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Kaleta looks to stay in the game

Patrick Kaleta will enter a new phase in his life this weekend when he marries Ashley Cook in Hamburg, a sign he’s settling down. It’s easier to envision him hauling up the aisle at 100 mph, checking his co-best man and brother Chris into the altar and coming away with the wedding ring.

Say what you will about Kaleta, but he has always been loyal to the people who supported him most. The money and fame – and a certain degree of infamy – that came with growing up in the Buffalo area and playing his rough-and-tumble style for the Sabres never affected him away from the ice.

He lived in the Southtowns, near his parents, while most teammates remained in the Northtowns. His inner circle mostly includes his friends from elementary school. He and Josh Rammacher, for example, have been buddies since kindergarten. His wedding party is decorated with guys with no connection to the NHL.

“It’s always good to have friends like that who are true friends,” Kaleta said Tuesday after his morning workout, “because they’re friends with who you are.”

Kaleta remained true to himself and his team from the beginning. In 2007, when he was promoted to the Sabres, he shared a bedroom with his brother in his parents’ home rather than stay in a hotel. He was 20 years old, and they were still arguing over video games and family chores.

Let’s roll back the clocks.

Kaleta made his debut in Buffalo when the post-lockout rivalry between the Sabres and Senators reached its peak. Chris Neil dropped Chris Drury with a blindside hit. The ensuing melee involved a dozen players and included Martin Biron getting ejected after squaring off with amateur boxer-turned-goalie Ray Emery.

Kaleta was issued a misconduct. He recorded his first NHL point moments after getting out of the penalty box, an assist after he set up Clarke MacArthur for his first NHL goal. The Sabres won the game, 6-5. Afterward, Kaleta was smiling ear-to-ear for contributing to a win while fulfilling a boyhood dream.

He never lost his appreciation for the game or took his opportunity for granted. You would be hard-pressed to find anyone in Sabres’ history who was more proud to pull his sweater over his head than Kaleta was over eight-plus seasons. He poured his heart and soul into the Sabres and spilled his share of blood along the way.

Injuries limited him to 47 games the past two years. He had his face rearranged by a slap shot that required three plates and 16 screws. Complications from one knee surgery led him to another. He had numerous hand surgeries after blocking shots. He made Humpty Dumpty look like a picture of health.

He played as fast and as hard as he could because it was the only way he knew. It was for the Sabres, certainly, but it also was for you.

“It means everything in the world to me,” he said. “People have seen that I’d give up my body, not only for the Sabres’ emblem, but for my teammates and the fans that are a part of the Buffalo Sabres. I would do anything for them. I sacrificed my body for my team, and I would do it all over again. I wouldn’t change a thing.”

Kaleta is facing the possibility that the season finale against Pittsburgh was his last game for the Sabres. Three weeks have passed since free agency opened, and he’s still looking for work. He’s hoping to re-sign with the Sabres, but sports can be cold and unsentimental. The club could be going in a different direction.

It’s not totally shocking that teams haven’t lined up for Kaleta given his reputation in the league office. Buffalo fans see energy, but others see dirty. Add his injuries, and teams are reluctant to sign him. He celebrated his 29th birthday last month. Perhaps general managers fear his body is worn down and not worth the risk.

“It’s a waiting game,” Kaleta said. “Hopefully, I’ll be able to show that the new flavor isn’t always the best flavor. Look at Mike Grier. You realize how much you miss him, and then you want him back.”

See, there’s always a different view.

Kaleta’s reputation was born, in part, from following orders. The Sabres wanted him playing as hard and aggressive as possible. He exceeded their demands. Yes, he crossed the line at times. Yes, certain suspensions were warranted. But if the Sabres asked, he would have performed backflips off the Skyway.

And he would do the same for any team. He was plenty capable of playing a different way. After he made his mark in the league, the Sabres requested more production from him in 2009-10. He responded with 10 goals, including four game-winners and two shorthanded tallies.

He always was a good skater. His problem was refusing to slow down, which contributed to bigger hits and more trouble. People forget that he was once an effective penalty killer and forechecker. Too often, casual hockey observers overlooked his talent when suspensions and injuries piled up.

OK, he’s not the most popular guy in the league. The people around here know better. The Sabres loved having him because he’s miserable to play against. You couldn’t find a teammate who ever complained about him, and he never said a negative word about anyone else. Money was the least of his priorities.

If he worried more about his paycheck than his teammates and the organization, he would have done a better job of protecting his body. If anything, he erred on the side of recklessness. How many others in professional sports can be blamed for failing to harness their passion? Not nearly enough.

Finally, he’s back to full health. Kaleta has had no recurring problems with his knee after a bone chip was discovered last season following surgery for a torn ACL. He discovered strength that he didn’t know he had. The time away forced him to re-evaluate his style and pushed him to rediscover what carried him into the NHL in the first place.

Nobody stays in the league by playing dirty. Kaleta was always a high-energy, aggressive and selfless player who straddled the rules of engagement. He cared more about his job than the perception of his game. That’s not about to change. Redefine his role, and he’ll redefine his game.

It’s hard to fathom Kaleta not finding a team. Perhaps somebody will invite him to training camp for a closer look at his progress. Would he sign a two-way deal to show in the AHL that he’s willing to alter his style and become more productive? I’m not sure. But he appears to have several years left in his career.

At the very least, if he doesn’t get signed, if this really is the end, Kaleta can walk away from the game with a clear conscience. He gave everything he had and skated into the real world the same person. Then again, he never really did lose sight of his roots in the first place. It’s one reason you want him at your side.

It means Ashley Cook is a lucky woman.

“In my career, I’ve surpassed any and everyone’s expectations,” Kaleta said. “I’ve played nine years in the NHL and been part of the Sabres’ organization for 11 or 12. I have plenty left in the tank based on how I feel. When it’s all said and done, if I have to have a job like everyone else has a job, that’s fine. I’ll provide for my family however I can, give back to the community and move onto the next part of my life.”

email: bgleason@buffnews.com

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