Every young hockey player hopes for that pivotal moment when a scout notices their play and sees enough promise to give them an opportunity to play the sport at the next level.
For Chicago Blackhawks prospect Adam Clendening, that scout just happened to be a 20-year NHL veteran who has experienced just about everything the game had to offer.
By Tal Pinchevsky - NHL.com Staff Writer
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It was longtime NHL player Steve Thomas who discovered Clendening, even taking the then-15-year-old defenseman into his home. But the lasting legacy of that chance encounter may be the incredibly close bond Clendening developed with Thomas' son, Montreal Canadiens prospect Christian Thomas.
"I was playing minor hockey in Buffalo and the league around Buffalo is not to the point where I needed to be if I wanted to take the next step playing hockey. So I actually ended up moving to Toronto and living in Steve Thomas' house. I lived with Christian and Steve was our coach," Clendening told NHL.com. "Steve liked the way I played. Just seeing him and some of the stuff he talked about, knowing his career. Just living with him day in and day out, that whole year, I went from there and ended up getting an early commitment to the national team and it just snowballed from there."
Clendening and Christian Thomas first met playing in a tournament when both were 13, but they barely knew each other when the kid from Buffalo moved in with Steve Thomas, who scored 421 goals and 933 points in 1,235 games with seven NHL teams.
Having seen something special in the young American, the elder Thomas earned the approval of Clendening's parents before enrolling him at St. Michael's College School in Toronto and coaching him and Christian with the vaunted Toronto Marlboros AAA Midget team, the same powerhouse program that recently produced players like Jason Spezza, Rick Nash, John Tavares, Sam Gagner, Ryan Strome and Malcolm Subban.
"I always admired the way he played. So we inquired about potentially bringing him to Toronto and what that would take for him to play for us in the minor midget year," Steve Thomas told NHL.com. "He wanted to do that because he felt he would get more exposure from OHL scouts and college scouts."
Scouts would soon notice both Clendening and Christian Thomas, who would take divergent paths to the NHL. Christian was the 13th selection in the Ontario Hockey League's Priority Selection draft, taken by the London Knights before playing much of his junior career with the Oshawa Generals. Clendening played with the United States Under-18 program before enrolling at Boston University.
But through their different routes to draft day -- Clendening was selected 36th by Chicago in 2011, Thomas 40th in 2010 by the New York Rangers -- the bond they developed as young roommates never faded.
"He came down and it was a little weird at first, with a guy you never met. Now we're good friends, we see each other all the time," Christian Thomas told NHL.com. "We were with each other every second. We became like brothers. He was like that with the whole family."
That indelible bond proved especially crucial last season, when both players experienced the ups and downs of their first professional campaign. With the Blackhawks' American Hockey League affiliate in Rockford, Clendening flourished, collecting 46 points in 73 games and being named a second-team all-star before travelling with the Blackhawks on their way to the 2013 Stanley Cup championship. At season's end, the 20-year-old defenseman was on the ice hoisting the Stanley Cup.
Thomas' season didn't end with his hands on the Cup, but it was still incredibly eventful. He enjoyed a strong first year with New York's AHL affiliate in Connecticut, scoring 19 goals, the third-highest total on his team. He even got a chance to score against his father, who is the Tampa Bay Lightning's current player development coach who last year spent some time behind the bench for the team's AHL affiliate in Syracuse.
"He came down and it was a little weird at first, with a guy you never met. Now we're good friends, we see each other all the time. We were with each other every second. We became like brothers. He was like that with the whole family."
-- Christian Thomas on his friendship with fellow prospect Adam Clendening
On Feb. 23, Thomas fulfilled his lifelong dream, making his NHL debut for the Rangers against the Canadiens, the team that would put a twist on Thomas' first pro season by trading for him shortly after the 2013 NHL Draft.
Though the two best friends didn't play against each other last season -- since living together as kids they've only played against each other once, in the 2010 IIHF World Under-18 Championship -- they shared all those indelible moments with regular phone calls and text messages.
And with both players looking to crack their respective NHL teams' rosters as everyday players, those conversations and that friendship could prove even more invaluable.
"We still talk about it here and there. My team [Chicago] is deep on the back end, his team [the Rangers] was deep up front. It's tough," Clendening said. "Everybody thinks it's easy to make the NHL. It's not."
With training camps just around the corner, both players are gearing up for what could be a pivotal moment in their hockey development. Clendening will be looking to build on his breakout rookie season in Rockford as Thomas begins a fresh start with Montreal. And through it all, the elder Thomas will be keeping an eye on both players, who unexpectedly became like brothers in a tight-knit, extended hockey family a few years ago.
"[Clendening] was one of our family members, for sure. That was right away. It's just the nature of Adam. He's a kid you like to have around," Steve Thomas said. "They [Christian and Adam] did everything together. They did a lot of things together. I think that, more than anything, solidified their friendship."