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Lifting His Game

by Doug Ward / Los Angeles Kings

Some hockey players raise the Stanley Cup to take a swig of beer from it. When Kyle Clifford lifted Hockey’s Holy Grail, he was doing bench presses with it at his home gym. Maybe that’s why Clifford got off to such a strong start this season, showing no traces of a Stanley Cup hangover.

Or maybe it’s because of the way last year’s postseason played out for Clifford.

The 22-year-old power forward suffered a concussion in the first game of the Kings postseason run last year, after which he played in just two of the team’s remaining playoff games. As a result, Clifford was the rare player who went into an off-season with a Stanley Cup ring on his finger and unfinished business in his heart.

“When (Kyle) left last spring, he was so happy that we won it, but so disappointed that he didn’t get to play after he got hurt in the Vancouver series,” Kings Coach Darryl Sutter said. “That was his whole purpose when he left; he wanted to put himself in a position to play regular. He did that.”

Clifford, the Kings second-round pick (35th overall) in 2009, was part of a Stanley Cup win that could be a once in a lifetime experience. But, through no fault of his, Clifford watched most of the action while wearing a suit and tie. Still, it was the ride of a lifetime, and Clifford did what he could to enjoy it.

“It was such an exciting time for everyone in the organization,” Clifford said. “Everyone was a part of it. It was an amazing experience.”

When the time comes for Clifford to look back on that championship season, he will do so with mixed emotions, a byproduct of being hammered into the glass by Vancouver’s Byron Bitz. As nasty as the hit was, Clifford is happy that he can remember anything at all.

“That was a pretty tough hit,” Clifford said of the blow he absorbed. “I needed to take some time off. About halfway through the St. Louis series, I was cleared and could have played.”

The impact left Clifford woozy, but it’s clear he has his wits about him now. Ever the team player, he says he has no trouble understanding why Sutter was reluctant to shake up a winning formula.

“I was really disappointed to get hurt in the first game, but I understood that the team got hot and it didn’t make any sense to change the lineup,” Clifford said. “I had to step back and be a good teammate.”

Still, it’s hard to blame Clifford for feeling he could have played a bigger part than the cameo role he was left with last spring.

This year Clifford is stepping up and being a good teammate. If the Kings are to repeat, it will be at least in part because Clifford has played a significant role.

“Coming off the Cup run,” Clifford said, “I wanted to make sure I was ready going into this season. My main focus was working on my speed and quickness. I wanted to prepare myself for this season.”

After last year’s champagne dried, Clifford returned home to Ayr, Ontario, Canada, where he put together a short to-do list that looked something like this: spend one day with the Stanley Cup; spend every other day working to win it again.

Fitting, then, that rather than drinking out of the Cup, part of Clifford’s day with Hockey’s Holy Grail included a photo op of him doing bench presses with it in his boyhood home.

The town of Ayr, Clifford says, is the kind of place where, “everyone knows each other.” Former King Jay Wells hails from nearby Paris, Ontario, and Clifford says he saw the Cup in ’94 when Wells brought it to the area after the Rangers triumph over Vancouver. He remembers how much that meant to him and he wanted locals to have that feeling again.

“There are a lot of great people in Ayr,” Clifford said. “It’s rewarding and I don’t take it for granted.”

It is not in Clifford’s makeup to take anything for granted. When the lockout threatened the season, Clifford left the Ontario in Canada for the one in Southern California, all in the name of becoming a better hockey player.

That may sound backward, but Clifford is convinced that opting to play for the Kings ECHL affiliate in Ontario, California, was absolutely the right choice for him. In nine games with the Reign, Clifford had four goals and three assists for seven points.

“Going to Ontario was a smart decision for me,” Clifford said. “I’m a younger guy and there is still a lot of room for me to improve, so it made sense for me to play in Ontario. I wanted to keep playing and working on my game, and being in Ontario kept me close to LA – in case the season started.”

When the lockout finally ended in January, Clifford was ready.

“From a conditioning standpoint, it really helped,” Clifford said. “Down there they only have three lines, so you are on the ice pretty much every other shift. As far as conditioning, that was a good kick start.”

There was a time when Clifford’s game was largely about giving his team a kick-start. After racking up a combined 244 penalty minutes in his final seasons of junior hockey with Barrie of the Ontario Hockey League, Clifford entered the league with a reputation as the kind of player who could ignite his teammates with his fists. Today, Clifford is no longer regarded solely as a fighter as he continues to develop into a complete power forward.

“I play a physical game and I have been known to fight,” Clifford allowed. “But, I don’t want to be known as just a physical player. I have a reputation as a fighter; toughness and grit will always be there, but I want to develop other aspects of my game. Early in my career, I had to be physical.”

Clifford will never entirely trade his physical style for a finesse game, but he does aim for balance. Others have made the transformation and Clifford believes he can follow their lead.

“There are a number of guys you can look at,” Clifford said of his role models. “I will never be as skilled as he is, but Todd Bertuzzi is a good example. (Montreal’s) Brandon Prust had to play physical (and developed into a skilled player).”

Clifford’s role continues to expand and evolve. The Kings, meanwhile, would be quite content to stay right where they are, atop the hockey world. Repeating as Stanley Cup champs, however, does not come easy. No team has won back-to-back Cups since the Red Wings in 1998. Clifford understands why. Taking the ice as the defending champs is altogether different from walking into the rink as an upstart.

“Teams know what we are capable of now,” Clifford said. “You are not catching anyone by surprise.”

Still, Clifford says there won’t be a Stanley Cup hangover. Not for him, and not for any of his teammates. And after a slow start to this shortened season, the Kings have begun to play better as a team and are on the cusp of getting another postseason spot secured.

“We are starting to catch our stride,” he said. “We are starting to play the way we are capable of.”

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