The 2021-22 AHL schedule is here! Details

Rookie blueliners find common ground in Syracuse

by Laura Mitchell and John Neenan || AHL On The Beat Archive

Grant Clitsome

At the end of every American Hockey League season, it is commonplace for top junior and college players who have been drafted and/or signed by an NHL team to be sent to that club’s respective AHL team. This gives them their first taste of becoming a professional.

Last season, two of these players sent to the Crunch by Columbus were defensemen Grant Clitsome, a Clarkson University product, and Nick Holden, who played junior hockey for the Chilliwack Bruins of the Western Hockey League. They joined the team for the last few games of the regular season and stayed all the way through the playoffs, each appearing in one game during that stretch.

The careers of Clitsome and Holden have taken different paths, but nevertheless they find themselves in the same situation as AHL rookies looking to make a strong impression in their first full professional season.

You would be hard-pressed to find the similarities between Grant Clitsome and Nick Holden just by looking at them. Clitsome is 5-foot-11 and 206 pounds. Holden is 6-4 and weighs around 200 lbs. However, there are many connections between the two.

Both were born and raised in hockey-crazed Canada and growing up in our neighbor to the north played a major role in deciding what they wanted to do with their lives.

“Every kid in Canada grows up watching and playing hockey. They all want to be famous hockey players one day,” Clitsome says.

With the strong cultural influence of hockey and the full support of their families, both Clitsome and Holden pushed themselves to succeed starting at a very young age.

Clitsome grew up in Ottawa with two younger brothers. Being the oldest gave Clitsome a sense of responsibility and focus that has helped him throughout his life. He attended Samuel-Genest High School where, like Holden, he chose to only play hockey in order to give himself the best opportunity to play at the professional level.

After high school, Clitsome had a tough decision to make. He was offered spots on junior league teams and was also recruited by many universities. In the end, he chose to play for Clarkson University in Potsdam, N.Y. His contributions helped turn the team around, as he led all Golden Knights defensemen in scoring three of his four seasons.

He capped off his senior season by being named a Second Team All-America Selection and a First Team ECAC All-Star, and was selected to the NCAA East Regional Team.

On top of his individual accomplishments, Clitsome lifted Clarkson back to its status as one of the elite college hockey programs in the country. They won the ECAC Hockey Tournament Championship (2007) and a conference regular season title (2008) and made two consecutive showings in the NCAA Tournament (2007, 2008) for the first time since the late 1990s.

He chose to go to college because he knew hockey could not last forever.

“There’s always the danger of getting hurt and you never know what’s going to happen. I wanted to have a backup just in case,” Clitsome says.

At Clarkson, Clitsome had a tough workload majoring in Business with minors in Political Science and Law. He says his experience there was unbelievable and would not have changed anything. He learned how to achieve balance and build maturity in all aspects of his life.

Deciding to play at the college level made Clitsome a well-rounded player. There is no one aspect of the game that stands out. He is determined to be highly skilled all over the ice, with strong defensive skills and the ability to contribute offensively as well. The Columbus Blue Jackets took notice of his attributes and drafted him in the ninth round, 271st overall, in the 2004 Entry Draft.

Nick Holden

Holden hails from St. Albert, Alta., and grew up with his parents and siblings, a younger sister and an older brother. He attended St. Alberta Catholic High School where he discovered his love for hockey.

“Once I started I knew I never wanted to play anything else,” Holden says. Instead of playing additional sports, Holden focused solely on hockey.

After graduation, he was offered a spot with Chilliwack and didn’t think twice. Holden saw this as a great opportunity and decided to forego college for the chance to reach his dream of playing in the NHL.

This decision helped because he was able to improve his defensive skills and become a better all-around player. In his first season with the Bruins, Holden posted 8 goals, 23 assists and 63 penalty minutes in 67 games. The 2007-08 season was his breakout year as he racked up 22 goals, 38 assists and 54 penalty minutes in 70 games, finishing third in the league in scoring among defensemen.

Because he went undrafted, there were many teams interested in signing him as a free agent. After speaking with Blue Jackets general manager Scott Howson, he decided on Columbus.

The path he chose to fulfill his hockey dreams has made him both passionate and driven in everything he does. He hates to lose, whether it’s at hockey or video games, and he pushes himself to always be the best. His competitiveness is an important aspect of his personality that will help him improve and get to the next level.

Once Clitsome graduated and Holden gained the experience, their careers started to parallel each other. After Clarkson was eliminated from the NCAA tournament and Chilliwack was eliminated in the first round of the WHL playoffs, both players were sent to Syracuse. Even though each only played in one game, they practiced with the team every day and were around to see a long Crunch playoff run that lasted to the seventh game of the second round.

Sharing the same experience, they formed a strong bond with one another. They even became roommates. Quickly they noticed that their personalities clicked and became friends. They were able to push each other to their limits during training to exceed expectations and work at improving their games. Since they also play the same position, it helped them understand each other’s situation better.

Both players are adjusting to the AHL and enjoy playing in the Salt City.

“The fans are amazing. I am truly impressed with their dedication and love for the game,” Clitsome says.

Holden feels the same way, saying, “When I got here last season, the players and fans were all very welcoming and I felt comfortable immediately.”

Clitsome and Holden want to make the most of their opportunities and prove themselves to be huge assets to the Crunch and the Columbus Blue Jackets. With the passion, competitiveness, responsibility, and solid skills that both players bring to the table, Clitsome and Holden are improving every game and becoming a good rookie one-two punch on the blue line for the Crunch.