By Tim Wharnsby, The Canadian Press
One of Kevin Clark’s theories as to why he performed so brilliantly for Canada at the Spengler Cup last month and why he has enjoyed some of his best hockey at age 32 is the fact he became a father last summer.
The diminutive but energetic forward from Winnipeg led the prestigious tournament with six goals and eight points in four games for general manager Sean Burke’s side on its run to a record 16th championship in Davos, Switzerland.
“You listen to different teammates talk over the years,” the five-foot-eight, 170-pound Clark said. “Some said when you have a family, or you’re engaged to be married, they’re in love, and their game gets better.
“I have a five-month-old daughter, and maybe that’s part of it.”
Clark and his wife Hayden welcomed Kinley into the world just before he was about to begin his eighth season in Europe, his second with Rappersweil-Jona in Switzerland.
The Canadian team for the annual Spengler Cup consists of a group playing professionally in Europe, along with a few American Hockey League players.
“I’d probably put it up there as (a career) highlight,” Clark said. “I was given an opportunity to produce and succeed. That made everything easier, and everything fell into place.”
In most stops along his journey, Clark’s game has fallen into place. He is a small package of skill, intensity and hustle. He is part sniper, part agitator.
“He’s the European Joe Pavelski,” Burke said, comparing Clark to the standout Dallas Stars forward. “(Clark’s) obviously not a big guy, but he has a lot of compete in him. He has skill, and he can finish. He wills his way to be a factor. He has that kind of attitude. He thinks he’s six-foot-three.”
Clark always has played this way. When he was playing Tier II junior with the Winnipeg South Blues, each season began with a stint at a Western Hockey League training camp. The first two were with the Kelowna Rockets. The final stop was with the Saskatoon Blades. But he was too small, 130 to 140 pounds back then.
“I got beat up pretty bad in a fight in Saskatoon,” he said. “I told my dad to get me out of there. I wanted to go back and finish with the South Blues. I knew U.S. college was the route I had to go.”
Clark led the South Blues to the Manitoba Junior Hockey League’s Turnbull Cup championship in 2005-06. His coach, Ken Pearson, helped him land a scholarship at the University of Alaska-Anchorage.
Clark led his school in scoring in his senior season. During the Christmas break, he visited with Manitoba Moose general manager Craig Heisinger about signing with the AHL team after his college career. There were other opportunities, but Clark wanted to play at home for the team he cheered for as a kid.
“It was almost too good to be true, and I’m thankful to (Heisinger) for that chance,” he said.
Clark made the most of his chance with the Moose, then a farm team of the Vancouver Canucks. He scored a couple of goals in nine regular-season games and added another goal in his four playoff outings.
“He was a Winnipeg kid who played with lots of spice,” said Heisinger, now also an assistant GM of the Winnipeg Jets. “I had seen him play a lot of Tier II in Winnipeg, and I liked passion and determination. I also saw him take the dumbest penalty ever that cost his team a championship, and if he ever showed that kind of selfishness again, I would move on, he didn’t.”
Heisinger refused to elaborate on the details of the penalty. Clark doesn’t recall any such incident, though he did take five penalties in a post-season loss for the South Blues against the Yorkton Terriers in 2006.
“I was immature in those days,” Clark said. “I’ve come a long way since then.”
Clark studied how star players his size succeed. One of the first he intently watched was then-Moose centre Brandon Reid, along with former NHLers Martin St. Louis and Derek Roy.
Another mentor was four-time Stanley Cup winner Mike Keane. The Winnipeg native finished his decorated career with the Moose, playing his final season in Clark’s first pro campaign.
The Moose moved to St. John’s in 2011 when the Jets returned to the NHL. Clark scored a goal in the Jets’ first exhibition game at home, and until last week he’s never seen his mobile phone “blow up” like it did when he scored in that game against Columbus.
But Clark’s ice time was reduced with St. John’s during the 2012-13 NHL lockout. So he decided mid-season to head to Europe after talking with locals like Nigel Dawes and Jacob Micflikier, a pair of smaller players who flourished abroad.
“It was an emotional decision. A lot of them said they wished they went to Europe sooner,” Clark said.
He made an impact immediately in early stops in Germany, Switzerland and Sweden, and later in Russia and now back to Switzerland. With Brynas IF, Clark led all playoff performers in the 2016-17 Swedish Elite League. Brynas lost the championship final in overtime in Game 7.
Clark’s efforts that spring put him on Burke’s radar for the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympic team, which did not include NHLers.
Clark played for Canada in early August 2017 in an international tournament in Sochi, Russia. It was a little early for him to be at his best. He wasn’t invited back to one of the later competitions Canada used as tryouts.
“Looking back, you always second-guess yourself when you don’t win,” said Burke, whose Canadian team took bronze at the Olympics. “He was a guy we gave high consideration for our team.”
The way Clark has been playing, he will be a candidate for Canada in 2022 if the NHL decides to once again not participate in the Olympics.
“As you get older, you realize what your strengths,” he said. “When you’re younger, you’re not shooting as much as you should. You think you’re selfish. You’re not selfish. That’s what you’re supposed to do to help the team succeed.”