16 November 2020
First ever KHL servicewoman talks to khl.ru
Steph Klein has been obsessed with hockey equipment since childhood. Her main motivation for playing in net was the influx of gear she’d get to admire, from color-coordinated pads to custom masks that double as works of art. One object of obsession growing up was Alexei Kovalev’s AK-27 Warrior stick. The irony is that Steph Klein debuted as the KHL’s first female equipment manager on Thursday night, for none other than Alexei Kovalev’s Kunlun Red Star.
“As an equipment person, if you don't get noticed, it's a good day,” Klein told me from Mytishchi, where the Dragons have returned home between road trips. But in her case, this is not strictly true. While sharpening skates and swapping sticks, Klein was also smashing a glass ceiling in Nizhny Novgorod—an accomplishment that earned attention and praise worldwide.
A Toronto native who began her career in college as a manager for Wilfred Laurier’s men’s and women’s teams, Klein was offered an opportunity to relocate to China in 2017. Digit Murphy, then head of the Kunlun Red Star women’s program, was preparing to launch two CWHL teams, and had spotted Klein at a men’s exposure camp in Toronto. Eventually the pair of teams merged into one—the KRS Shenzhen Vanke Rays—and the franchise has continued to boast some of the world’s best hockey talent, from Alex Carpenter to Noora Räty.
After the CWHL folded, Klein supported the team in their move to Russia’s WHL last season, which resulted in a championship title. She remains their backbone in Stupino, the Vanke Rays’ temporary Russian home, and was called to the men’s side when equipment manager Dmitry Safonov tested positive for COVID-19. Klein’s professionalism has already impressed Kunlun’s coaching staff, including the legendary Slava Kozlov, who has repeatedly complimented her ability “to keep the team in line.” I caught up with the KHL’s newest headline-maker to discuss everything from her beginnings in hockey to her groundbreaking debut—not to mention a few weird requests she’s fielded through the years.
Where did your obsession with hockey equipment begin?
My mom worked at the Air Canada Centre forever, so I would go to work with her and hang out there. That probably sparked it a little. She was a hostess in one of the platinum suites, and her suite was right beside the Leafs’ bench and tunnel. I became obsessed. I’ve just always loved equipment.
When I was playing as a kid, that was part of the reason why I wanted to switch to goaltending. I loved all of the equipment, but I was obsessed with goalie pads, helmets. Funnily enough, I was obsessed with player sticks too. I always loved, ironically, Alexei Kovalev’s AK-27 Warrior stick. That was my jam. So I think that is probably how it started.
I always wanted to be a part of a team, no matter what. That's why I was a pretty good third goalie, because I just always wanted to be part of the team. As I got older, I knew that if I couldn't do it on the ice, I wanted to do it in the dressing room or to help the girls out, stuff like that. I started a hockey website with a couple of people in Canada, and I think people still use it for finding stick codes and decoding hockey sticks, things like that. All I did was literally go to hockey practice, go on my computer and talk about hockey equipment. I was a hockey nerd.
You’ve transitioned back and forth between men’s and women’s hockey at all levels. When did your first gig with a men’s team materialize?
My college women's coach, Rick Osborne—he’s awesome. He's been around hockey forever. I was working with our women's team doing equipment stuff with him. We shared a rink with the men’s team, and their head coach saw what I was doing over there. He reached out to ask if I would be interested in helping the guys a couple of times. Slowly it turned into me doing both, but I was still full-time with the women’s team. I split my duties between the two, so it was busy, but super fun. My women’s team head coach made the connection for me.
Were there any early moments of awkwardness as the lone female in a men’s team locker room?
It’s kind of funny, actually. I feel like this is always what people think, but from working with the guys in college, I've never had a more inviting group than them. Whether I go to a different men's team to help out or whatever it may be, the guys know when someone knows what they're doing. And for me, it's just about bringing a level of professionalism. If they don't care that I'm in there, then I don't care either. They know I'm here to do a job, and they know that job entails going into the dressing room. The hockey world is small, and guys talk. When you ask one of your buddies, “Oh, how is she?" It snowballs into, "No, Kleiner is great. She knows what she's doing. You guys will love her." And then everyone kind of relaxes from there.
How much does your job change when working with men versus women?
The job I’m doing is the same thing for both sides. And that's as it should be, really. The guys are definitely more high maintenance, for sure. Everyone's crazy about their skates and sticks, and they're not afraid to ask you for anything. Girls are a little more self-sufficient, if you will. No offense to the guys! But they definitely get spoiled throughout careers, either playing junior hockey or pro.
How did you wind up as an equipment manager in China?
I was actually doing the men's exposure camp in Toronto back when Mike Keenan was the head coach of Kunlun Red Star. They were doing a women's camp on the other sheet of ice. Jeff Potter, the guy who brought me in, said that the women’s coach wanted to talk to me because they were starting a team. So I sat down with Digit Murphy, and I didn’t know this at the time, but I was essentially interviewing to go to China and work for the two women’s teams that would compete in the CWHL [both teams consolidated into the KRS Shenzhen Vanke Rays, who now play in Russia’s WHL]. That's how I ended up over in China.
Do you feel that any elements of your job go under-appreciated?
Hockey players at this level, they know what you do. I mean, sticking my hands into skates if something needs to be fixed is pretty gross! [Laughs] But no, I mean, I think the guys and girls know and appreciate everything that equipment managers and staff in general do. A good day is if you're not noticed. If they come in and can be able to just focus on hockey, we've done our jobs for the day.
You had a motto written on the wall of the Vanke Rays’ locker room in Ufa: "Details of discipline, discipline of details.” Where did that come from? It seems to summarize you in a nutshell.
Honestly, I think I heard it on a podcast. I don't know what it was from, but it just kind of stuck. I had it saved in my phone because I knew we were going to be making locker room signs. Claire and Nikolay gave me that opportunity when we went to Ufa, which was the Vanke Rays’ home rink for the WHL Finals last year.
When I shadowed you at the Finals, one of the most interesting things I watched you navigate was how to prepare for a potential championship victory celebration without jinxing it.
I was lucky at Laurier [University]. We won a couple of UA Championships, so at least I can say I was well-prepared. Rick had me ready for that. My whole staff pitched in to make a plan for it, but we had to keep it away from the players. We had to make sure we had a time set for doing pictures, and obviously you still have to wash all of the equipment or all of the jerseys and dry them. We thought first about plastic sheets to cover the locker room. Usually a staff member leaves and does that in the third period if it looks like a team is going to win, but with such a small staff in comparison to a men’s team, the plastic did not go up. Everything got soaked! The girls mostly stayed in their gear too, which didn’t help. My strength and video coaches smuggled beer and champagne into the rink because we didn’t know if we were allowed to have it there. We put it into hockey bags and hid it in the equipment room. We were like, “Win or lose—we’ll be drinking it!"
Who on Kunlun Red Star is the most superstitious?
This was my first game on the bench with Sam Lofquist, who’s a super nice guy. I constantly switched sticks with him. He'd be like, "Hey, I'll grab my other stick." So I give him his stick and go to put his other one back, and he was like, "Oh, just leave it out. I'll switch again." And then we'd switch, and then he'd come off, and whatever would happen, he’d be like, “Okay, yeah, I'll switch.” In the third period, I thought we had scored. Murphy shot it from the point, and it got deflected. It ended up being called a high-stick. But when we scored, he was like, "Okay, yeah, we'll switch." So we switched. And then the goal got called off, and he was like, "Yep, we're switching back."
What’s the weirdest request you've ever gotten at any point in your career?
I had one guy in college who made me give him one jelly bean. Just one. In between periods, sometimes you get tired and eat sweets. He asked me for one jelly bean, and we were going into overtime. I had candy in my office. We ended up winning the game, and then every game that we won after that, I had to give him one jelly bean.
I had another guy who would only wear baby blue and white Under Armour socks. Those were the only socks he ever wore, but he had twenty pairs of them. I would drive to Mississauga, which is an hour away, to go pick up these socks for this guy. I always think that nothing is out of the realm of possibility, so I don't really consider anything too weird.
That’s generous of you. Did you get to celebrate or mark your KHL debut in any way?
It was tough because we lost that night, and we had lost the last one pretty badly. We were packing up to leave too, so you want to get out of there as fast as you can. Before the game, pretty much all of the guys came up to me and were like, "Wow, that's awesome. It's pretty cool you're doing it with us as well. We're glad we got to be a part of it.”
After the game, [David] Bondra came up to me and gave me the game sheet, which was pretty special. I wasn't expecting it at all. He was like, "Sorry we couldn't get the win, but I hope this helps to commemorate your moment."
When did the gravity of your achievement—the first female equipment manager ever in the KHL—really sink in?
As an equipment person, like I said before, if you don't get noticed, it's a good day. But I think I still haven't fully taken it in. I mean, I don't know. Maybe it was when I looked at my phone after and didn’t know what to do with all of the messages! It was really great to hear from a lot of people across so many timezones. I appreciated that a lot. I just hope it continues to happen, and stuff like this doesn't have to be a big deal anymore.