A year before Kevan Miller’s July 14 announcement of his retirement from professional hockey, former Boston Bruins defenseman Gord Kluzak was watching from afar as Miller rehabbed the second crack in his kneecap and all the while reliving his own ordeal from three decades ago.
A string of left-knee injuries and complicated rehab efforts had plagued Kluzak’s sometimes-stellar career throughout the 1980s, costing him full seasons at a time. A rookie in the fall in 1982, Kluzak’s only full season as a veteran player was in 1987-88 when he played a key role in helping the Bruins end a 45-year playoff hex against Montreal. When the Boston Bruins hosted NHL All-Star Weekend in the inaugural season of the FleetCenter (1995-96), ex-North Stars and ex-Canadiens centerman Bobby Smith appeared at a public-skating event at Matthews Arena so yours truly couldn’t resist the opportunity to skate with Smith and engage him about the brutal ’80s rivalry between Boston and Montreal.
“A big reason why we lost in ’88 was Kluzak played so well we couldn’t defend (Ray) Bourque,” said Smith.
Kluzak went 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds as a left-shot defenseman, but his ability to dance laterally with the puck on a string forced the Canadiens to respect his ability at the left point. The result was Bourque could take chances and rove, move to the slot, and be ready to fire a one-timer at Patrick Roy.
It was a treat to see Kluzak realize his potential, even for a brief period of history-making. By 1988, the big defenseman, unfortunately, had little left in his left knee, and after totaling 11 games over the next two campaigns he was only two games into the 1990-91 season when the Boston Bruins were celebrating a victory over the Rangers at Madison Square Garden, but he was oddly subdued. He knew it was over.
“We won the game in OT I believe and I was named the second star of the game. I sat down in the locker room after the game and (realized), ‘I’m not going to be able to walk someday if I keep this up,'” Kluzak recalled. “I knew that I had given it everything I possibly can and as much of a risk as it was becoming to the rest of my life. I knew I could be comforted by that.”
Amidst such an emotionally, mentally, and physically painful decision, comfort is hard to find. Miller’s values and perspective — he was the Bruins’ player liaison to veterans — will no doubt help. Needing assistance to leave the ice after his final NHL shift, not because of his knee but a concussion dealt him by Washington defenseman Dmitri Orlov, was ironic. Minus Miller, when Carlo went out of the Islanders series on the Cal Clutterbuck hit, the Bruins were too severely compromised on their right side to survive inherent defensive weakness on their left side.
Miller’s presence would have also come in handy against the rugged St. Louis Blues in 2019. Similarly, without Kluzak as a left-side stopper, the nimble, quick, and skilled 1989-90 Boston Bruins blue line could not match up against an Edmonton team they had considered beatable, unlike that Wayne Gretzky-led machine that swept Boston two years earlier. One thing hockey coaches tend to figure out before their bosses are that it doesn’t matter how much talent a team has upfront if it cannot defend. And it doesn’t matter how well a defense moves the puck if it cannot survive the beating levied by a heavier opponent over a seven-game series.
The Miller injury was somewhat flukey, as he carried the puck into the Caps’ zone during Game 4 and Orlov cut over Scott Stevens style and finished high. Carlo has been repeatedly victimized by the “I had a clean shot so I had to take it” constitution that permeates the playoffs. If there is one skill the rangy defenseman had better learn in a hurry, it’s how to avoid vulnerable positions during board battles. That is a subject for another day, but the cause of Miller’s retirement may have a lot more in common with Kluzak’s plight, something the latter and I discussed over the phone in June 2020.
Beyond a great relationship with the City of Boston, thanks to an inspirational decade of professional hockey unfortunately plagued and eventually ended by a complex knee injury, Kluzak’s and Miller’s career paths have little in common. A rugged defenseman whose opportunities were built more on determination than pedigree, Miller reached the NHL at age 26. Kluzak’s career ended at 26. The right-shooting Miller was a true Californian blooming late at the University of Vermont and giving pro hockey a shot; the left-shooting Kluzak was the first overall pick in the 1982 NHL draft. Their similarities only started on the ice, where Bobby Orr himself had taught us a half-century ago that hockey does not discriminate against knees.
Miller was at a great place in his career when a cracked kneecap was cracked again during rehab on a perpendicular axis. He missed 67 games in the 2018-19 season, including all 24 playoff games, and then the entire 2019-20 season. Despite being re-signed in 2020 to a one-year contract, Miller was widely written off as Charlie McAvoy, Carlo, and Connor Clifton emerged as the future of the franchise at the former’s right-side defense position. Then the 2021 season began, and it seemed as though Miller hadn’t missed a beat. Despite the injuries, Miller brought the same spark if not the same speed and the same leadership and edge that the sport’s tougher players find so difficult to recapture after lengthy absences from the competitive environment. The Boston Bruins started the season 10-3-2 with Miller in the lineup and went 8-6-3 in his first 15 games out.
The 2021 season’s jammed-packed 56-game schedule only intensified the need for maintenance days. Throughout the ’80s, Kluzak’s pocket calendar could have been designed according to his successes and setbacks. In 1984 training camp, he was a quick-footed, 6-foot-4, 20-year-old phenom coming off a promising sophomore season and looked poised to take the next step in his NHL career when future/ex Boston Bruins coach Dave Lewis, then playing for New Jersey, low-bridged him in a preseason game at Boston Garden. Tearing his ACL, MCL, and meniscus, Kluzak had surgery the next day and was in a cast for two months. He missed the entire 1984-85 season. Coupled with Barry Pederson’s season-canceling bicep surgery, Kluzak’s absence was a key reason the Bruins fell from Cup-contender status to the middle of the pack.
“I came back from that pretty well, then I started to have joint-surface cartilage problems,” he recalled.
Although the Boston Bruins were swept by eventual Stanley Cup champion Montreal in the opening round of the ’86 playoffs, Kluzak was back on his game. “I remember I played great that series, felt great,” he said. Only a Game 4 slapshot from Hall of Fame defenseman Larry Robinson struck Kluzak directly on the kneecap. The pain was temporary, but that summer working out Kluzak felt some fluid in his knee.
“For me, the frustrating part was when I had my knee torn apart by that Dave Lewis hit … they put that all back, but someone’s telling you there’s this one little tiny spot in your kneecap. But the pain and the forces are extraordinary,” he said.
For Kluzak, the full season (66 regular-season and all 23 playoff games) he played in 1987-88 would be his last, isolated on either side by a complete DNP in 86-87 and a three-game 88-89. Although Kluzak never cracked a knee cap as Miller did twice, the former’s issues were multiple and at the same time chronic. With plenty of down-time to study on his injury, Kluzak explained in accurate detail how joint-surface cartilage underneath his kneecap had a wedge shape in the back. It was round on the outside and wedge shape inside. The thin covering of cartilage bonds with the groove at the end of the femur, and “those two surfaces are six times smoother than two pieces of ice.”
He understood, even by walking up and down stairs that the weight on one leg is six times one’s body weight per square inch in force. At the fulcrum of his knee cap “like a soft spot on an apple” there was “enormous pain whenever I tried to put weight on my left leg.”
Kluzak endured four different surgeries during the 1986-87 season that he sat out, all efforts to smooth off the rough patch.
“They took a little more out. Finally, at one point I remember he took off a flap, and it was the fourth arthroscopic surgery on that surface (so) I could play in 87-88,” he said. “But the problem … soft spot right down to the bone, much rougher spot — remember forces per square inch are enormous — kneecap patella side wore a corresponding piece of cartilage.”
That last injury left him with a complex rehabilitation that was never fully resolved. The knee regularly flared up, preventing him from helping the Bruins in any playoffs after ’88.
“It’s amazing that I was so young when that happened,” said Kluzak, a high-mileage 24 at the time. In the years following the decision to retire, Kluzak was still a young man who could skate like the wind despite his 6-4, 220 frame.
“Even today I could go skate and you’d never know I was hurt,” he said.
Kluzak felt fine playing in Boston Bruins Alumni games but knew all the discomfort would eventually come back if he really dug his way into it, just like it did when Cam Neely’s hip was feeling better and he tried to give it a go two years after announcing his own retirement.
“Guys like (Miller) or guys like me that are completely dedicated to it, it’s so hard when you have an injury,” said Kluzak. “There’s nothing else you ever dreamed of doing.”
Like Miller who was nominated by Boston’s chapter of the Professional Hockey Writers Association as its Bill Masterton Trophy candidate for his unwavering perseverance, Kluzak actually took home the award in 1990. Looking to redirect his competitive juices, Kluzak went to Harvard Business School and has since become managing director at Goldman Sachs & Co.
“I work with really interesting people in the markets, I have a great new career, I worked very hard to make that happen,” he said. “No matter, I wasn’t going to play unless I could play at a high level. I didn’t want to play even at a reduced level, Even if I felt OK … I wouldn’t be the player that I was.”
Kluzak had a run as a TV analyst for NESN’s telecasts of Bruins games. He was as meticulous in the press box and studio as he was on the ice, learning how to pronounce every player’s name. But he did find a place to redirect his competitive intensity, and that is in the world of finance.
“The other thing is — and I tell kids this all the time — there is life after hockey,” he said. “You can take the skills — and reapply them.”