Veteran NHL defenseman Brett Clark signed with the OKC Barons on January 21st and with only six games under his belt he has clearly started to make an impact on this team of young prospects. What makes a veteran of his caliber want to join a minor league team? And how does he feel about being a member of an AHL team again?
This season’s NHL lockout created a topsy-turvy professional hockey world. We saw NHL level young stars begin the season with their AHL teams and older veterans playing on ECHL teams. And now that the NHL season has resumed, we are still witnessing a strange flux of talent shifting and moving between the leagues. As a minor league team affiliated with the Edmonton Oilers, OKC is incredibly lucky (thanks to Bill Scott!) to be able to sign Brett Clark. From the beginning of the season OKC has lacked any veteran leadership among the young defensive core and signing someone of Clark’s caliber, with Stanley Cup playoff experience, is a huge bonus.
I sat down to talk to Brett Clark about his career, team dynamics, his signing with the OKC Barons and what he can do for this team both on and off the ice – as you will see, he is very articulate about what assets, experience and advice he can put to use here in OKC. On top of all of that, I was able to actually talk to one of the members of that 2010-11 Tampa Bay Lightning playoff team – remember them? Guy Boucher’s 1-3-1 and his unusual approach to coaching?
Welcome to OKC, Brett!
Thanks to Steven Christy for the use of his photographs, Neal Livingston (at Tend the Farm) for adding some questions to the mix as always, and also thanks to Josh Evans for arranging the interviews. And most of all, thank you Brett Clark! It was a pleasure talking to you!
- Number: 5
- Position: Defenseman
- Born: 12/23/1976
- Height: 6-0
- Weight: 194
- Origin: Wapella, Saskatchewan
Interview with Brett Clark — January 7, 2013
PT: You grew up in Wapella, Saskatchewan. Were you born there? Tell us more about your hometown.
Clark: Yes, I was born and raised there and my parents actually are still there and are still farming. It was nice coming out of a very small community, a very hockey oriented community. My uncle actually played in the NHL and the WHA and my parents ran the rink so I spent a lot of time there.
PT: So that’s how you got into hockey! How long have you been playing – from what age?
Clark: I probably started skating when I was about 3 and just sort of played while I was growing up there in a small town, and then continued with each higher age group. Winters are very harsh there so you spend a lot of time in the rink and as kids, our time during the winter was spent on the ice with good friends. I spent a lot of time out there and that’s where my career started.
PT: And you said your uncle also played in the NHL and WHA?
Clark: Yes, Dave Dunn [who was a defenseman]. He actually played in the WHA and then played in the NHL with Toronto, Winnipeg, and Vancouver. It was great and he helped me along the way.
[A note for OKC fans: Dave Dunn played 9 games with the Oklahoma City Blazers during the 1975-76 season when it was affiliated with the Toronto Maple Leafs!]
PT: How would you describe yourself – what kind of person are you?
Clark: Very laid back, outgoing, always having a good time. I like to spend a lot of time with family, my kids and my wife. We try to do as much as we can together especially over the last little bit during the lockout. We got to spend some good quality time together. I just like to have fun and enjoy every day as it comes because you never know what could happen the next day.
PT: What is the one thing about you that would surprise people the most?
Clark: [laughing] Probably that I like to joke around with a lot of the guys. Everybody always sees me as a happy going guy, always fun, but I do like to play those jokes on some of the younger guys – and a lot of people wouldn’t know that.
PT: You were drafted by the Montreal Canadiens, and you’ve spent a number of seasons with the Canadiens, Atlanta Thrashers, Colorado Avalanche and Tampa Bay Lightning as well as a number of AHL clubs and even an IHL team. – What are some of your best hockey memories so far?
Clark: I think always the best memory is getting drafted, getting that opportunity. Montreal probably wasn’t my family’s most favorite team – they were more the Leaf’s fans, so it was tough, but they always cheered for me, and they were always supportive. And the next memory would be scoring your first NHL goal and it happened to be on my birthday which was even better! You don’t get a moment like that too often. Just enjoying something you love to do every day that you dreamed about doing as a kid you never think will become reality and it happens.
After that, I spent a lot of time in the AHL and the IHL, where we won the Turner Cup which is another great moment in my career. I had great times and I just persevered. There are testing times when you spend years and years in the minors and you are asking yourself if you are ever going to get that shot again and I just kept saying, yes, I can! You just have to wait for the opportunity and I got that with Colorado and moved on to Tampa. With the lockout, here I am today so it’s another chapter in my book and it’s just a different role I’ve got to play.
PT: You have been to the playoffs with a number of teams and the last playoffs were with Tampa Bay during the 2010-11 season. Steve Yzerman is GM there, and Guy Boucher is their coach who is incredibly fascinating. His 1-3-1 was such brilliant out-of-the-box type of thinking. Tell us a bit about your time there and those playoffs.
Clark: [Boucher] sees the game in a totally different light than most of us see it and it was very good to be coached by him, and having Steve there was another learning experience. A guy from his hockey background who is always willing to help get his team in a new direction, so you learn a lot. Everywhere you go, it doesn’t matter what coaches you have, there is always something to learn and you have to be willing to take something out of it even if sometimes you don’t agree, but there’s always a philosophy behind it.
PT: I watched that entire series and little did I know at the time that I would meet someone who played in that series.
Clark: You know, it was a battle! It comes down to one goal to the Stanley Cup Finals and that’s the nature of the beast.
PT: I was cheering for you because I wanted to see Tampa Bay meet up with Vancouver for the Finals.
Clark: [Laughing] That would have been a good series! But that’s the thing in hockey – the best teams usually come out and prevail in the end and it doesn’t matter if you’re the 8th seed or the 1st seed, you’ve just got to get hot at the right time and we saw that last year with LA.
PT: There is a great quote by Barry Smith, who is now Director of Player Development with the Chicago Blackhawks: “Games are often won and lost before a team steps on the ice.” This is in reference to Team Dynamics – the players, management, the entire organization, their roles and interaction, and how all of this affects a team’s performance.
You have been a member of a number of teams throughout your career, talk to us about the importance of Team Dynamics.
Clark: Ah, it’s very important. You can tell the teams that struggle, that can’t find chemistry – everything takes a little time to connect. With everybody there, you find out how people play, even their attitude and demeanor off the ice, it all plays a part. For example here in Oklahoma, they had a lot of bodies at the start of the year, and all of a sudden the lockout ends and they lose a bunch of bodies and then you go on a bit of a slide because you are trying to find that chemistry between different players. You’ve got guys who weren’t here all year and now they are back up here and it’s a whole new dynamic. And as a D, I’m coming in, Randy Jones is in, Peckham’s in, so now you have a new dynamic there.
As a group, you’ve just got to take it in stride, take little steps, but if you have an attitude on the ice that “oh, it’s going to be a tough night, you can’t win” – a lot of it has to do with attitude. A lot of time it’s not the best teams that win, it is the team that believes in themselves and they know they can go out there and compete. Every night they might not win but the majority of the time they’re in the game and that gives them that chance to win. That’s a dynamic you see in a lot of teams now, just give yourself that chance. We are starting to believe it in the room here and we are taking the strides in the right direction – it’s the little steps. We’ve just got to start putting things together and it’s slowly coming.
PT: How do you describe yourself as a hockey player? You are a defenseman – but tell us more.
Clark: My game is really rounded. I used to be more of a skilled player, I did more moving the puck up, jumping into the play and throughout my career I’ve had to sort of change roles and learn to play solid defensively, and a lot of PKs. So, I’d say I am more of an all-around player now – I can move the puck, I can play offensive, but I can also play in those key situations of penalty kill, power play, and I’m sort of round in my game, and I’m not afraid to block shots. I’ll be the first one to get in the way of a shot so it doesn’t get to our net to give them that chance to score. So, I’d say I’m more of a two-way player now, more of a well-rounded player.
PT: We watched you in practice today with your stick up in front of the net and we were very impressed!
Clark: [laughing] In Tampa that’s where they had me play in the slot on the power play. It was a different role and I’d never been put in it, so I was just working on a few things there, working on the hand-eye.
PT & NL: Tell us about your time between last season, through the lockout, and then negotiations with the Barons? It is a long period off from hockey.
Clark: Yes, it was a long period, but as players you are sort of prepared that it could happen. You never want to see it happen, but both sides had things they were fighting for, and they were finally able to settle upon an agreement. For me, I think what really helped was that I coached my boy’s hockey team. That really took a lot of the frustration out of not having a contract and no NHL. It was something I really enjoyed, developing the kids and trying to teach them a multi-dimensional game; trying to teach them to have fun and that it’s not all about one player, it’s about the team. We had a lot of good times and some trying times as well because everybody wants to win but sometimes you just don’t have the team to do it.
Also a lot of family time. We came back to Tampa and put our kids in school, and spent a lot of time going to Disney, just enjoying the family, which over my career is something I haven’t been able to do. And when Christmas came, we decided to take the kids back to Saskatchewan. We got to do a lot of things we’ve never been able to do as a family.
Then the NHL started back up and here we are now. There were a few teams interested but the Barons came calling and I looked at the group. We had a few other options but I thought with the group of players, the coaching staff and organization I thought it was one of the best fits for me. And here I am having a great time, out there having fun and just trying to help these kids learn what it’s all about – you’ve got to have fun. You can’t come to the rink unhappy every day.
PT & NL: When did the Barons contact you about joining the team?
Clark: They contacted me about a week before the All-Star break, and I hemmed and hawed – I had to make sure it was the right decision for the family. But it always came back to this is where I wanted to be and I thought it was the best opportunity, and that’s how it all came to play out.
PT: You talked about coaching your son’s hockey team – is coaching something that you might consider at some point in the future?
Clark: Oh, yeah, I enjoyed it. I didn’t think I would be very good at it, but my wife said the parents always enjoyed having me out there with the kids. It’s like here. I’m out there having fun. I’ll push them hard, but when it’s time to have fun, it’s time to have fun! And I’m out there because it’s a game I love. The day I can’t smile coming to the rink, then maybe that’s the day it’s time to hang ‘em up. At my age, I can come in and be unhappy and say ah, I shouldn’t be down here, but I have this opportunity to help some of these kids get up and I still have the dream of getting back in the NHL. I’m just taking it one step at a time.
PT & NL: You bring a lot of things to the Barons both on and off the ice – what are your greatest assets in regards to what you bring to this team?
Clark: I think I bring some veteran leadership – a guy who’s played 400-plus games in the AHL and IHL, and plus a guy who’s played close to 700 in the NHL. I bring a lot of ups and downs and know-how to deal with certain situations. And I’ll try to teach and help these kids and the organization as a group to develop the kids and show them that it’s not about getting up there NOW. It’s about getting the kids ready for their opportunity. My best asset coming here is to teach these kids that we have a job to do here, we can’t worry about what’s going on up top, or if they’re going to be up there. We’ve got a job to do here for the fans and city here and that’s trying to get a championship here in Oklahoma City. That’s my goal. To show these kids my work ethic on and off the ice and to help them see what it’s all about, and to help them see what it’s going to take to get there.
PT: You are going into your 16th professional season – you are what’s known in the business as a Veteran. If I were one of the young Barons defensemen I would be talking to you nonstop, soaking up every bit of your experience. What advice can you offer these young prospects in OKC?
Clark: The best advice I’d give them is don’t rush. The majority of the NHL defensemen don’t come into their prime until they are 28 or 29 because defense is one of the toughest spots to play in the NHL. You are going to get the select few who are superstars at 19 or 20 but the majority of them are 24, 25, 26 and they will eventually come into their own and find out what type of game they are going to play. You work on different aspects of your game that you’re not great at – that’s what I teach the kids. You work on those and get better, and then become an all-around better player. Then, when your opportunity comes, you are ready. You have to teach them that there’s going to be ups and downs – and it’s not always fun, but you have to bring the right attitude to the rink.
PT: You have not been here long at all – 5 games – a couple of weeks. What are your initial impressions of the team and location?
Clark: You know, the location is great. It’s a learning experience probably for a lot fans here since they had the Central Hockey League here for many years, and then the [NBA] basketball team came in, so it’s a different type of hockey now. With that team gone, and now with a lot of new faces, it’s a learning curve. The city’s great and the people here are unbelievable from what I’ve seen. They support everything that goes on. You’ve got the number one basketball team in the NBA so it’s tough to compete with that but for us, it’s just doing whatever we can for the fans, the public, and try to get them into our games. You can see the support we have is phenomenal – and it’s only going to get better and better.
With the organization, it is top notch. I’ve been in a lot, and what they have here in the facility, the setup is like an NHL facility for a minor league team. But they don’t treat you like that, they treat you like an NHL team. It’s great to see that when you come in. It’s tough to teach some of these kids that every team isn’t like what they have here, so you’ve got to respect the people here helping you out – from the training staff, the coaching staff and the people who come in from Edmonton.
As a whole, it’s been unbelievable. The people are great, the fan support is getting better and better every game. You can’t ask for a better place to be in as a player right now.
PT: Have you ever visited Oklahoma before?
Clark: No, I’ve never been to Oklahoma before!
PT: Although you have not been here very long at all, has anything about the city made an impression upon you so far?
Clark: Probably the thing that caught me off guard the most is how clean it is! You walk around and the streets are clean, there’s no garbage around. It’s a very clean city. A very friendly city. Not knowing much about it, it reminds me a bit of where I grew up with oil and gas and farming and ranching so it brings me a little bit of home, so it makes it very exciting in that respect. I haven’t been touring around out in the ranch area yet but I’m sure that will eventually come.
PT: Yes, I would think the two areas are very similar.
Clark: Yes, Saskatchewan is prairie, with a lot of oil and gas, and farmland as well.
PT: Has your family joined you here in Oklahoma, or are they still in Florida?
Clark: They are still in Florida but they are planning a couple of trips out here when the kids have school breaks. It will be nice to bring them out. My boy is excited!
PT: OKC fans are very happy to have you join the team – we knew coming into this season that the makeup of the team would be loaded with very young prospects who need a guiding hand from a veteran since this is a developmental team.
Clark: Yes, and a lot of time fans don’t realize that is the goal. Your goal here is to get these young kids up to the NHL and to make this the hotbed of the AHL. They are used to guys being here 5 or 6 years, or they never leave, so you have the same team every year. Now, you are going to have a few guys who are here for a few years, but there’s always going to be movement and I think that’s probably what is hard on some fans and probably new fans to grasp because they aren’t used to all the new faces, people coming and going, and their top players going up to the NHL. But when you see a development organization where you have a ton of players go up, that means a lot for a city and the fans, and it speaks well for the organization down here and the support from the fans.
PT: I think this is the first season we have really seen that clearly, with Teemu Hartikainen since he was here from the beginning and this season he is a true NHL player.
Clark: Yes, and you can watch him on NHL now. That’s a growing pain [for fans] – everything changes over. It’s like anyone – we never like new things – even as a player – you don’t like to change a lot of things but eventually everyone will see a lot of great years here. Every player I’ve talked to loves it here.
PT: Welcome to Oklahoma City Brett! And thank you for the interview. I think we will see you in the NHL soon and fans from OKC will be cheering for you.
Clark: Thank you. Just wait and see. I’m having fun here and enjoying every minute. Anything I can do to help the young kids in the organization is the primary goal, and whatever happens after that is all bonus.
OKC Barons Interviews for the 2012-13 Season:
- Teemu Hartikainen — OKC Barons
- Part I: OKC Barons Bill Scott: What Makes a General Manager?
- Part II: OKC Barons Bill Scott: What about that AHL Schedule?
- Part III: OKC Barons Bill Scott: The Team and its Prospects
- Part IV: OKC Barons Bill Scott: Hockey in Oklahoma.
OKC Barons Interviews for the 2011-12 Season:
- Kirill Tulupov — OKC Barons (December 7, 2011)
- Philippe Cornet — OKC Barons (December 27, 2011)
- Andrew Lord — OKC Barons (January 30, 2012)
- Antti Tyrväinen — OKC Barons (February 14, 2012)
- Dylan Yeo — OKC Barons (March 5, 2012)