Crunch’s Clark learning the ropes

by Jason Lockhart || AHL On The Beat Archive

Defenseman Mat Clark began Syracuse Crunch training camp less than a month before his 20th birthday. A second-round draft pick of the Anaheim Ducks in 2009, Clark entered the season with high hopes for his first full season in the professional ranks.

Clark knew the team was young, with more than 15 rookies on the training camp roster. Still, every player but one — Kyle Palmieri — was older than he. The last thing from Clark’s mind was taking on an assigned leadership role on a team with the likes of Joe DiPenta, who had played 10 professional seasons and captured a Stanley Cup with Anaheim in 2007, and Josh Green, a veteran of 13 years.

Clark entered the Crunch locker room one day during camp to get ready for practice and was approached by one Crunch veteran, who informed him he had been named captain.

“Captain?” replied Clark.

“Yeah, captain of the rookies,” said the vet. “You have to make sure all of the rookies are doing their assignments.”

It was Clark’s first official leadership role since his youth hockey days.

Long before Clark had stepped foot onto the War Memorial ice and assumed his role as leader of the rookies, he was honing his skills on the slopes of Colorado. Unlike many citizens of the world, Clark can call two countries his home.

He was born in Wheat Ridge, Colo., to Graham and Robin. When Mat was 4, due to a business opportunity, the Clark family moved from Colorado to Brampton, Ont., before ultimately settling down in nearby Campbellville.

“I can’t ignore that I grew up in America,” admitted Clark, who recently got his United States passport after turning pro, “but I grew up around Canadians and consider myself mostly Canadian.”

Had it not been for Clark’s move to Canada, Crunch fans may have been cheering on #2 at the Olympic Games as he competed for gold representing the United States in downhill skiing.

“My dad was really into skiing,” said Clark. “I learned how to ski before I played hockey and really enjoyed it. I owe my dad a ski trip, since we haven’t skied since I was younger. I miss it, but I chose hockey.”

Despite his early endeavors in skiing, Clark constantly pestered his mom about getting into hockey while growing up in the suburbs of Denver, which at the time was without an NHL team.

It was a return to his father’s Canadian roots that helped spark hockey back into the Clark family. Graham was born in Montreal, but moved at a young age to North Bay, Ont., where he grew up a Toronto Maple Leafs fan.

His son Mat followed in his footsteps and became a Leafs fan, but when the Quebec Nordiques moved to Colorado to become the Avalanche in 1995, Clark also aligned with his birthplace to become an Avs fan.

“I grew up a Leafs fan after moving to Canada, but cheered for the Avalanche as well; it was weird how that happened,” said Clark. “I liked Adam Foote and Rob Blake. They had a dream team when I was younger, also with Joe Sakic and Peter Forsberg.”

It’s not surprising that Clark grew up admiring players such as Foote and Blake, who were known for their defensive prowess. Clark would adopt a similar game to Foote, acting as a shut-down defenseman as he grew older.

“When I was on a AA team in Milton, in the town next to Campbellville, I remember going into the first meeting, and thinking I was going to tell them I wanted to play center,” recalled Clark. “Everyone wanted to be a goal scorer. But when I sat down at the meeting, I raised my hand and said I wanted to play defense. Ever since then, I’ve played defense.”

That decision would prove to be a heads-up move for the aspiring hockey player. Clark would continue to play competitively through his early teenage years, until he was drafted in the 11th round of the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) draft. He decided to choose a less competitive league in the Ontario Provincial Junior Hockey League (OPJHL), where he would earn more ice time and hone his skills.

He played two seasons for the nearby Brampton Capitals, beginning the first season at 5-foot-10 and 165 pounds. After two strong seasons in the OPJHL, plus an added three inches and 30 pounds, Clark became highly sought after by the OHL’s Brampton Battalion.

But some early season struggles in his first season in 2008-09 as an 18-year-old created some doubt in Clark’s mind.

“I was a healthy scratch a few times at the beginning of the season,” admitted Clark. “I was starting to question whether I had gone the right route or if I should have played college hockey in the States instead.”

Clark would fight through those early season woes to become part of the top shut-down pairing on defense. He would help lead Brampton to the OHL Finals, where they would ultimately lose to Windsor, who was led by 2010 number-one draft pick Taylor Hall.

After a successful first year in the OHL, Clark earned himself a high spot on the NHL’s Central Scouting rankings. Ultimately, Clark was chosen in the second round, 37th overall, by Anaheim in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft. Despite the early selection, getting drafted wasn’t always a sure thing for Clark.

“I had always hoped I would be drafted,” said Clark. “But when I was being scratched, I wasn’t on anyone’s radar. As I grew, and started to play better and get more opportunities, teams started showing interest. After a while, I knew I was going to be drafted and soon it was a question of what round, so I just kept working hard and trying to move up in the rankings.”

Crunch teammate Josh Brittain, a longtime friend of Clark’s who had been drafted a year earlier by Anaheim, spoke to Clark before the draft to tell him he had a feeling the Ducks would select him.

“It was almost a surreal feeling when I heard the Ducks announce my name,” said Clark, who was in Montreal with his family at the draft. “I couldn’t believe it, since I always enjoyed watching the Ducks because of their physical style of play. It fit my style perfectly. I couldn’t have gone to a better team.”

But being drafted was just the beginning to Clark. It’s been an opportunity to take his game to the next level so he can pursue his dream of reaching the NHL.

“Whenever I get an accomplishment, my mom always says, ‘You need to work that much harder, Mathew,’” said Clark. “I have my family there to remind me to keep pushing myself and there’s always someone there to take your spot. It means I have that much more to work to do to get to the big leagues.”

For the 2010-11 season, Clark has been placed in an environment where he has been given high expectations by not just himself, but also the organization, having been named the leader of nearly half the team in the form of the rookies. As overbearing as that may seem for a player that has not even yet reached the legal drinking age, Clark has embraced the role but also looked at the lighter side of the responsibility.

“To be honest, being the rookie captain has been a pretty easy job,” said Clark. “It was kind of funny to be named that, since I had never heard that before. We’ve had a good group of rookies. Everyone knows we have to pay our dues. I just have to make sure things are done, and most importantly, keep the vets happy.”

With the season past the halfway mark, it’s been a growing process for Clark and the rest of the Crunch rookies on the team. There have been ups and downs throughout the season, but most importantly, progress has been made on the ice and mentally.

“You could tell at the start of the season, due to the age, that the team had a little more energy, but a little less focus than other teams in the league,” said Clark. “We had a hard-working team, but age brings more focus. You definitely notice the fun the teams like to have. But now we’re learning you have to be ready put your body on the line every night. In juniors or college, you could take a night off, but now if you do that, you’ll quickly find yourself falling down the depth chart because guys are always pushing to get ahead of you. You’re lucky to play in this league and guys are learning to take advantage of the opportunities that are given to them.”