There was a time, Panthers goalie Scott Clemmensen
said when he wondered if he’d ever get an opportunity to prove he belonged in the NHL.
They seem like strange words now from a player who rescued the Devils last season with 25 victories in Martin Brodeur’s absence. Strange, but true.
For eight seasons, Clemmensen toiled in NHL anonymity. It wasn’t due to lack of confidence or ability. But after spending the majority of eight years playing in places like Albany and Lowell – after playing only 28 NHL games in those eight seasons –Clemmensen was questioning if he’d ever get a break.
After getting few opportunities to play in New Jersey from 2001-07 with Brodeur in goal, Clemmensen signed as a free agent with Toronto before the 2007-08 season. It was while wearing the Maple Leafs uniform that Clemmensen wondered if his days as an NHL goalie were numbered.
“I had two starts with the Maple Leafs that year,” Clemmensen recalled. “The first start we won in a shootout (against Tampa). The second game I lost in Pittsburgh pretty bad (6-2) and I was sent back to the (minors) and I played the rest of the year there. I didn’t really know at that time if I would get another opportunity in the NHL. I was really afraid that would be my last game.
“I was frightened that would be my last kick of the can, and I didn’t want it to be.”
But the Hockey Gods sometimes find it in themselves to reward perseverance and dedication…and a guy who sticks it out for eight years.
In a way, Clemmensen’s long, strange trip to the Panthers is one of hockey’s best. From being drafted in the eighth-round (215th), to playing with some bad minor-league hockey teams, to being stuck behind a legend until last season, Clemmensen stuck it out and was rewarded July 1 with a three-deal with the Panthers.
How improbable is Clemmensen’s journey? He wasn’t drafted his first of eligibility. His second year? “I was working that day as a waiter in a Chili’s in Des Moines (Ia),” he said.
“I felt in years past I had a foot in the door of being an NHL regular, but I lacked that real opportunity to prove it,” said Clemmensen, a 31-year-old from Iowa. “Then, obviously, last season was kind of my time when Marty got hurt and I was able to get my first opportunity to play regularly. So I felt this summer was my chance to, instead of getting my foot in the door, I kind of get my whole body in terms of the NHL and being an NHL regular.”
Clemmensen’s reaction? “I was disappointed...At the same time I feel I don’t have any regrets. I’m not going to take any bitterness with me.”
Brodeur said Clemmensen “exceeded everybody’s expectations.”
“Probably not his own, because I’m sure he knew he was able to do it,” he added.
All Clemmensen needed was a shot. Drafted by the Devils in ’97, a year in which four goalies were selected in the first round, Clemmensen earned a scholarship to Boston College, where he went 99-35-10 with 13 shutouts and a national championship his senior season.
But by the time Clemmensen entered the NHL and New Jersey’s system, the Devils had Brodeur and had spent two first-round picks on goalies, first in 1997 with Jean-Francois Damphousse and then in ’99 with Ari Ahonen. Damphousse played six games with the Devils, and Ahonen never played in the NHL.
Meanwhile, Clemmensen split his time between the Devils and Maple Leafs farm systems.
“The minor league team I played for, the (Albany) River Rats, was not a very good team,” he recalled. “It made me a better goalie, but it was very tough and hard for me to get my foot in the door. I’m playing on some bad teams, not being a very high draft pick, not having a very decorated college career in terms of personnel awards. So it’s tough to get noticed. You need someone to really fight for you.”
Clemmensen said retired Devils goalie coach Jacques Caron helped him during his time in New Jersey. But, ultimately, it was up to Clemmensen to win when he got the chance. He faces that same challenge now in Florida, an organization Clemmensen believes he has a shot at getting playing time with coach Peter DeBoer, who wasn’t afraid to ride departed Craig Anderson when Tomas Vokoun turned cold.
“My number one priority coming into the off-season was an opportunity, and that’s all I can ask from anybody,” Clemmensen said. “There’s no promises made to me. I wouldn’t expect any. All I expect is an opportunity, and that’s one of the things I liked about Florida. I knew I wouldn’t be in that situation in New Jersey. But here I know I’ll get a chance to play and I know if I play well I’ll get more playing time.
“That seems to simple, so trivial. The lay person might say that’s how it works anywhere, but that hasn’t been the case for me in my eight years. So I’m looking forward to that. With coach DeBoer’s style…it seems that’s the way he runs things. I notice these things, being a backup goalie for so many years. I notice which teams are willing to hand the reins over to a backup from time to time, and Florida is one of those teams.”
For Clemmensen, it’s a chance to get another opportunity. And that’s all he’s ever asked.