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Gophers Hockey: Finding an identity as captain is paying dividends for Justin Kloos

Minnesota's captain has learned several lessons firsthand - and gotten help from others - as he balanced struggling to contribute with leading a young team, culminating with 8 points in the team's 3 game win streak.

If you look closely enough, you can see the "C"
If you look closely enough, you can see the "C"
Matt Christians/SBN College Hockey

The thing about being a collegiate captain, to hear Justin Kloos tell it, is no one tells you how to be one. It's different than just being one player on a roster. There is no blueprint, no leadership coach, or an off-ice seminar. No one teaches a course on how to walk through adversity or keep a group of twenty-plus teammates resilient when things are not going their way.

To learn how to captain requires being thrown into the situation and embracing the role which comes from an extra letter.

Kloos, the first-year University of Minnesota captain, has learned that lesson, and more, throughout what at times has been a difficult three months for the junior forward. His performance on the ice throughout the first half wasn't to his own high expectations. At the same time, the Gophers, having lost its entire leadership core and more, struggled out of the gate.

Kloos lately is beginning to find success in dual roles, scoring eight points (3G-5A) in his last three games as Minnesota (11-10-0, 6-2-0-0 Big Ten) finds itself atop the Big Ten and sixteenth in the Pairwise Rankings.

"It's been a learning curve for me too," Kloos said, discussing the first half. "My first two years here I came into the game and all I had to focus on was I have got to play well and help the team win. Well now I have to make sure everyone is ready to play well and wants to play to well and wants to help the team win."

Those came to a head during Minnesota's 3-2 overtime loss to Penn State on January 8th where the team dropped to 8-10-0 and Kloos, taking his individual struggles personally, was held without a point for the eighth time in nine games.

Trying to shake off a second straight overtime loss was one too many. Giving up a last minute goal to top-ten Harvard at home the week prior hurt, but failing in crushing fashion happens in hockey. The performance prior to the jaws of defeat clamping down was enough to put on a good face afterwards. A similar effort and loss in State College washed away any veneer covering up the team's built up frustration.

"With that and Harvard, the way we lost was heartbreaking. It has just compiled all year (as has the tipping point of several close losses)," said Kloos, skating in his 100th career game at Minnesota last weekend. "I can speak for us captains, we talked about it, it's the worst we've felt after something like that in our athletic careers."

Despite his own struggles, Kloos focused during the early stretch on helping younger players with theirs.

"Obviously mistakes are going to happen when you're adjusting and they've been graceful with that," freshman Brent Gates Jr. told SB Nation College Hockey. "After a tough game I remember that I was down and Justin Kloos texted me and just said ‘you're going to play a lot of games in a Gopher jersey. Don't hang your head on one bad one. Keep your head up and keep going.' That meant a lot."

Who captains the captain? Getting captain's advice from another.

Another lesson Kloos has learned?  Being a player and being a captain are two separate jobs. At times the two connect. Not always, and this has required advice from others throughout the year.

Kloos has spoken with several people. Some are family. Some are teammates and fellow junior leaders, such as his roommate Jake Bischoff. Others, like Nate Condon, Kloos' former linemate his freshman season, have been where the junior is before.

"He can be a little bit more down to earth and be giving me crap about gripping my stick a little too tight when I'm around the net and stuff like that," said Kloos about Condon. "It's probably good for me to hear that sometimes because I still have confidence in my game, but even when the puck is not going in you like to hear from someone else who has been through it."

Condon, who as a senior co-captained Minnesota's 2013-14 team with Kyle Rau, has been in touch, Kloos said, to offer advice. There are times when he may not be as confident with his play yet is trying not to convey a lack of it to his teammates in case it affects them.

"Obviously the coaches try to prepare you as best they can, the alumni, your teammates try to help out as much, but when it comes to Friday night and Saturday, it's not on your shoulders - it's a group effort - but you take a little more pride. You want to be on a winning team and be the Gopher captain of a winning team," he said.

One such occasion was after the Penn State game, where, according to Kloos, Condon and he spoke about that feeling of being thrown into the fire as captain.

That game was one where Kloos felt afterwards that he had played well on the ice without being rewarded. Despite the hard work, his line with freshman Tyler Sheehy and junior Connor Reilly continued to be snakebit.

Foundation and building an identity

One part of the building process this season has been forging an identity with the team. Getting that foundation and putting both jobs together has helped both of Kloos' roles lately.

On-ice communication was a key to start the season, but Kloos admits being vocal hasn't come as easy to him as it did with the senior leadership from a season ago.

Once he became more comfortable in that role with the underclassmen, things began to change. Players understood better and communicating with both words and actions were easier.

"This year we don't have as many upperclassmen and we don't have as many natural communicators so almost getting out of our comfort zone to communicate was a big emphasis for all of us upperclassmen. It's starting to show its effect on some of the younger guys like Gates, Sheehy, (Jack) Sadek," he said. "All those younger guys you can tell they are getting more comfortable with the communication aspect."

Whether Kloos has liked it or not, his play has been a bellweather for the team. His scoring has come in streaks. In the nine games Kloos tallies a point the Gophers are 8-1.

That includes the three games after the Penn State loss, all victories, in which he has a goal in each and has put subtle reminders of Minnesota needing junior scoring by his coaches back into the abyss.

The once needled eight-man class now has over half the team's goals. With Kloos heating up and Reilly breaking his own snakebit goalless drought in Saturday's 3-1 victory over Michigan State, the six with goals this season have all scored in the last five games

"Sometimes you don't score and sometimes it doesn't happen to you. He's playing for the team right now and he's playing hard. It was really good to see him score," Hudson Fasching said last Saturday after Kloos, buoyed by his line, doubled down with a goal on the opening shift of a period for the second consecutive night.

It has also helped settle on an identity for Kloos, his line, and the team.

"I think just some pucks are going in for Justin," said head coach Don Lucia on what has changed lately with Kloos. "Justin's had chances. When you're a captain, you're a leader. You want to lead on the ice. You feel like you can lead on the ice without scoring, but sometimes you feel your job is to score and it's easy to get down when you're not scoring.

"So it's nice, it's a little easier, a lighter pop in your step when you're scoring when you're an offensive player. I'm happy for Justin."

On a three game win and goal scoring streak, Kloos' vision is closer to the team a couple years ago that reached the national championship, not coincidentally captained by Condon.

"I think recently, especially (against Penn State), we kind of showed what kind of team that we're going to play," said Kloos. "We're just going to grind you down and have to be so hard to play against that we're going the third period of Saturday night you're not going to want to be on the ice with us.

"That kind of team. That's the kind of team we have got to be. "


Nathan Wells is a college hockey columnist for SB Nation mostly covering both the University of Minnesota and Big Ten. You can also follow him on Twitter --