Patrick Kaleta’s dream of returning to the NHL remains strong. The upcoming birth of a son has also made leaving hockey behind a potential reality.
Kaleta, the 30-year-old Angola native who spent parts of nine seasons with Buffalo, is skating with former Sabres teammates with the goal of playing his first NHL game since April 2015. While most of his companions are assured of attending training camp this month, Kaleta is an unrestricted free agent looking for a team.
“Hopefully, I get a chance to play in the NHL,” he said in HarborCenter. “I definitely don’t think I’m washed up yet.”
Kaleta, whose rugged style has led to countless injuries through the years, is healthy and maintains he’s stronger than ever. The 6-foot-1 winger has added 12 pounds to get to 210, and he says he set personal records in upper- and lower-body workouts.
“Just walking around, you can see the extra weight that I have, and it’s good weight,” Kaleta said. “With the strength I have in my legs now with everything being healthy, just the weight alone is going to be beneficial for me.”
He smiled and added, “If I don’t play hockey, at least I look healthy.”
Life without hockey was once unthinkable for the guy who’s immersed himself in the sport and the Sabres since Michael Peca was throwing body checks in Memorial Auditorium. However, demand isn’t high for veterans with checkered on-ice backgrounds who spent all of last season in the minors. Plus, another new phase in his life is coming. He and wife Ashley, who were married in July 2015, are preparing for the arrival of a boy in January.
“My body and that aspect of my life could have an impact on what I do and what I don’t do,” Kaleta said. “As of right now, I value my body with being able to throw a baseball and crawl around with a child rather than doing what I’ve had to do for the past 10 years – in certain opportunities. In other opportunities, I’d be the same person. I’d block shots with my face. I’d do whatever it takes.”
In other words, Kaleta has no desire to chase pucks into corners in small towns or European locales, but he’ll do anything an NHL team asks. In an effort to hook on with an organization, Kaleta has left his longtime agent and signed with Newport Sports Management, the hockey powerhouse that represents stars such as Steven Stamkos, Drew Doughty and Ryan O’Reilly.
“I needed to try something a little bit different here and shake it up and see if it works,” Kaleta said. “I’m just sitting patiently and just trying to become better every day.”
He attended Sabres training camp last fall on a tryout with a minor-league contract. A groin injury short-circuited his attempt to make the big club, and things got worse when he reported to Rochester. He wasn’t healthy until December, and an overflow of veterans limited him to just 26 games. He had one goal, three points and 33 penalty minutes while earning the Amerks’ “Man of the Year” honor for his off-ice community work.
“I definitely think I could have played in the NHL, and the way things shook out last year was … I’ll just say not good,” he said. “I didn’t really get an opportunity. I just sat there.
“It’s over and done with. I can’t change the past. My job is to focus on the future and be ready for an opportunity.”
Kaleta is far from alone in waiting for a chance. Other veterans who are looking for contracts or agreeing to tryouts include Kris Versteeg, Alex Tanguay, Stephen Gionta, Brandon Prust and Brad Boyes. Kaleta acknowledges it can be draining to put in extra work without knowing if it will pay off with an NHL opportunity.
“I come in the rink every day and work my tail off and try to do my best to help the younger guys and try to set a good example and try to show that it’s fun to work out, especially if they’re going to give up their summers to be in Buffalo,” he said before likening himself to a “Seinfeld” character who had an unpleasant work environment. “I also feel like George Costanza a little bit where I just keep coming into the place that doesn’t want me, so that’s a little disheartening sometimes. Sometimes if I slip away and start thinking about that, I’ve just got to zone in and focus on what the task is at hand.
“Hopefully, something good will come. If not, then I’ll have to look for a job elsewhere in the world and do something I’ll love hopefully just as much as hockey.”