SASKATOON, Sask. — Chris Clarke could not resist after the Halifax Mooseheads poured off the bench to celebrate their win on Tuesday.
While Sportsnet reporter Gene Principe sought out his on-ice interview following Halifax's 9-2 win over the London Knights, the Mooseheads' rarely used backup goalie pointed in jest to himself, knowing full well that hat-trick scorer Martin Frk would get the close-up. It's part of a shtick the Fall River, N.S., native has built over the season while backing up highly touted prospect Zach Fucale on one of the most talented teams in major junior hockey. The winner-take-all sports world reverse-cultivates personalities who get a lot of mileage from playing very little — Bob Uecker, Jim Ralph, Paul Shirley, Mark Titus.
Clarke has embraced mining his backup status for comedy gold, tweeting, "Already have the best seat in the house," when the Mooseheads sold out the first two games of the QMJHL final in fewer than 20 minutes. The 20-year-old has a perspective about it, making sure he is a good teammate.
It's not surprising he has his priorities in order. Clarke is headed off this fall to enrol in the prestigious commerce program at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., which trains someone for a MBA, not the NHL. Typically, it takes a high school average in the 95 per cent range to get into Queen's commerce.
"The Twitter thing, PineRider30, the started last year when I was with Gatineau," says Clarke, who got into 19 games during the regular season. "I was playing behind François Lacerte and he was pretty much playing every game, too. When you know your role and know your position, take it and run with it. I always see BizNasty2Point0 (NHL player Paul Bissonnette). He sits on the bench every game.
"Why not try and start something up yourself? There’s no point in trying to have a big ego when you shouldn’t. I think people accept you more as a backup if you know that you’re a backup.
"I’m a pretty laid-back guy," Clarke adds. "Guys are going to poke fun at me for sitting on the bench, I’m going to poke fun at myself for sitting on the bench ... I’m still into the game. Why not have that to draw a little more attention to myself?"
Clarke spent his 18-year-old season in 2011-12 with the Olympiques and the Junior A Metro Marauders. After his season wrapped up, he attended some Mooseheads home playoff games as the team fell two wins shy of a trip to the league final. The thought of ending up with his home province's team was not on his mind.
Coming into the season, though, the Mooseheads needed a third goalie in camp since Anthony Terenzio was recovering from a brain injury, which ultimately kept him from playing for the Mooseheads this season. Assistant coach Jim Midgely, who was Clarke's coach for two seasons at Rothesay Netherwood School, brought him in to challenge to be Fucale's backup. Suffice to say, Clarke showed he belonged.
"I never expected to be here, but Midge got me the chance to come to camp and I worked hard and the opportunities came for me. I eventually earned the spot by Christmas. I never sat in the stands but I had to prove I could be the guy if something happened to Zach.
"It’s definitely been an unreal experience."
Clarke has tweeted photos of himself sitting on the Mooseheads bench while the game action swirls around him. He could run with the 'human victory cigar' thing if he wanted. But as far as he's concerned, insouciance is just a word on the SAT, not a way to approach his job.
"I knew my role coming in. I knew I wasn’t going to get as much playing time. It’s not even about checking your ego. It’s about coming to the rink and treating practices like my games. I’m one injury away from being in the spotlight."
— Chris Clarke (@PineRider30) May 11, 2013
— Chris Clarke (@PineRider30) May 17, 2013
The typical model in junior hockey is that the younger goalie plays second fiddle to the older one. Fucale, though, appears to be ticketed for the top. By all accounts, Clarke has been the ideal backup to the 17-year-old future NHLer.
"We’ve been pretty much best buddies all year long," Fucale says. "We've been having a lot of fun supporting each other. Clarkie, he’s a really good guy and off the ice he pushes everyone. He gives the guys some laughs as well."
What also stands out about Clarke's web persona is that his Twitter bio refers to his plans to attend Queen's alongside his position with the Mooseheads. It is rare to see a junior player saying what Canadian Interuniversity Sport institution he will play for prior to the completion of his junior season. Most will fan the flame of a NHL dream as long as possible before committing to playing CIS. For Clarke, playing major junior was always a means to that latter end.
"A lot of guys play junior till they’re 20," he explains. "When I started playing junior hockey, my goal wasn’t — like everyone wants to play in the NHL, everyone wants to play pro — but that wasn’t my goal. I wanted to get my education paid for.
"I’m better in school than I am in hockey. I plan to go to school next year and it’s a bonus I get to play hockey while going to school."
In a neat turnabout, after all the striving he did to gain a foothold in the QMJHL, there was a little recruiting battle for Clarke's services between Queen's and their cross-town rivals, the Royal Military College Paladins. The nature of both schools' admission requirements means both Queen's coach Brett Gibson and RMC's Adam Shell face unique challenges with their recruiting. A goalie who practices against Jonathan Drouin and Nathan MacKinnon and has the high school grades to pursue any career path does not come down their pike every day. Plus Midgely was close with both coaches; he and Gibson were linemates for the Saint Mary's Huskies during the early aughties.
"I was really interested science and think about doing medicine," Clarke says. "The Queen’s thing came up because I was thinking of going to Royal Military College. Once I heard all about Queen’s, it has the best commerce program in the country and I ended up getting into it. I thought, why not give it a try?"
Clarke is modest about his smarts, but Fucale is succinct.
"He could pass for a genius. His high school average speaks for itself."
As rational as he is, though, Clarke dream big dreams about what the Mooseheads are in position to do.
"There was so much hype and we lived up to the expectations," he says of the Memorial Cup. "We talked about it all year, ‘we could be here, we could be here.’ And now we’re here and it is like a dream come true."
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet. Please address any questions, comments or concerns to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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