North Okanagan Knights’ head coach Kris Mallette works the bench in Kootenay International Junior Hockey League play at Nor-Val Centre.

North Okanagan Knights’ head coach Kris Mallette works the bench in Kootenay International Junior Hockey League play at Nor-Val Centre.

Mallette knuckles down for North Okanagan Knights

North Okanagan Knights' head coach Kris Mallette draws on successful minor pro hockey career.

Kris Mallette used to rack up penalty minutes like people rack up Air Miles.

And much like the popular rewards program, Mallette used those PIMs to see a good chunk of the U.S. in a fight-filled minor pro hockey career.

Now in his second season as head coach/GM of the North Okanagan Junior B Knights, Mallette spent 2,856 minutes (nearly two full days) in the sin bin in 733 career games.

“I wouldn’t just fight to fight,” said Mallette, 33.

“I learned over almost 250 fights when a good time to fight was. I always stuck up for my teammates and I knew if we were a little flat what we needed.”

Like most scrappers, there is more to Mallette than his hockey stats. Astute, articulate and family-oriented are terms that more accurately describe the 6-foot-4, 230-pounder away from the rink.

Mallette took something he was good at – fighting – and used it to provide a comfortable living for his family. He and wife Susie have been together since his first year with the Western Hockey League’s Kelowna Rockets 17 years ago. They have been married for 10 years and have daughters Grace, nine, and Kaitlyn, five.

“You don’t see that too often in the hockey world. People come and go, but I was fortunate enough to get a good one,” said Mallette, who grew up in an Air Force family, spending the bulk of his childhood in Comox.

Drafted 63rd overall by the Philadelphia Flyers in 1997, Mallette began minor pro in the East Coast league in 2000 after splitting four seasons between Kelowna and the Moose Jaw Warriors.

A stay-at-home defenceman, Mallette started in Louisiana with the IceGators, was released after five games, then caught on with the Baton Rouge Kingfish, who folded after his first season. He then posted a career-high 369 penalty minutes in the United League with the Asheville Smoke of North Carolina.

“I had a lot of fun, but if you look at my stats, it was a bit of a gong show,” he chuckled.

That was followed by two seasons with the UHL Elmira Jackals of New York, an organization Mallette is still fond of.

“I probably could have played there until I retired,” he said. “I was really well liked there, my daughter (Grace) was born there and I met a lot of really great people.

“But that’s when Colorado (Eagles) called.”

With the Eagles, then of the Central Hockey League (now ECHL), Mallette not only won a championship, it is where he learned to become more than just a fighter.

“Chris Stewart was the one coach that changed my whole outlook on hockey,” said Mallette. “My game up to that point was get the puck, dump it up off the glass and fight. That was my game-plan.

“When I went to Colorado, I wouldn’t play if I did that. He (Stewart) was like ‘Have confidence with the puck, try and make plays.’

“We lost eight, nine games all season.”

Like Elmira, Mallette probably could have been happy playing in Colorado, however, he volunteered for the 2005 CHL expansion draft, and was plucked first overall by the now-defunct Youngstown Steelhounds of Ohio.

The problem with Youngstown was its closest competition was 700 miles away in Memphis. To lure Mallette and his young family to the club, ownership basically let him write his own contract.

“I’m asking for what I thought was some pretty ridiculous stuff just so I could have an excuse to turn it down. They looked at it for a minute and went ‘Ya, OK, that’s good’ and signed me.

“The beauty about my career is I never ever had to look for a team. I went to where guys wanted me. That’s why I played on so many teams.

“I had a family to support and I’m not making millions like these guys in the NHL, but I wanted to be comfortable and play hockey and see a lot of the U.S.”

Mallette has always had a high hockey IQ, not only because he is passionate about the sport, but also out of necessity.

“I was always a student of the game because I wasn’t as skilled as most players,” he said. “I really tried to pay attention to detail because I wasn’t the fleetest of foot and I didn’t have the greatest hands.”

North Okanagan captain Steve Pantazopoulos said Mallette’s work ethic is apparent in his coaching style and in what he asks of the Knights.

“He relates to us well and we respect him a lot,” said Pantazopoulos, a Kelowna product who played for Mallette in Midget.

“He demands a lot out of us, but at the same time, he keeps us honest. He has us playing hard and physical and he tries to relate the way he played – you don’t have to have the most skill to be the best team.”

In his Junior days, Mallette battled future NHL heavyweights like Colton Orr, Derrick Boogard, Eric Godard and Todd Fedoryk. He talks about them more as old acquaintances than adversaries.

“There’s a ton of guys in the NHL that I used to fight in Junior. You look back and you can remember getting burned by this guy, or getting punched in the face by this guy. It’s all in good fun.

Regarding the fighting fraternity, he added: “That’s the funniest thing – 99 per cent of the tough guys on teams are the biggest, softest teddy bears and don’t emulate what they do on the ice off the ice.”

On his own fighting style, Mallette said: “I’ve got pretty long arms. I never had the knockout power; I liked to consider myself a technical guy that waits it out.

“I was fortunate enough to really not have any serious injuries.”

Vernon Morning Star