to go to the Dragons was he knew of head coach, Kevin Hasselberg, from his years in the SJHL coaching the Battlefords North Stars.
His description of Hasselberg is one Battlefords fans will instantly recognize.
“He was a very intense guy, a very intense individual and his style reflects that,” said Klimosko. “He’s a very detailed coach, he wants to do anything for his players.”
He also got to see first-hand how Hasselberg built a hockey team.
“I got to learn from one of the best in my opinion,” said Klimosko.
In Drumheller, Klimosko experienced life in the Alberta Junior Hockey League. While it was a Junior A league like the SJHL, he noticed distinct differences.
“The big thing is there’s a lot of younger players that play in that league,” said Klimosko. He noticed a more skilled level of play there as well.
The Alberta league had “more of that flash, and it’s kind of what the province is almost about, while Saskatchewan likes those hard, mean players that work hard and are very honest. That goes to show you on the ice, for sure.”
Klimosko still had his house and family connections in Humboldt during his year coaching with the Dragons in 2017-18, so he did not lose touch with his home community through his year in the AJHL.
It was back in Drumheller where Klimosko received the news about the horrific crash involving the Humboldt Broncos.
“We were actually at spring camp in Drumheller at the time, and I got a phone call from my old radio guy.” He asked if Klimosko was sitting down and once he was the news was delivered.
That night was a long one, said Klimosko, wondering how the guys were doing. Information was slow to trickle out in those first hours.
“Your mind was racing, right? And obviously, it’s been tough for the community and the families.”
In the end, 16 people on the Broncos bus lost their lives, including coach Haugen.
The tragedy had a deep impact on Klimosko. He had personally known about half the players on the roster from his time with the Broncos, and he attended the memorial services that followed.
“Yeah, it was tough, obviously, knowing some of them. Even if you didn’t know, I think, it hit home for everyone, because everyone either knows someone or has been part of a team where you’re travelling on a bus. So it’s a close connection that way in the hockey community, or any other community.”
Almost a Missed Opportunity
The days following that April 6 tragedy prompted Klimosko to question whether he even wanted to coach this coming season.
“I wasn’t sure if my heart was in it,” said Klimosko. “It took me a little bit to reset and recoup from everything that happened.”
Klimosko said he almost missed out on the North Stars head coaching opportunity, which came up soon after the Broncos tragedy happened.
“I put my name in a bit late, and I wasn’t sure if they were already through the process of hiring someone,” said Klimosko.
Just in the nick of time, Klimosko had realized the opportunity in the Battlefords was simply too good to pass up. He got the job.
“Everything about it attracted me. It’s close to home, one of the top teams in the SJHL, they have great fans, they have great support. Everything about it, it’s just a great opportunity I’m stepping into.”
Klimosko voiced his great respect for the fan base in the Battlefords.
“They love their hockey, they love winning,” he said. “They’re smart fans, you know, they’re educated and they know what’s going on.”
Since landing the head coach/GM position, Klimosko has been settling in to life in his new community. He has been living in the basement of former coach Hasselberg’s house, which Hasselberg still owns in the Battlefords.
It has been a hectic time for Klimosko in the days since he was introduced as head coach, as he has been busy planning for the season ahead and putting a staff together. The new head coach has high expectations for the coming season.
“Every year you’re trying to contend, and I don’t see this year being any different,” said Klimosko.
“We should be right up there. I have no doubt in my mind that we should be right in the mix, that’s for sure.”
Klimosko is excited to be back in the SJHL. Even though he is a North Star now and settling into life in his new community, he knows his connections to Humboldt will always be a part of him.
No doubt, that connection is extra reason for hockey fans to circle the calendar for those games between the North Stars and the Broncos this coming season.
“I’ve already got ‘em circled, both at home and away,” said Klimosko. “Everything about it will be kind of cool.”