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Clifford Gains Roster Spot, Loses Friend

by Rich Hammond / Los Angeles Kings
It should have been a joyous time, an opportunity for two friends to talk, laugh and celebrate the fact that one of them had achieved the dream they shared for years.

Kings winger Kyle Clifford made his NHL debut last weekend, but did so with a bit of a heavy heart, his thoughts never far from a friend with whom he couldn't share it.

Ben Pearson, a junior-hockey defenseman who grew up 12 miles from Clifford in southern Ontario, Canada, died in the early-morning hours of Oct. 2 from a rare condition that limited his body's ability to process protein. (Norwich Merchants)
Ben Pearson, a junior-hockey defenseman who grew up 12 miles from Clifford in southern Ontario, Canada, died in the early-morning hours of Oct. 2. Pearson, 20, apparently had a rare condition that limited his body's ability to process protein.

Three days after learning of the death of a close childhood friend, Clifford got more life-changing news. Still eligible to play junior hockey, Clifford instead won a job with the Kings and then, at age 19, made his NHL debut on Oct. 9 at Vancouver.

``It definitely gives you a different perspective on life, as far as just how quick things can change,'' Clifford said of Pearson's death. ``You have to take it all in when you can. That's not just dealing with life and death, but also situations like this [playing in the NHL]. I'm just trying to take it all in now. I just wish he was still here.''

Clifford did what he could Saturday. He wrote Pearson's name and uniform number on his stick and gave a strong effort against the Canucks, playing the type of hard-nosed, gritty game which Pearson knew well from all of their training sessions together.

``I'm just trying to remember him as best as possible,'' Clifford said. ``It's tragic how he went, but he lived and died hockey.''

For any Canadian kid, the chances of making the NHL are statistically tiny. They're even slimmer for a kid such as Clifford, who grew up as one of approximately 3,000 residents of Ayr, a small community a few cities to the west of Toronto.

One of those in-between cities is Cambridge, where Pearson was born five months before Clifford. They would meet, become friends and grow together, in many ways.

Clifford developed as a forward, Pearson as a defenseman, but they shared size and bulk -- Clifford is 6-foot-2, 207 pounds, while Pearson was 6-2, 240 pounds -- and a willingness to work hard for teammates and drop the gloves when necessary. One newspaper article this week described Pearson's desire to become a police officer.

``He was the kind of guy who was best friends with everyone, just a gentle giant and liked by everyone,'' Clifford said.

While Pearson's hockey career got stalled by a serious injury in 2008 -- at the time of his death, he was playing for a Junior-C level team in Norwich, Ontario -- Clifford progressed quickly and he became a second-round pick of the Kings in 2009.

One of the final cuts in training camp last year, Clifford looked even better this year, but throughout camp Clifford was locked in a competition with Rich Clune, an older, more experienced player, for the expected role of fourth-line energy player and agitator.

As the final weekend of training camp approached, Clifford and Clune remained in a neck-and-neck race. Clifford would get a chance to play in the final two preseason games, Oct. 2 against Colorado in Las Vegas and Oct. 3 at Anaheim.

Then, the news came, not long before the Las Vegas game. Days before, Pearson had been hospitalized because of what apparently was thought to be some type of virus.

It turned out to be much more serious. Pearson's father, Steve, has been quoted in several media reports as saying that his son was born with a liver that lacked an enzyme to properly break down protein that Pearson consumed.

The condition went undiagnosed as Pearson grew up, and led to what Steve Pearson called ``the perfect storm brewing,'' according to The Record newspaper in Ontario.

Steve Pearson said his son had been on a high-protein diet, one that included numerous shakes and nutritional bars. The extra protein was too much for Pearson's body to handle, and after a few days of lethargy and feeling ill, Pearson started to develop intense swelling of the brain and went into a coma.

``I talked to him a few days before that, and he was completely fine, no problems,'' Clifford said. ``His last words to me were, `Keep going,' and stuff like that. So it was pretty rough. It was a lot to take in, with everything already on my shoulders here.''

On Oct. 2, just hours before the Kings' game in Las Vegas, Clifford got the news that Pearson had died. Clifford not only played that night, but played with spirit, drawing an instigator penalty for his fight with Colorado's Ryan Wilson.

On Oct. 5, Clifford learned that he had made the Kings' roster. Two days later, his friend was memorialized with a funeral service at a rink in Cambridge, at the exact time Clifford was practicing with his new teammates, preparing for his NHL debut.

``I talked to his dad,'' Clifford said. ``I really wanted to be there at the funeral, but he told me that Ben would have kicked my (butt) if I came back for that and missed an opportunity like this. It was a pretty tough time, and pretty devastating for everyone.''

Clifford tried to play through it as well as possible, and gave a good showing in his debut game against the Canucks on Saturday. In just over seven minutes of ice time, in a fourth-line left-wing role, Clifford recorded three hits.

The Kings believe Clifford can eventually develop into a dangerous two-way player. Clifford is a physical player who scored 28 goals in 58 games for Barrie last season.

``He’s got some potential to move up, as he gets further into his career,'' Kings coach Terry Murray said. ``He’s going to become a player who can play in your top nine quite easily, later on. The potential is something we’re going to continue to work with, and at the same time, he’s a 19-year-old with a man’s body. I have no reluctance, whatsoever, to have him out there against the bigger, stronger veteran players, because of that physical strength that he has.''

Clifford's near future remains unclear. Clifford could still be returned to his junior team -- the OHL's Barrie Colts -- before his 10th NHL game, for another year of lower-level seasoning, but this month's events have taught Clifford not to look too far ahead.

``It's been an up-and-down couple of weeks, especially with (Pearson's death) and making my NHL debut with a couple other kids out here too,'' Clifford said. ``It's definitely an exciting time for myself and my family.

``It was the most fun I've ever had playing. It was pretty much everything I ever dreamed of, and then more. It's just an exciting atmosphere to be around professional players and the way they look at the game, and their perspective on the game. It kind of just makes you realize how great this game truly is.''
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