By Matt Mackinder, Colorado Rubber Magazine
Casey Kleisinger grew up playing hockey in Colorado, but, like many teenagers, had to leave the state to play junior hockey.
The Edwards native is now back home after being gone three years and is starting his sophomore year at the United States Air Force Academy, a Division I school in the Atlantic Hockey Association (AHA).
Kleisinger admits he rarely thought about joining the military, but when the opportunity presented itself to play for the Falcons, it all made perfect sense.
“It was definitely a lot different than what I was used to playing juniors,” said Kleisinger, who played the 2007-08 season for the Dubuque (Iowa) Thunderbirds of the North American 3 Hockey League (then known as the Central States Hockey League) and the following two years for the Bismarck (N.D.) Bobcats of the North American Hockey League (NAHL).
“I was excited to make the jump to D-I, but balancing school, the military and hockey wasn’t what I expected at first,” he said. “Once I adjusted, though, I knew I made the right choice coming here.”
Last year, Kleisinger, a 22-year-old forward, tallied five goals among 13 points and was the third-leading freshman scorer on the squad.
“We had a strong freshman class and we all saw a good amount of ice time,” Kleisinger said. “My role was to be a defensive forward, a guy who plays the penalty kill and blocks shots and I think I played my role well.
“This year, I want to move up the chain a bit, but if I’m back in the same role, I’m okay with that. I’ll do whatever I need to do to make this team better.”
In his final season in Bismarck, Kleisinger was part of the Bobcats’ Robertson Cup championship team, which represents the NAHL’s playoff champion and USA Hockey’s Tier II Junior A national champion. Air Force also won the Atlantic Hockey championship last spring and has won four of the last five AHA titles.
Needless to say, Kleisinger has tasted success and wants more. Getting to this point in his career wasn’t easy, he said, but has made him reflect on the sacrifices he and his family have made over the years.
“I haven’t really taken the easiest road, but I think it’s made me better knowing that I was never given or handed anything,” said the 5-foot-10, 170-pound Kleisinger. “All my coaches I had growing up - especially in juniors - were very big on fundamentals.
“My dad always told me that a player may not be the best on a team, but the ones that work the hardest are the best for the team. I’ve always tried to be the hardest-working player and listened to what my dad told me.”
Kleisinger’s father, Terry, is a volunteer assistant coach at Colorado College, a school that also recruited Casey. When it came down to picking his college, the younger Kleisinger looked at all options and scenarios.
“I’ll be honest when I say that Air Force wasn’t at the top of my list,” said Kleisinger. “Then, the more I looked into it, I saw all of the benefits: a free job after I graduate and the prestige the academy holds. I was actually offered a spot by CC, but, with my dad there, I didn’t want any type of conflicts where other players might think I made the team just because of my dad.”
The Falcons will once again have a bull’s-eye on their backs, but Kleisinger said he’s fine with that and wants to help mentor the freshmen as they learn the ropes this year.
“I was there once and know what they’re going through,” Kleisinger said. “The more you learn how to balance everything, the happier you’ll be and that should amount to success on the ice, too.”