Veteran Kalamazoo forward Kory Karlander still going strong at age 40

Kalamazoo veteran forward Kory Karlander has three assists in two games against the Stingrays in the Kelly Cup playoffs.

Stingrays facing K-Wings and their 40-year old forward

By ANDREW MILLER apmiller@postandcourier.com

Kory Karlander has put up some pretty impressive numbers during his 16-season professional hockey career.

He’s played for 14 teams in seven different professional hockey leagues. He’s scored 352 goals and 889 total points. And he’s played in 1.030 regular season games.

But perhaps the most astonishing number Karlander has put up during his career is 40, which is his age.

Karlander and the Kalamazoo K-Wings will take on the South Carolina Stingrays in Game 3 of their best-of-seven Eastern Conference semifinal series tonight at the North Charleston Coliseum. The K-Wings lead the series, 2-0.

In a game that has gotten faster and faster with each passing season, and in a developmental league that has gotten younger and younger, Karlander has somehow managed to thrive into middle age.

A year ago, Karlander led the K-Wings with 80 points on 34 goals and 46 assists. This season, despite missing more than a dozen games with a knee injury, he is second in scoring with 18 goals and 37 assists.

“Age is just a number to me,” Karlander said. “I think I’ve got a pretty youthful spirit. I still love the game and coming to the rink every day.”

The thought of giving up the sport he’s loved since childhood has never been a serious consideration for Karlander. He won a United Hockey League title with Kalamazoo in 2006 and led the K-Wings to the Kelly Cup finals last year against Alaska.

“Even when I was in my mid-20s and creeping up on 30, I was never one of those guys who said, ‘this is going to be my last year,”’ Karlander said. “I’m not getting rich playing hockey, but I make a modest, comfortable living doing it. I’ve been lucky, I’ve haven’t been injured too often and the last couple of teams I’ve been on have been pretty successful. My goal is to eventually get into coaching.”

Karlander lives in Grand Rapids, Mich., with his wife and three sons. It’s a 55-minute commute to the rink in Kalamazoo each day.

“Without my wife Shelly, I couldn’t have played as long as I have,” Karlander said. “I’ve got a great support group at home.”

Karlander’s current coach — Nick Bootland — was a former linemate for three seasons when Kalamazoo was in the UHL and International Hockey League.

“Even at this age, he’s a guy that wants to get better every day,” Bootland said. “If there’s something that he’s doing wrong, he wants to know about it. He’s not above that kind of criticism and that’s what makes him such an easy player to coach.”

Current Stingrays coach Spencer Carbery has crossed paths with Karlander more than once on the ice.

“He’s a gifted player, but for me the most impressive thing is his drive to succeed, his passion for the game and his willingness to battle on the ice,” Carbery said. “He’s still passionate about the game and plays really, really hard. You can only play this game at a high level for a certain amount of time, so it’s amazing to me that he’s been able to play at this level for as long as he has.”

Karlander, who figures he has played more than a dozen games at the North Charleston Coliseum during his career, has connections to several former Stingrays. He played on the same team with former Stingrays head coach Jared Bednar (Grand Rapids) and with Stingrays defenseman Brad Dexter (Raleigh). He played on the same collegiate team — Northern Michigan — with ex-Stingrays defenseman Jason Hehr.

So when will Karlander hang up his skates? Not anytime soon.

“As long as I still love the game, I’m going to play,” Karlander said.