Roth: Werner Kleemann proved a coach's love can make all the difference

 

by Leo Roth  Democrat and Chronicle  April 10, 2018

 

I was just a hockey dad playing the role of head hockey coach.

Trying to convince a team of squirts that an assist is just as good as a goal. That winning isn’t everything, but trying your best is.

We were pretty much a band of Bad News Bears that squirt major travel season at Rochester Youth Hockey. But two seasons later, the boys made the championship game of our league.

It was a fun ride, and making it so much more special was that Werner Kleemann came along for it.

Coach Kleemann’s funeral services were Tuesday.

He was 76 and fought a courageous battle against diabetes and leukemia the way he lived his life: Always seeing a silver lining in the clouds life delivered.

Like the fact his former players and students at Rush-Henrietta started a drive that resupplied the blood bank 10-fold in Rochester in his honor. Because he felt guilty getting transfusions when so many others were in need.

“He treated every kid like he was the starting quarterback,’’ Rick Page, his friend of 46 years, told me. “He was the most positive person I knew.’’

Imagine my delight when I learned that one of the players on our squirt team, Alex LaBombard, was the grandson of the legendary Section V football coach.

With East Rochester’s Don Quinn and Fairport’s Don Santini, Werner was part of the Mount Rushmore of Coaches I first met when I arrived in town 35 years ago to work for the Times-Union.

Reconnecting with Coach K was one of the great joys of my life.

He attended all our youth hockey games and would send emails to me filled with encouraging words. Werner had a sixth sense for sending notes to people just when they needed them most.

“Thank you from a grandfather that sees the results,’’ he would say.

As a coach, I made plenty of mistakes.

But I was smart enough to invite Werner to speak to our team before a game as our 2011-12 season wound down. I mean, how often is the Jimmy Stewart of coaches just outside your locker room door?

There sat a team of 10-year-olds at Lakeshore Hockey Arena, eyes fixed on a vibrant 71-year-old man who could’ve been the Zamboni driver for all they knew. But they were mesmerized.

“I saw you earlier in the year and quite frankly, it was ugly,’’ Werner told the kids, before telling them how terrific they were playing of late.

A great hockey fan thanks to watching his talented son, Brian, play and coach, Coach K talked about using the side boards “as a sixth player on the ice.’’

About being “down and ready’’ for the faceoff. How a “tic-tac-toe’’ play takes great teamwork.

Then he broke out Rudyard Kipling, reciting the most famous line from the poem “The Law for the Wolves.’’

For the strength of the pack is the wolf, and the strength of the wolf is the pack.

“Now what does that mean?” Coach K asked a bunch of kids who didn’t know what to think.

Then, as only he could do, he made it all make sense.

“The strength of the team is the player and the strength of the player is the team — if everybody is trying hard,’’ said Werner, explaining how it’s possible that a 90-pound wolf could bring down a 2,000-pound moose in order to eat and survive.

It’s called teamwork.

“We learn lessons from nature and that is, ‘Everybody on the team has a role,’ " Werner said. “Some people love to score, some get great assists. But you know what? Preventing a goal is just as important and that’s what I watch for. But more than anything else, I watch for effort.

“In my entire coaching career, football, lacrosse, wrestling, I used the following and you can figure this out: E equals R.

“E stands for ‘effort,’ R stands for ‘results.’ The bigger the E, the bigger the R. I didn’t say you had to win. Because when I go to a game, and I love to go, if the ‘E’ is there, the effort, and they are playing as hard as they can, I just feel good about it.’ "

Our players clapped at the end and wanted to charge through a brick wall.

They weren’t the first to have been moved by a Werner Kleemann pep talk.

I’m just thankful I had the good sense to record the speech on my cell phone.

 The wake of course was a Rolodex of memories for family, former players, students and colleagues.

The photo collages gave a glimpse of a life well lived, with family at the center. Grandpa’s big weathered hands in the grasp of a grandchild’s tiny fingers; fishing and hunting trips with the boys; walking daughters down the aisle; dancing with his wife Cheryl, the love of his life.

Everyone had a story of how Werner’s leadership helped shaped their lives. How old-school values were instilled. Many players have contacted me over the last few days. How every word he said resonates with them decades later.

Quinn and Santini were there, Mt. Rushmore reduced by one.

“Like Werner said, ‘You don’t get rich coaching, you don’t get rich teaching, but you get rich every other way,’’ Quinn said. “Werner was just a real gentleman, a great coach and the kids loved him. We all liked to win but the most important thing was making the players good people.’’

Like Corny Southall, one of R-H’s most famous alumni, shown in a photo with Werner and Notre Dame’s Gerry Faust on the day he signed with the Irish.

Southall has been with the Secret Service 28 years. He flew in for the services. No assignment could be more important.

“Regardless of the talent or what a player’s future would be, he treated everyone the same,’’ Southall said. “He was just a wonderful man. We all loved him dearly.’’

I asked Werner once, why teaching and coaching?

“Because of the love of my coach,’’ he said.

That was Ron Lindemann at Hastings-on-Hudson High.

Werner was the son of German immigrants whose parents, Alex and Louise, were sent to America to escape Hitler Youth rallies as World War II approached.

The Kleemanns worked 12-hour days in their bakery to make a good life for Werner and his sister, but life was not easy.

“There were people up the street who lost a son in the war and I got picked on in elementary school,’’ Werner said. “I was called a ‘Little Nazi’ and all that business.’’

It was Lindemann who instilled confidence and a sense of belonging in him.

And when the high school guidance counselor told Werner, “You can’t bark up the front stairs of a college’’ and his mother cried, it was Lindemann who made a phone call to Springfield College, his alma mater, and told the people there “I have a good kid that can do it.’’

Werner would visit his high school coach on Cape Cod during summers and after Coach Lindemann died in 1970, he’d stop as his gravesite in Brewster, Massachusetts, to pay his respects.

Werner Kleemann was laid to rest at Maplewood Cemetery.

RIP Coach. E equals R.