After a career of fighting to prove his worth, the 28 year-old defenceman has finally found a home with the Winnipeg Jets. It hasn’t been an easy road to the three year contract extension he signed this summer, but Clitsome believes the hardships along the way were ultimately for the best.
“I feel like my whole career I had to prove myself, being a late draft pick and never getting drafted to the OHL, and then trying to work my way onto an NHL roster,” said Clitsome, reflecting on the early part of his career. “So it’s not something I’m afraid of doing and I think it made me a better player. It helped me control my mental aspect of the game and taught me not to take anything for granted. But it’s nice having that security and stability now.”
Growing up in the small town of Astorville in northern Ontario, Clitsome started skating before he could even spell his own name. “It was the thing to do, all my friends did it,” said Clitsome with a smile. “I started skating when I was three years old, we lived on the lake. Then I started playing organized hockey when I was six. I really liked it and I was pretty good skater, my mom was a figure skater so she taught me how to skate.”
He picked up the skill quickly, but skating wasn’t his only natural aptitude. At around the same age, Clitsome was enrolled in a French Catholic school, the only school in the area. The catch was that Clitsome didn’t speak or understand a word of French.
“My parents are both English, and on both sides of the family everyone is English – no one speaks French in the family at all. So I didn’t know a word of French when I started elementary school. I was the first one in my whole extended family to speak French, and then my brothers followed suit,” he explained.
It was his mother, Louanne, who believed it an asset for her three boys to be bilingual, and so she fought with the school board for weeks until they finally ceded. “Finally they allowed me to go to school there, kind of on a trial period, so if I could pick up the language and adjust, then I could stay,” said Clitsome, who now speaks fluent French. “As soon as I got accepted my brothers were entitled to go and I never looked back, so I was in a full-fledged French school my whole life.”
Clitsome overcame the language barrier and continued his high school education in French when the family moved to Ottawa. “It’s a huge asset to have,” attested Clitsome, who often finds himself doing interviews with the local francophone media.
“Now all my best friends are French because I went to school with them, and my wife is French. I really made an effort to keep it because it’s important to me and I’m happy that I have it,” explained Clitsome. “My biggest worry was that when I went to school in the states, I’d lose my French. I took a couple French classes but they were basic immersion classes and were extremely easy,” he smiled. “But conveniently my roommate was from Montréal and didn’t speak a word of English, so we were perfect for each other - I helped him with his English and he helped me keep up my French,” laughed the 5’11” defenceman.
After four years on a full scholarship at Clarkson University, Clitsome graduated in Entrepreneurship Business and minored in Law and Political Science. “My last year playing Junior I was drafted to Columbus in the ninth round, I was about 10 picks from not getting drafted at all,” admitted Clitsome. “So when I finished my last year of hockey, I wasn’t done school yet.”
But school would have to wait as Clitsome signed his first pro contract with the Columbus Blue Jackets that year and finished the season in Syracuse playing for the Crunch of the AHL. “Then I went to Columbus’ camp the next year and played two seasons in Syracuse,” said Clitsome. Finally, on March 2, 2012, Clitsome made his NHL debut, recording two points for the Blue Jackets and winning the game's third star in a 4-3 overtime loss to the Vancouver Canucks.
That wasn’t enough to secure him a permanent spot on Columbus’ roster. “The next year I went to camp again and got sent down to Springfield for half the season. Then I got called up just after Christmas and I’ve been up ever since,” said Clitsome, who was claimed off waivers by the Jets on February 27, 2012 in the midst of a struggling year with the Blue Jackets.
Clitsome credits his teammate, Dustin Byfuglien, with helping him finally become a true NHL player. “Being paired up with Buff (last season) helped a lot. He’s an elite defenceman in the league and he’s a character. He makes the game light and fun and not too stressful, so that’s nice to have,” smiled Clitsome. “I think being paired up with him also helped in the sense of ice time – I got more ice time and ask any player, it’s easier to play the more you play and get into the game. You get more confidence; you build off of the things you do well and that’s what I tried to do,” explained Clitsome, who found himself paired with Byfuglien after his regular defensive partner, Toby Enstrom, was forced to sit out due to injury last year.
But it wasn’t easy at first. “The first few games went so-so; I wasn’t playing that much and if I made a mistake, I’d dwell on it and that never helps. I got healthy-scratched for a few games and that put things into perspective,” admitted Clitsome. “I came back with the attitude that I was just going to play my game tried to take the opportunity and not look back. I think I hit a comfort level with Buff; we read each other well on the ice and played well with each other, and tried to build on that every game.”
Even though he now has the team’s trust and confidence, Clitsome isn’t about to sit back and enjoy it. “It’s kind of a double-edged sword; it’s nice to have that comfort and security but at the same time, I have to make sure I don’t become complacent and too comfortable.”
But the hard-working Ontario native isn’t likely to succumb to complacency. Even in his spare time, Clitsome is constantly keeping busy remodeling his home or playing charity games with fellow NHL’ers. During the shortened season, he traveled through the Northern Territories and Yukon playing 3 showcase games for the charity First Assist. On Great Bear Lake, near the small community of Deline, Clitsome skated on the lake where Deline residents claim hockey was born, just like he did back home in Astorville over 20 years ago.