It’s not often that a fledgling American Hockey League team can acquire a player who has played more than 300 games at the sport’s highest level.
Mike Penny, general manager of the St. John’s Maple Leafs, did just that when he went out and signed free agent forward Clarke Wilm a quarter of the way into this season.
With the promotion of energy-guy Nathan Perrott to Toronto prior to the season and the release of veteran tough-man Mike Brown following a 25-game tryout contract, St. John’s was in dire need of a performer equivalent of Wilm’s ilk.
The fact that the Central Butte, Sask., native has played five full seasons in the NHL was an added bonus.
While Wilm’s battle-scarred countenance reveals his warrior-side, a peek into his play on the ice tells a different story altogether.
In Cleveland for the second of back-to-back road games on Jan. 3, Wilm blends toughness and skill into a single play which brings his team back into a contest in which they trailed, 2-0.
On the power play in the third period, Carlo Colaiacovo gathers a pass out on the right point.
Wilm moves into harm’s way in front of the net as Colaiacovo rips his shot on net. The Barons’ netminder, Dimitri Patzold, makes a nice kick save but Wilm is right there to gobble up the rebound. With defensive pressure on his back and the Cleveland goaltender taking away the near post, Wilm skillfully — and blindly –backhands a pass across the crease to a waiting Kyle Wellwood.
The uncovered Wellwood easily taps the puck into the net for the goal that cuts the home team’s lead in half.
Wellwood notched the marker, courtesy of Wilm’s combination of toughness and capability to make a play in the dirty zones in front of the net. But it was Clarke’s often- underrated skills and on-ice vision which truly made the play happen.
“I’ve always tried to be a hard-nosed guy out there — someone who will bump and grind and play tough in the corners as well as being responsible defensively,” explains Wilm.
“I’ll usually play with a little different style down here than at the top. Here I have more offensive responsibilities and it’s something I’m trying to work on so that I can add more offense to my game and have more confidence with the puck.”
Wilm played his major junior hockey with Saskatoon of the WHL from 1992 through 1996 and evolved from being an almost afterthought checking forward to a player the Blades could count on for some big-time offensive production.
Following his draft year in 1995 — when he was selected by Calgary in the 6th round with the 150th overall selection — Wilm put up some staggering numbers in his final junior-eligible season.
He notched 49 goals and added 61 assists for 110 points in 72 games playing on Saskatoon’s top line.
For the boy from western Canada, his selection by the Flames was truly a dream come true.
“My greatest thrill probably started on draft day when I was chosen by Calgary,” he recalls. The Flames were the team that I grew up watching. Playing my first game and the majority of my career with Calgary was a cool experience. To get to meet guys like Lanny McDonald and play with Theo Fleury was a great way to get started.”
Before making his NHL debut with Calgary in 1998, Wilm played two seasons with the Saint John Flames in the American Hockey League. He scored 22 goals and added 45 assists for 67 points in 130 games.
After four seasons with Calgary, his bubble burst when he was not tended a contract offer following the 2001-2002 season.
Careers must move on, and off to Nashville he went last season where he continued his NHL role as a checking-line forward.
Despite the fact he has never been known as a master-of-the-fisticuffs, he had a couple of memorable, bloody bouts while in Opryland.
“I’ve never been a guy who drops the gloves just to take the five minutes,” says Wilm. “But I’ll also never hesitate to stand up for myself or my teammates.”
To St. John’s he went this season when Nashville did not renew his contract and when a rash of injuries in December and January took its toll on the Toronto team, Wilm became a call-up to the NHL squad.
As usual, he fit right in as that robust, checking-line forward. Even during games when Toronto didn’t have its entire game together, Wilm was singled out by coach Pat Quinn for his high-impact style.
St. John’s was glad that he received his Toronto opportunity, but they missed him quite badly. His eight goals and 12 assists in 30 AHL games made him one of the team’s most productive players. The intangibles he brought with him helped an awful lot as well.
“I really never knew him before,” relates St. John’s bench boss Doug Shedden. “But he fit in right away here. He played with skill and intensity, but what we really liked was the positive force he had in the room. He makes all the little plays and leads by example. We hope things go well for him in Toronto, but we’d really love to have him back to help us down the stretch.”
Those words proved prophetic as after playing nine games with Toronto, Wilm was returned to St. John’s to assist them in their playoff run. Leafs fans can rest assured, he will make a difference.
Timothy Hennie is the editor of the Blue and White Report