By Amanda Giruzzi & John Neenan || AHL On The Beat Archive
Alaska. It may be one of the few places on Earth where you might come face to face with a polar bear or get a chance to go kayaking through a glacier. It’s also the perfect place to become a hockey player. Just ask Syracuse Crunch defenseman Clay Wilson.
“There are outdoor rinks everywhere in Alaska,” Wilson said. Wilson, born in the small town of Sturgeon Lake, Minnesota, moved to Alaska when he was two years old. “Alaska is a great place to visit but not so much to live,” he joked. “It’s pretty cold.”
One thing is for sure – it was the right place for Wilson to develop his hockey skills. The defenseman remembers being about two years old when he began playing the game.
“As soon as I could walk, I started skating,” Wilson said. “My older brother was a goalie. Watching him play made me want play.” His father was also a big contributor to his hockey success. “My dad taught me how to play. He always took me to the rink and coached me throughout youth hockey.”
Wilson obviously paid a lot of attention to his dad and big brother. In 2001, he enrolled at Michigan Tech University to join the Huskies Division I hockey team.
His four seasons of hockey should have been the best time of his life but they proved to be the most difficult of his career.
“Our team struggled and we continually had losing seasons. We went through a coaching change and it was a rough time,” Wilson explained. “It was a time when I debated whether or not I wanted to keep playing the game.”
Like a true hockey player, Wilson never gave up. He overcame the obstacles he faced during his college years and continued to pursue his dream of making it to the NHL.
He spent two years after college with the Muskegon Fury of the former UHL. His first season with the team proved that perseverance does pay off, as the Fury went on to win the Colonial Cup. “It was such a great experience,” he said. “It was definitely my most memorable hockey moment to that point.”
After two seasons with the Fury, Wilson worked his way up to the AHL where he spent the 2005-06 season with the Grand Rapid Griffins. He played well enough that year to get noticed and earn a two-year contract with the Anaheim Ducks.
After spending the 2006-07 season and the beginning of the 2007-08 season with Anaheim’s AHL affiliate in Portland, Wilson was acquired by Columbus along with teammate Aaron Rome in exchange for center Geoff Platt on November 15, 2007.
“Everyone in Syracuse has been really great,” Wilson said. “From the second Romer and I got here all the guys made us feel like we were part of the group. It’s been a really easy transition.”
Wilson doesn’t just have a positive attitude about his new city; he also has a winning outlook for his new team. “My goal is obviously to…win the Calder Cup,” Wilson said. “I think this team definitely has the skill and grit it takes to take it all the way.”
Wilson has emerged this season as one of the AHL’s top offensive defenseman, tallying 14 goals and 33 assists in 71 games between the Crunch and Portland. For his fine play, Wilson was selected to represent the Crunch as a member of the PlanetUSA team at the 2008 AHL All-Star Classic in Binghamton back on January 28. He was also named the Rbk/AHL Player of the Week for the period ending March 16, 2008.
After honing his skills in the AHL for the better part of three seasons, the 25-year old Wilson’s dream finally came true. He was rewarded for his outstanding play with a late-season call-up to Columbus on March 24.
He appeared in his first NHL game on March 25 at the Sommet Center in Nashville, Tenn., as the Blue Jackets took on the Predators. He tallied his first NHL point on March 26 in his second NHL game when he assisted on Joakim Lindstrom’s first-period marker in a 4-0 Blue Jackets win over Chicago.
At the 7:13 mark of the second stanza that night, Wilson took a centering feed from Nikolai Zherdev and fired the puck past Nikolai Khabibulin to secure his first NHL goal.
"It’s unbelievable," Wilson said after the game. "I came up here not expecting too much, just trying to keep it simple.”
"Luckily, tonight went well. (Zherdev) made a nice pass to me in the slot. I closed my eyes and the puck went in. It’s just a great feeling. It’s something you wait your whole life for. The first period I was nervous but as the game went along I was more comfortable.”
Wilson was returned to the Crunch after his seven-game stint in Columbus and picked up right where he left off. He was a big reason why the Crunch finished with the fifth-ranked power play in the AHL (20.6 %), as he notched 20 power play points (7g, 13a).
Thank goodness Wilson didn’t quit hockey altogether while at Michigan Tech. The Crunch have struck gold with this humble Alaskan hockey player.