It took a lot of courage for Rich Clune to write an op-ed piece in The Players Tribune about his battle with addiction. While that article was published five days ago, Clune first went public with it in early 2013, when he joined the Nashville Predators.
“The public relations department came to me and said ‘hey, you know people are digging around,’” Clune said on Sunday. “I think people were wondering why I disappeared off the radar in L.A. and there were rumours flying around. So they just said that Scott Burnside at ESPN wants to see if you would talk about some of the stuff in your personal life and shed some light on your situation.”
Initially apprehensive, Clune agreed to talk, knowing it could help another person in a similar situation. Perhaps a firsthand account of what he went through would prompt change. But the timing was interesting.
The interview was conducted before Clune became a free agent. He played just one game in the NHL last season while spending much of his time in the AHL and was bought out. But he had no apprehension about telling the story despite his new status.
“It was just one of those things where you just do it and I’m almost always brutally honest about myself. I’m sure all the people around me who know me know that I don’t hide much,” Clune said. “And I also felt that if you tell the truth you can’t go wrong. Being a free agent and having that come out being a free agent I didn’t think it would impact it any way. If anything, the teams that I was dealing with the past week through my agent, the feedback I got that were commending me and respecting me.”
Toronto presented a unique opportunity: A chance to play in his hometown and a shot at redemption.
“It’s weird," he said. "In my heart once I knew I was getting bought out by Nashville and becoming a free agent and I can remember having a conversation with my agent before things got underway and I said ‘I would want to play in Toronto, for the Leafs.' And my agent was like ‘OK’. It just so happens that Toronto reached out to them and they basically made the offer.”
The Leafs signed Clune to an AHL contract.
With the Leafs preparing to add as many bodies as possible, they are up against the 50-player contract limit. So a two-way contract wasn’t possible — at least not yet. Clune was fine with that and has every opportunity to earn an NHL contract. The opportunity will come in September when Leafs training camp opens up.
“I wanted to be a Leaf," he said. "And I guess both sides got creative on how we can make this work and just basically the contract with the Marlies is weighed out and it’s a very good opportunity. It’s an interesting scenario for me to come to camp and earn an NHL deal through my play and progress and I just basically couldn’t pass it up.”
Being bought out can be a bit of an ego hit, but many players managed to persevere. Given Clune’s past, he expected every question of his character. However, at no point did Clune think his playing days could be numbered.
“Obviously when you are bought out, there’s a lot of red flags that go up. That’s to be expected and I don’t blame any of the teams for asking questions and hesitating,” said Clune. “It was definitely interesting but at no point did I think I was done. As far as I’m concerned I have a new lease on life and a new lease on my hockey career. I think the best is definitely yet to come.”
It was Leafs Co-Interim GM Kyle Dubas who first had discussions with Clune about his role with the Leafs. From there, he spoke to new Marlies coach Sheldon Keefe. Both sides wanted to see where Clune sees himself and what role he would have with the Marlies or Leafs should it get to that point.
“I’m very excited to come to camp and be exposed to coaching from Mike Babcock who is one of the most respected coaches of all time and arguably one of the best coaches in hockey. As far as that goes, I can’t wait to get in there and learn and get the opportunity to potentially play for Sheldon Keefe, who I actually, growing up as a hockey player, I followed Sheldon in his junior career. He was a very good player and he obviously did a really good job with the Soo Greyhounds, a very young coach and a hungry coach and I’m looking forward to the opportunity to learn from him as well.”
Clune is currently training at Unbreakable Performance out in Los Angeles, where he will be until his move to Toronto in mid-August to train with the team. While in L.A., his passion for the arts also gets to be exercised. It’s not a big focus for him at the moment, but it’s another interest of his when he isn’t living hockey.
“I don’t really have time to go out and do auditions, that’s not something I’m looking to do right now. I’m still focused on my hockey career. But I am shooting an independent short film through a production company here that will be done Wednesday this week. But it’s been interesting. I have a different side to me that some people would think would be a little obscure and different but I love to study and it’s something that I’m really passionate about and I enjoy doing it.”
In the end, coming home to play can only be good for a kid that grew up on the Danforth. It helps when you are an original fan of the team.
“I don’t want to be one of those players that sits there and gushes and say it’s a dream come true. But I was a big a Leafs fan as you can possibly imagine a young kid could be, growing up in the inner-city of Toronto. You can ask me about any team from the nineties and I can probably tell you the stats from players people didn’t even know played for the team," Clune said.
“To say it would be a dream come true would be a colossal understatement.”