The road to the National Hockey League is neither easy nor consistent from player to player, and few know that better than Chris Clark.
At a period in time when entering the professional hockey ranks via the NCAA was anything but commonplace, Clark parlayed a tremendous four-year career at Clarkson University into a chance at the NHL. Calgary drafted him 77th overall in 1994, and in his final season with the Flames, Clark was a key cog in the team’s run to the Stanley Cup Final.
Like so many others, his path was different -- and as the newly-appointed development coach of the Blue Jackets, those experiences are vital bits of information to pass along as young players make their way to the professional level.
“It’s never the same journey for every player,” Blue Jackets GM Scott Howson told BlueJackets.com. “There are always bumps, and he’s been through bumps himself. He knows what it’s like and he will be able to talk to our players when they are going through those things or they’re in a valley, and help them get out of it.
“I really respect what he did in his career. He was a college player and wasn’t a highly-touted prospect coming out of college. He earned his way into the AHL, and then to the NHL and became the captain of a hockey team. He has all those experiences that he can pass on to our young guys.”
The new opportunity for the 36-year-old Clark is two-fold: while he is excited to start working for the Blue Jackets, it also means his playing career is over. Over 13 years in the NHL, Clark served as captain of the Washington Capitals for four seasons and put up 30 goals in his first campaign wearing the “C.”
After his time with the Blue Jackets ended in 2011, he found the NHL job market to be sparse. Clark accepted a tryout with the Boston Bruins to give it one last shot, but was released when the regular season began. He knew it was time to hang up the skates, and said he feels fortunate to be able to make the post-playing transition with the Blue Jackets organization.
“I left everything on the table with the opportunity in Boston this year,” Clark told BlueJackets.com. “I didn’t walk away not knowing anything…I gave it all I could. After Christmas, I talked to Scott and he allowed me a chance to sit with them during Blue Jackets home games and watch how they do different things. They gave me a scouting book, and taught me how to rate players and watch the game from that perspective. It’s something I ended up liking and when this job opportunity came along, I put in my resume.
“It’s a chance for me to still be around the guys. This is more about what I know: I know how to be a pro hockey player. I played for a while, so it’s something where I can relate some of my experience to these guys coming up through the organization. It’s a pretty good progression for me.”
The NHL is a young man’s game these days, and with so many teams relying heavily on high draft picks to reverse their fortunes, player development is paramount. Clark said he wants to always be available as a resource for prospects in the Blue Jackets system, and it doesn’t have to be limited to hockey advice.
Clark wants to put his vast portfolio of first-hand knowledge to use, especially since such resources were not common when he broke into the NHL. Of the many things he can provide, the most important is constant feedback, he said.
“It seems like this has kind of grown over the last four or five years, and more teams are getting involved,” Clark said. “I think it’s great; this process helps kids get constant feedback from the organization. You’re going to get it if you’re in the AHL or different places a couple of times a year, but with this concept, you can get a text message or call the development coach right away.
“At their age, you’re always wondering about certain things and have questions you want to ask, and this gives them the opportunity to do so and get information they’re looking for.”
In a few short weeks, Clark will officially be on the job as the Blue Jackets add to their stable of prospects at the NHL Draft. The first step in player development post-draft is the club’s annual development camp, which helps the hockey operations staff formulate a roster for the prospects tournament in Traverse City, Mich.
Along with amateur scouting director Tyler Wright – who, as part of Clark’s hiring, will begin to transition exclusively into scouting duties – Clark will be overseeing the week-long camp and getting to know the young players up and down the organizational depth chart.
According to Clark, all it takes is one look at that depth chart to see the bright future in Columbus.
“There’s a ton of talent here, whether it’s the draft picks that aren’t playing in the NHL quite yet, the guys in Springfield or the young kids playing in Columbus now,” Clark said. “They have great older players and leaders on the team who can help bring these guys along.
“Nothing is immediate with any sports team. The best teams develop from within and for the long-term. It’s not about having a good team for one year or two years -- you want a good team for several years, and that’s something Columbus is building right now.”Follow @BlueJacketsNHL on Twitter, and use the hashtag #CBJLIKE Columbus Blue Jackets on Facebook