By Dave Joseph for floridapanthers.com
|Clay Wilson (Getty Images)
Clay Wilson has called his career in professional hockey a “slow climb” and “struggle.” In fact, much like The Myth of Sisyphus, every time the 26-year-old defenseman gets close in reaching his dream of playing in the NHL, he seems destined to have to begin all over again.
Since leaving Alaska and his adopted hometown of North Pole as a sophomore in high school - yes, THE North Pole – Wilson has had to fight for everything he’s earned in professional hockey. From being under the radar to college recruiters to playing on losing teams at Michigan Tech to never having been drafted, Wilson has been a study in perseverance.
But after having proven himself the past three seasons as one of the American Hockey League’s (AHL) best skating defenseman, Wilson is hoping to get a shot at making the big time with the Panthers.
“It’s been a struggle,” Wilson recently from his summer home in Minnesota. “I’ve had to prove myself over and over again. It’s been a slow climb.”
Wilson has bounced around the past three years from Anaheim to Columbus to Atlanta to Florida. But he finds himself on a team come Sept. 13 that could be looking for experience and depth on the blue line, and that’s a situation Wilson embraces.
“I was hoping over the off-season there would be a few teams with interest in me,” he said. “For me, getting signed by Florida is a great opportunity. It’s wound up being a perfect situation for me.”
The youngest of seven children, Wilson’s family moved when he was two from Minnesota to Alaska and the town of North Pole. And it was there Wilson developed into a hockey player.
“The hockey there was actually pretty competitive,” he recalled. “We did a lot of traveling and played in a lot of tournaments...they would take the better players in the area and play in tournaments in Minnesota, Colorado, Utah and a few other different places.”
Wilson and his family returned to Minnesota his sophomore year of high school to be closer to family, and, after a strong senior year at Carlton High School, earned a scholarship to Michigan Tech. Things started well for Wilson at Tech, scoring 25 points (eight goals) in 38 games his sophomore season and was named the team’s outstanding defenseman. But when coach Mike Sertich retired after the 2002-03 season, Wilson’s numbers his junior and senior seasons fell sharply.
Not only wasn’t Tech winning – they didn’t win more than eight games a season during Wilson’s four years - but Wilson dropped to 13 points his junior season and only seven as a senior. It was enough for him to question whether he wanted to continue to play.
“It was a learning process,” mused Wilson of his time at Tech. “It was definitely a tough four years. We were losing, and there was a coaching change my junior year and it was a big change. Different coaches have different perspectives on players. It all kind of took it out of me and I didn’t know if I would (continue to) play.
“But I knew I had to try because I didn’t want to have in the back of mind ‘What if?’ So I wound up in Muskegon (of the United Hockey League) just thinking to try out. And everything ended up taking off from there. It was a blast, we won a championship, and it kind of sparked me again.”
After parts of two seasons in Muskegon, Wilson got his break in the AHL when he joined the Grand Rapids Griffins. After a solid first season in the AHL (37 points in 60 games), Wilson was signed as a free agent by the Anaheim Ducks. After being named the team’s Unsung Hero by the fans in 2006-07, Wilson was traded to Columbus in November of 2007. It was during the 2007-08 season that Wilson made his NHL debut, playing seven games with the Blue Jackets and scoring a goal and an assist.
“They called me up at the end of the year, I played seven games, and I finished up and had a great showing,” Wilson recalled. “It gave me a lot of hope for the future. The next year, I had an OK training camp, but I think they had a lot of depth on defense.”
That depth was enough for the Blue Jackets to trade Wilson to Atlanta in January for Jason Williams. Wilson wound up the 2008-09 season scoring 25 points in 37 games with the AHL’s Chicago Wolves and getting two games in Atlanta with the Thrashers.
After the Panthers signed Wilson last month, assistant GM Randy Sexton called Wilson a “versatile and mobile player who was one of the top defensemen in the American Hockey League last season.”
“He has played a handful of games in the National Hockey League and understands what it takes to compete at this level and will be given the opportunity to compete for a spot on our team in training camp.”
And that’s all Wilson is asking…again.
“I know nothing is guaranteed,” Wilson said. “I just hope to come in, have a really good camp, and, hopefully, turn some heads and stick.”