The game’s the same… but different

by Matthew Davis

It happens all the time. A young hockey player will come along and have a wonderfully successful amateur career, only to struggle and never achieve his potential at the professional level. Or, vice versa: an amateur hockey player might appear to have no hope of playing the game professionally and then go on to enjoy great success as a pro.
Although both of these scenarios occur fairly often, each instance seems to surprise us. It is, after all, the same game at the professional level as it is at the amateur level, right? Well, not really. Just ask Peoria Rivermen center Jay McClement.
McClement put together a quite successful amateur career. At the age of 16, he was drafted by the Brampton Battalion with the second overall pick of the 1999 Ontario Hockey League (OHL) Entry Draft. In his first season with the Battalion, McClement scored 29 points (13 goals, 16 assists) in 63 games while competing against players who were as many as four years older than him.
McClement then boosted his point total to 49 on 30 goals and 19 assists in 66 games in 2000-01. This performance in two OHL seasons, along with McClement’s effort in the 2000 World Under-17 Challenge and the 2000 Four Nations Cup, rendered him one of the brightest young hockey prospects at the time and prompted the St. Louis Blues to draft him with the 57th overall selection in the 2001 NHL Entry Draft.
McClement achieved even greater amateur success after the Blues drafted him. In 61 games during the 2001-02 season, he notched 55 points (26 goals, 29 assists). Although injuries limited McClement to only 45 games in his final junior season of 2002-03, he averaged more than one point per game with a total of 49 (22 goals, 27 assists).
McClement also had the opportunity and honor to represent Canada at the World Junior Championships in both 2002 and 2003. Given all that McClement had accomplished as an amateur player, he possessed considerable potential for having a good professional hockey career.
Despite all of his amateur success and the expectations many had for him as a pro, McClement learned quickly that while amateur and professional hockey are very similar, they are also quite different.
As McClement explains, “It’s definitely a big jump (from amateur to professional hockey). It’s a different game (at the pro level). Everything’s so much faster, the skill of the other players is better. And positioning is much more important in the pros, in your own end, especially, and on face-offs.
“Your draft position, your junior career, once you get to the pros, all that’s out the window. You get what you deserve as far as ice-time goes. Whatever type of player a guy is, he has to play defense in the pros.”
McClement added, “It’s tough for a guy to play pro hockey if he is a liability in his own end. There’s a greater emphasis on playing defensively and doing the little things that help you be a better player and help your team win.”
After spending the 2003-04 and 2004-05 seasons in the American Hockey League with the Worcester IceCats, and splitting time this season between the AHL with the Peoria Rivermen, St. Louis’s new AHL affiliate, and the NHL with the Blues, McClement now feels much more comfortable as a pro hockey player.
“At the start of my pro career, I was basically just working shift-to-shift to improve and get more ice-time and get more confidence,” McClement says. “It takes a while to adjust to the speed (of the pro game), to the coaching staff and their system, and to realize what you have to do. For me, the biggest things I needed to work on were being more assertive with the puck, being stronger on the puck, and making better plays.
“Last year,” continued McClement, “I didn’t have a great start, but then I started to play OK, and then I got even better, and the puck started to go in the net more, and everything started to come together.”
Having spent the majority of the 2005-06 season in the NHL with the Blues, McClement seems poised to establish a career at the highest level of professional hockey next season. He has joined the Rivermen for the 2006 Calder Cup Playoffs, but that will likely be his last tour of duty in the AHL.
“For me to stay in the NHL, I need to be even better,” McClement points out. “The Blues see me as a third-line, two-way center, and I see that as well. So I’m trying to just get better in all areas of the rink and play well enough to earn significant ice-time at the NHL level. I was especially happy with the last few months of last year and with several stretches of this season. Hopefully, I can keep on improving, and that’s all I can do.”
And once he settles into a career in the NHL, McClement may find that the game of hockey is even more different at that level.