TORONTO – As a younger player trying to make a name for himself in the National Hockey League, David Clarkson used to pick fights with those he idolized growing up or the players he figured would seem cool to his friends.
Gary Roberts was one of them. When Roberts was in the latter years of his career and playing for the Pittsburgh Penguins, Clarkson remembers lining up against him at one of the faceoff dots and asking to drop the gloves.
“It was just being young and silly maybe, but it was a respect thing,” Clarkson said from St. Michael’s College Arena in Toronto where he was taking part in the BioSteel Pro Hockey Camp being run by Roberts and former Toronto Maple Leafs trainer Matt Nichol. “I loved the way Gary played so [I thought] to be able to tell my buddies when I got home that I fought Gary Roberts would be cool. I bugged him to fight and he kept saying ‘leave me alone kid.’”
While they never actually fought, playing that type of hard-nosed game is what helped Clarkson, an undrafted forward from the Mimico, Ont., eventually earn himself a permanent roster spot with the Devils.
“I think when I moved up to the NHL I was more put in that third-line role and me, John Madden and [Jay] Pandolfo were the checking line and I would have 20 fights a year back then,” he said. “My first few years in the league that’s the way it was.”
There’s a lot more to Clarkson’s game today, however. So much so that the Toronto Maple Leafs were willing to spend $36.75 million over a seven-year period ($5.25 million per season) to land the unrestricted free agent this past off-season.
In last year’s shortened 48-game season the 29-year-old had 15 goals and 24 points to go along with 78 penalty minutes. Those numbers would have put him fourth on the Leafs in goals and sixth in points in 2013. He set a career-high with the Devils a year earlier when he scored 30 goals in 80 games and helped lead the team to a berth in the Stanley Cup Final, where they eventually lost to the L.A. Kings.
“[That’s] probably the most depressing thing you’ll ever go through [as a player], to make it all that way and have it taken from you,” he said. “But I think you learn from things like that.”
Clarkson spent seven seasons with the Devils, a team that has a history of playoff success, and they’re the organization that gave him his first NHL opportunity, but after seeing how much the Leafs improved last season, combined with the offer they made and fact that he grew up just outside Toronto as a Leafs fan, it seemed like the right time for a change.
“Everyone you watched out here today grew up watching somebody and cheering for somebody,” he said. “I’m lucky enough to be a part of something that I wore [and cheered for] as a kid and my dad bought me that first jersey so I feel very lucky.”
He admits to not being the type of player that’s going to ‘wow’ fans, but Clarkson undoubtedly gives the Leafs more size on the wing, he’s 6-foot-1 and 200 pounds, grit and a bit more scoring touch as well.
That said, while he may not be a perennial 30-goal scorer, a long-term, big-money contract brings expectations and Clarkson says he’s fully prepared for the pressure that comes along with playing in a hockey-crazy market like Toronto.
He’s spoken to former Leafs like Roberts, who he cited as one of the first people he called when he signed his contract, about what it’s like to play in Toronto and also says he’s not the type of player or person to get flustered by any kind of media attention.
“You can’t sit there and worry about what this person is thinking or worry about what this newspaper [published] or that person wrote; you’ll go crazy,” he said. “For me personally, I don’t really read the paper or use the Internet too much . . . There are no promises of what will happen, but I expect myself to come out and play with my heart every single night and that’s all I can promise anybody.”