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Defining Hockey Toughness

by John McGourty / Minnesota Wild
Just as a society benefits from the diversity of its citizenry, hockey teams benefit from a diversity of skill sets. A team needs a goalie who can stop pucks, players who can pass, shoot and score, and players who can defend their teammates when needed.

Teams also need players like the Minnesota Wild's Cal Clutterbuck who, as a rookie last season, led the NHL with 356 hits in 78 games. His job is to deliver fatigue and frustration to his opponents. He's a burr under the saddle, grit in the gears, sand under your skates.

Sometimes, you just want to smack a guy like that.

"A big part of my game is trying to get other people to take penalties," said Clutterbuck, whose play is so disciplined he received only 76 penalty minutes while rivals went to the penalty box far more often.

"It's hard to frustrate your opponent if you yourself are being penalized. Then, they say you're undisciplined. Staying disciplined, staying out of the penalty box, is something that I'm focused on. The coach doesn't have to tell me that. I've played that way since minor hockey."

At 5-foot-11 and 213 pounds, Clutterbuck, 22, is well-built for the job, but it still takes toughness to invite repeated contact every game. It also takes toughness to not retaliate when an agitated opponent throws a punch or gives you a face-wash.

"The toughest thing to do is take an extra hit and an extra shove and not retaliate," Clutterbuck agreed. "It's not a good feeling. It angers you but you have to be able to suck it up and move on. If you don't, it can cost your team. The ability to move on is really important and not easy to do. It's a team game and there's something to be said for guys who take it and suck it up.
"There are two kinds of toughness in hockey. There's the obvious kind, guys who are willing to fight anybody, and then there's the kind that goes unnoticed, the guys with the consistent willingness to go in the areas that are difficult to be in, be willing to take punishment and be able to dole out the kind of punishment that helps you get to pucks first.

"It requires toughness to be the forechecker who separates the puck carrier from the puck. You have to be tough to take a hit to make a play. These things aren't clichés in hockey, they are important and it takes a physically and mentally tough person to be able to do it on a consistent basis."

Clutterbuck's toughness really shows in the late stages of games. It's only slightly less painful to throw checks than receive them, but Clutterbuck keeps the banging going from first puck drop through the final horn. His job is to produce an erosion of desire and intensity in his opponent.

"Hockey is a funny game. One night, you have all the room in the world and the next night, you feel like you're in a phone booth because of the amount of pressure being applied," he said. "I like to keep the pressure on by being relentless. You do it over a long period of time and people will make mistakes.

"Even when you are tired, they will turn pucks over because they are used to you being there. When I'm consistent, it makes opponents more tentative with the puck.

"My job consists of lots of little things, creating loose pucks and turnovers. The most important aspect is to have the opponent second-guessing what they want to do because they feel pressure from me or a teammate."

Clutterbuck is dealing with two new situations this season; a new coach (Todd Richards) and overcoming injury. He didn't miss a game due to injury last season while throwing more checks than any other NHL player, but he hurt his ankle in the fourth game of this season, against San Jose, and missed the next five contests. Clutterbuck returned on Oct. 24 and scored 4 goals in his first 10 games after the injury.

"It took me a little while to get over it," Clutterbuck said. "I was still feeling the effects for probably four or five games. I was able to play, but I wasn't 100 percent and it affected me in my ability to generate speed and change direction quickly, two big parts of my game. I felt hindered but it's gotten better."

Clutterbuck's intensity, consistency and defensive focus appealed to former Wild coach Jacques Lemaire, who gave the rookie increasing ice time and responsibilities last season. But Lemaire stepped down at season's end and was replaced by Richards, who has a mandate to develop a more offensively focused style of play.

"It's a lot different this season," Clutterbuck said. "Their coaching styles are different. Personally, the style we play now is what I was used to growing up in junior hockey and then in the AHL when Kevin Constantine was my coach. The transition this year has been fairly easy for me. I'm trying to find the happy medium between being able to get in and get the big hits while being responsible at the same time."

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