The YoungStars Game during the NHL's All-Star Weekend featured some of the top first-year talent in hockey, guys who were high draft picks and are regarded as future stars. Then there was New Jersey rookie forward David Clarkson
, a player whom no one wanted on draft day.
"It's been a lot of hard work to get here," Clarkson said. "Just for the NHL to give me the opportunity to be in this game and for my team to give me the opportunity to play in the League has been a big deal for me."
Clarkson made it to the NHL because of his toughness. Though he's not the biggest guy in the League at 6-foot-1 and 200 pounds, he's always willing to stand up for his teammates.
"I think it can give a team a spark. You might be losing by two or three, and a guy goes out and it sparks a team. Or a guy hits a guy on your team the wrong way, and you're going to out there. But it's such a fast game now, you've got to be able to play, too.
And as the Toronto native showed by scoring one of the prettiest goals during the YoungStars game, he's capable of contributing offensively as well.
"He has to play a certain way to be effective," Devils coach Brent Sutter
said of Clarkson. "He will have offensive opportunities because he can skate and he can shoot. He goes to the net, and he has to be willing to do that all the time."
That willingness to go to the net, as well as to stick up for his teammates, is what attracted the Devils after Clarkson finished his junior career at Kitchener of the Ontario Hockey League, where he scored 33 goals and had 145 penalty minutes in his final season.
Clarkson says other teams also offered him a contract, but a meeting with New Jersey GM Lou Lamoriello convinced him to join the Devils.
"When I came out of juniors, I had a couple of offers," he said. "But I came down to New Jersey, I met Mr. Lamoriello and that's where I wanted to be — in his organization."
The Devils didn't rush him. Clarkson spent all of 2005-06 with the AHL's Albany River Rats and almost all of 2006-07 with Lowell after the Devils changed affiliates. He says the chance to learn at the minor-league level was invaluable.
"I had the opportunity to play in Albany for a year and then Lowell for a year and got called up at the end of last season," he said. "I learned a lot about being a professional."
Clarkson had scored 20 goals for Lowell when he was called up to New Jersey a year ago. The Devils didn't baby him — Clarkson got more than 15 minutes of ice time in his NHL debut at Carolina on March 15, 2007.
"I was pretty nervous — you just want to chip the puck in and chip it out -- try not to make any mistakes at the beginning. We had a lot of guys who made me feel comfortable. That made it a bit easier on me, but I still had he nerves going for a couple of games."
So did getting his first NHL goal, which he did two days later when the Hurricanes made a return visit to New Jersey. A year later, he's still at a loss to explain the feeling he had when he beat Carolina goaltender John Grahame
, even though the goal came in a 7-2 loss.
"I don't know how to explain it," he said. "You dream as a kid of playing in the NHL, but to score a goal is a whole different feeling."
The Devils are an old-school team, one with a lot of veterans that generally adds rookies rarely and slowly. Coming to a team like that could have been difficult, but Clarkson said the veterans helped him fit right in.
"From Marty Brodeur through every guy in that room, they make you feel like you've been here a long time," he said. "They make you feel comfortable in the room. That's a big thing, you don't go to the rink feeling uncomfortable, like a young guy.
|"I love what I'm getting the opportunity to do right now. Every day, going to the rink, is a lot of fun." - Devils forward David Clarkson
"The older guys have been a big help, telling you where to be, what to do. It helps you a ton when they older guys are always there for you and always good to you."
Not many of us know as kids what we want to do when we grow up. Clarkson did: He knew he wanted to be a hockey player — if not a Devil.
"When I was a kid, I don't remember any time I didn't have a mini-stick or a hockey stick in my hand," he said. "I was a Leaf fan growing up, born and raised in Toronto, so my dad had Leafs stuff hanging up everywhere when I was little. I remember watching the Leafs with him, and when the Leafs lost in the playoffs, it was a sad moment in the house.
"My favorite player was Wendel Clark
. I always idolized him. I think if I met him, I'd be a bit nervous because of how much I liked him when I was growing up."
There are NHL players who are bigger, faster and more talented than Clarkson. But you'd probably have to look pretty hard to find one who's happier to be where he is today.
"I love what I do, and not everyone can say that," he said. "I love what I'm getting the opportunity to do right now. Every day, going to the rink, is a lot of fun."