Puck drops tend to echo in the Feiyang Skating Center.
The rink, located in downtown Shanghai, seats 4,800. On a good day, the Kunlun Red Star might fill half the arena for a game. But hockey holds little local interest, and the Kontinental Hockey League team has to settle for silence when goals are scored while its permanent arena is under construction in Beijing.
The Red Star’s mausoleum was the latest stop in Geoff Kinrade’s career. The Nelson native has played for teams in six different countries and represented Canada in international play. But playing hockey in China, in his opinion, was a little weird.
“At the beginning of the season there was a couple hundred people there, friends and family,” says Kinrade. “The second-best league in the world and there’s 200 people at your games. It’s strange.”
But it’s also fitting in a way. Kinrade never aspired to go further in hockey than university. Yet the 32-year-old defenceman has travelled the world in an unlikely career arc that might include a trip to next year’s Winter Games.
Kinrade is currently playing for Canada at the Karjala Cup in Finland and Switzerland. That tournament is being used to evaluate 26 players who might end up on Team Canada.
All he had to do to get considered for hockey’s biggest stage was get as far away from Canada as he could.
One class short
Kinrade has lived out of a suitcase since 2011.
He has no family, no pets and no obligations other than to whichever team he happens to be playing for. He feels at home in Asia, has visited most of its countries, and is used to globe hopping.
“It’s just been second nature,” says Kinrade, who spoke to the Star from his Shanghai home. “If I’m not travelling for hockey I’m travelling outside of hockey. The culture shock, I’ve spent so much time in Asia off-season that Asia feels like home to me. So it wasn’t culture shock at all for me.”
When his fledgling career began, Kinrade hardly expected it would take him to the other side of the world.
As a teenager, he played for the Nelson Leafs from 2001 to 2003. At the time, all he wanted to do was get a scholarship and go to medical school. After two seasons in the BCHL, Kinrade got that scholarship to Michigan Tech where he played and studied for four years.
Kinrade was never drafted. But in 2009, his play caught the attention of NHL scouts and he offered a spot on the AHL’s Norfolk Admirals. So he left Michigan Tech in his final semester, and remains one elective short of graduating.
That spring remains Kinrade’s one and only cup of coffee in the NHL. On April 9th he was called up to play for the Tampa Bay Lightning, who were out of the playoffs and wanted to give Kinrade a look. He played 18 minutes in a loss to Washington and that was it.
Eight years later he can barely remember the game, and wishes he’d had another chance later in his career to show the player he could be.
“I think about how much better I am now as a player,” he says. “I’m literally five times better than I was then. That’s the time I made it.”
Kinrade spent the next two years in the AHL playing for the Binghamton Senators and won the league championship Calder Cup in 2011. He was a restricted free agent and wanted to get back to the NHL. But the Ottawa Senators, Binghamton’s parent team, only wanted to re-sign him to a minor-league contract. He declined.
“The minor leagues isn’t a very easy place to play in with no light at the end of the tunnel. You’re playing in the minors with the hopes of getting called up. You don’t go play in the minors to just play in the minors.”
His agent suggested Europe.
From Russia with love
Kinrade’s first stop lasted just 34 games.
He was signed by HC Plzen in the Czech Republic, but had trouble fitting into a locker-room with a head coach who didn’t care for foreign players. (Plzen was docked 19 points that season for not properly registering several players. Kinrade was not one of them.)
But then Bern SC of the Swiss league took notice of Kinrade and bought his contract. He played there for two years, winning a league title in during the 2012-13 season and falling in love with the Swiss capital. He felt valued by the team and thrived on the ice.
When the team fired its foreign players in order to save money, Kinrade turned his eyes east to the KHL and Russia.
“By that time I had a good knowledge of how Europe works and the leagues and how they are ranked and how people perceive each league and where you can go,” he says.
“There’s a lot of leagues you go to and it doesn’t matter if you are a good player or not, if you go to that league then that’s kind of it for you. That’s where you end up. The rest of the leagues and the North American hockey world kind of writes you off, and that’s the end of your career.”
So instead of staying comfortable in Switzerland, Kinrade opted for a challenge and signed with the KHL’s Zagreb Medvescak in 2014.
He noticed a difference immediately.
“I just felt like it was more fun to play at a higher level,” he says. “I don’t really enjoy just playing to play. I’m not saying I’m better than the Swiss league. It’s not like I dominated the league and I was too good for it. It’s just rather than being a better player in a league, I have more fun not struggling but being challenged. When other players are better, it challenges me and makes it more exciting for me to improve, too.”
Kinrade has since played for the Vladivostok Admiral, Nizhnekamsk Neftekhimik and the Red Star, which released him last month. He plans to sign with another KHL team once he’s finished with Team Canada.
In 2014 he was nervous about joining the league. Now he says it was the best decision of his career.
“I haven’t looked back ever since. I’m so glad I made that jump. It was a turning point in my career. It was a turning point in my life.”
Team Canada calls
The Olympic doors opened to Kinrade last spring.
Negotiations between the NHL, the NHL Players’ Association and the International Olympic Committee had gone nowhere for months. Then, on April 3, the NHL announced its players would not compete in the Winter Games for the first time since 1994.
That suddenly meant that stars such as Sidney Crosby won’t be on the ice when the Games begin next February in PyeongChang, South Korea.
In their place will be players like Kinrade, who were seemingly forgotten by the hockey world and now will be relied on to win a gold medal.
Kinrade never believed any of this would happen. He’s previously represented Canada at the Spengler Cup, which he won in 2013, and at last year’s Deutschland Cup. Unbeknownst to him, that put Kinrade on Team Canada’s Olympic radar.
It all became real in the summer when he was asked to play at an evaluation in Sochi, Russia. It didn’t go well.
“For the first time in 10 years I actually put some pressure on myself to make the team. I felt like I was a teenager again,” he says. “I played horribly.”
He’s getting another chance this week at the Karjala Cup among players he feels a kinship with. Everyone on Canada’s roster, Kinrade says, has gone through a similar experience. They’ve each travelled extensively and have a greater worldview than they would have had if they’d stayed in North America.
When he isn’t playing hockey, Kinrade is usually on the move.
His other passion is surfing, which he learned to do by windsurfing on Kootenay Lake before dropping the sail overseas. Surfing has taken him to places such as French Polynesia, Indonesia and Australia, and he’s also backpacked through most of Asia.
“It’s opened my eyes to the world,” he says. “It wasn’t the plan, it wasn’t something I went and searched for. I happened upon it because I was chasing a frozen piece of rubber around the ice.”
Lately, though, Kinrade admits to slowing down a little. He used to feel antsy about being in one place at any given time. Now he’s becoming, in his words, soft. He stays in nicer places than the hostels of his youth, and is more deliberate about choosing where he visits.
But he’s always on the move, on or off the ice.
“For me, my career has been a mirror of how I live,” he says.