Clark Bringing More than Experience
Brett Clark had already been in the NHL, in just the 21st game of his professional career. He had been thought of enough to be chosen in the expansion draft in 1999. Then, the defenseman was traded to Colorado for another fresh start.
Nothing was given to Clark. He would have to battle his way back to the NHL in the minor leagues, for much of four long seasons in Hershey of the American Hockey League.
"I had a chance to work on my game," Clark said. "You can always get better at something. I went down there with that attitude. I played in all different situations, improved my mental game over time and it all worked out."
A few years after the Hershey to Denver shuttle ended, Clark was signing a two-year contract extension for $3.5 million per season.
Clark, 33, led the league two years straight in shifts per game, he set an Avalanche record in blocks in 2008-09 (238) just one season after he dislocated his shoulder. The 6-foot, 195-pound Clark is also known as a good puck mover and a strong skater.
He now brings the experience, gained from his journey, to Tampa, hoping to help the Lightning chart a new course toward the playoffs. Clark signed a two-year contract July 5 and is looking forward to writing another chapter in his career.
"I had a few options," Clark said. "It was the changeover in management and ownership, the group of guys they have, that interested me. There's nothing but positives here. I can step into a situation where we can do a lot of damage. I think I fit better with this team, the way I play. It's a fresh start. I just have to make it happen."
Clark fits the mold of one of those savvy veteran defensemen every winning team needs.
"I think I can help with my positive attitude and character," Clark said. "I sacrifice my body every night. If you can show the new guys what you can do, the same as Marty [St. Louis] does, to go out and compete hard every game, that rubs off. When the older guys play with an edge, the younger guys start picking that up and you come together as a group."
The long road to Tampa started in the small farming community of Wapella, Saskatchewan.
Wapella, a couple hours from Regina, has a population of about 400. But like many tiny towns in Canada, it still has a rink. Clark's parents ran what is now called Wapella Memorial Rink.
"I spent a lot of time there helping out," Clark said.
That helped him begin to build the foundation for a hockey career. He is still a rink rat. New Lightning forward Chris Durno, who played with him in Colorado last season, said Clark is always early to the rink and stays late.
Clark played two seasons with the Melville Millionaires of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League from 1993-95 before going to the University of Maine, where he had a solid season for the Black Bears with 38 points in 39 games.
Unfortunately, the Black Bears were banned from playing in the NCAA tournament due to violations from previous seasons. When the season was over, Clark was picked in the sixth round of the NHL draft by Montreal. Clark said the Canadiens urged him to play in the Canadian National Team program for a year and then signed him to a contract.
Clark only spent 20 games in the minors before the Canadiens put him in the lineup, where he played 41 games. He was in Montreal for 61 games the next season.
"I had a good camp, they had some injuries and I just proved myself," Clark said. "I made the simple play, tried to make a good first pass and I stuck there."
Clark fit in well in Montreal, but his strong play also caught the eye of scouts for the expansion Atlanta Thrashers.
Atlanta selected Clark in the expansion draft in 1999 and he found himself in a tough spot.
"Unfortunately, I was the only guy on a two-way contract and they had eight one-ways on defense," Clark said. "That made it tough. I was the odd man out. I was up and down."
In two and a half seasons, Clark played 44 games for the Thrashers. But it did allow him to get his first experience playing hockey in Florida.
Clark played for the Thrashers' International Hockey League affiliate, the Orlando Solar Bears, for two seasons. The Solar Bears ended up winning the championship - the Turner Cup - his second season in 2001.
"It was unbelievable," Clark said. "The organization was run great, we had a nice facility and when you have a chance to win it all, it makes the experience even better."
Clark said he found that hockey is a good fit in Florida.
"You just have to keep growing it," Clark said. "I just know there's a lot of people down here that want to play the game. It's just a matter of having enough facilities."
Getting traded to Colorado in January set his career on the right path, even though the route took a while to navigate.
Clark was twice named the top defenseman for Hershey, the AHL affiliate of the Avalanche, and led the league in plus/minus in 2001-02 at plus-28.
After the NHL lockout in 2004-05, Clark was done with minor-league hockey. He had nine goals and 36 points in 2005-06, then topped it with 10 and 39 the next season to earn a contract extension in Colorado.
"I just went out and competed every night," Clark said. "I aim to be a plus-player every game. If you can do that, you'll help your team win. That's what it's all about."
The Lightning will be looking for Clark to be a steady force in all parts of the rink.
There's a good chance he and another free-agent signing, Pavel Kubina, will battle for the team lead in blocked shots. Kubina was a blocking machine in the Lightning's Stanley Cup run in 2004 and Clark was second in the league in blocks in 2008-09 and 11th last year with 162 in 64 games. Clark blocked 12 shots against Chicago last November 6 in a 4-3 shootout win for the Avs.
"For me, it came when the game changed," Clark said. "When there was no clutching and grabbing in front of the net, you've got to do whatever you can to try and keep that puck away from the front of the net. I just brought that into my game. Goalies love it. The less pucks that get to him, the better."
It takes some timing and practice, but it is mostly about from courage.
"You see a guy wind up, you can't be scared, you have to get in there," Clark said. "You just know it's gonna sting for a bit."
Clark will also be important for his puck-moving ability, something the Lightning have struggled with on the back-end for the previous three seasons.
"It's just a matter of moving your feet to get out of trouble and getting it to the forwards," Clark said. "The forwards are going to create the chances. If I can jump up in the play, with the smarts we have up front, they're going to find me if I'm open."
Clark will also help in the locker room with young defensemen like Victor Hedman, Mike Lundin, Matt Smaby, Ty Wishart and others.
"It's a mental game," Clark said. "If I can help them stay positive, that's the biggest thing. You go through a lot of ups and downs in this league."
He has seen a lot. Now, Clark is ready for a new experience.
Clark has been in the area since early August. He was one of the first to start skating at the Brandon Ice Sports Forum, weeks before camp opened.
"I think we've got some of the best skill up front with Steven Stamkos, Vincent Lecavalier, Simon Gagne, Martin St. Louis -- you can go on and on," Clark said. "We have a ton of great players and good role players. They have built a good mix of younger older players. I'm excited to get started."