Washington Capitals’ family man captain seeks return to form

Chris Clark by Dinur via flickr

Chris Clark by Dinur via flickr

Nov. 18 2008

WASHINGTON-Chris Clark was taking his time. The 32-year-old captain of the Washington Capitals hockey team, a South Windsor native and lifelong Hartford Whalers fan, was flanked by reporters as he loosened his skates after practice one morning. Twice, a Capitals staffer tried to pry him from the scrum for a meeting with the team’s general manager, George McPhee.

“How long are you going to be?”

“Another minute,” Clark replied, and then, assessing the queue of quote-hungry reporters, added, “Oh, probably another couple of minutes.”

Clark has been called a calming presence in the locker room. But lately, his patience has been put to the test. After enjoying two career seasons in Washington, playing with National Hockey League superstar Alexander Ovechkin on the scoring line, the affable, blue-eyed father of three spent most of last season sidelined with an exasperatingly persistent groin injury.

Clark watched from home as his teammates won 11 of their final 12 regular season games to scrape into the playoffs, and then lost in the first round.

“This is just awful,” he told The Washington Times last spring. “It is the most frustrating thing-not just not playing but not being able to help the team in some way, any way.”

Clark is back in the lineup this season, but his frustration persists. Although the team is off to a flying start, Clark has only two assists in his first 17 games. And his defensive record, normally his calling card, is just as spotty.

Clark traveled from his summer home in upstate New York to Vancouver seven times last summer to see a groin specialist. He insists that “everything feels great” as long as he adheres to an intensive rehab regimen.

But the plucky right-winger, whom McPhee once described as quiet off the ice and cantankerous on it, has grown tentative. His mighty stride has slowed, and he no longer dominates the corners and crease as he used to.

“He’s still in his training camp,” Capitals’ coach Bruce Boudreau said more than a month into the season. “He’s better than he was a month ago; he’s going to be a lot better in a month than he is now. He’s getting there; he will get there.”

Chris Clark is, first and foremost, a family man. The local hockey writers tease him for wearing “bad Macy’s suits” and for having driven a pick-up truck when he arrived in Washington three years ago.

Clark’s married to his college sweetheart, Kim, whom he met 12 years ago while studying business-and playing hockey-at Clarkson University in Potsdam, N.Y. The couple lives near the Pentagon with their three young kids-two boys and a girl, all under 6. His parents still live in his childhood home in South Windsor, and he tries to visit at least once a year, though “with three kids it’s getting pretty tough.”

He still keeps in touch with his buddies from South Windsor High School, one of whom recently e-mailed him the old Hartford Whalers anthem, the “Brass Bonanza,” to use as his cell phone ringtone.

Family stability was one of the reasons Clark signed a three-year, $7.9 million deal last year that will keep him in Washington through the 2010-2011 season-as long as he avoids another trade or injury. Clark doesn’t know what he’ll do when his career is over, but hopes that day’s a long way off.

“It’s great now that my kids are old enough to recognize what I do for a living,” he said. “I’d like to play as long as I can so they could enjoy being in this life as well.”

Clark has never taken his NHL career for granted. The Calgary Flames’ third-round choice in the 1994 entry draft, he played four years at Clarkson and a full year for Calgary’s farm team in Saint John, New Brunswick, before seeing his first NHL start. He then spent another two seasons shuttling across Canada, finally securing a spot in Calgary at the hockey-ripe age of 25.

In Calgary Clark was a reliable third-liner, scoring 10 goals in each of his three full seasons there. He scored three goals in his first playoffs in 2004, the year the Flames lost to the Tampa Bay Lightning in the seventh game of the Stanley Cup final. During the lock-out season that followed, Clark played in fledgling leagues in Switzerland and Norway to keep up his game.

Then, after 10 years in the Flames system, Clark was traded to Washington-for a sixth-round conditional draft pick.

“I think he was surprised,” Darryl Sutter, Clark’s coach in Calgary, said. “Chris was getting to the point where he was probably going to double his salary and we weren’t able to keep him.”

Within a day, Clark dropped from the top of the Western conference to the bottom of the East.

“It was tough in the beginning,” Clark said. “Going from the Cup finals, seventh game, and then coming here, reading the papers and seeing, ‘It’s going to be a tough couple years, it’s a rebuilding year.'”

But there was an upside. The career third-liner was put on the first line with rookie phenomenon Ovechkin, and suddenly the 10-goal man became a 20 and 30-goal scorer in successive seasons. Even Clark seemed mystified by the experience.

“It’s unbelievable playing with him,” Clark told The Washington Post, referring to Alexander the Great. The Post called it a “once-in-a-lifetime break” for Clark and Ovechkin was quoted saying, “I’m very happy for him.” Here was a seven-year veteran playing with a 20-year-old kid, and everyone was acting as if Clark were the Cinderella man.

When Clark returned to the third line last year-before his groin injury cut his season short-he reacted with typical deference, saying, “I think it’s great because it means our team is going in the right direction.”

At times, Clark seems equally incredulous about his captaincy-even though he wore the “C” during his senior year at Clarkson and for Team USA at the 2007 World Championship. When the Capitals named him captain, at the beginning of the 2006 season, Clark told the Calgary Herald that being an NHL captain “was never one of my goals because I never thought it was attainable.”

When an XM radio host asked Clark if people assumed he was warming the captain’s seat until Ovechkin matured, Clark responded, “It’s definitely going to be his eventually.”

Still, Clark takes his role to heart. He puts pressure on himself to lead by example on the ice and to maintain team spirit behind the scenes. When a junior is called up, or a European player joins the team, Clark makes a point of reaching out to them, making sure “they’re comfortable, they’re settled, so they can do the best they can,” as he put it.

“If we have any questions, that’s the first guy we go and ask,” said Milan Jurcina, the Capitals’ 25-year-old Slovakian defenseman. “He welcomed us [European players] pretty good…making us a little more comfortable.”

Goalie José Theodore, a Quebec native, said that when he joined the team, Clark assured him that “if I needed anything, he was there for me.”

In other words, Clark brings his family values to the team. Just ask Brooks Laich, the Capitals’ 25-year-old, Saskatchewan-born center who by his looks could be Clark’s younger brother.

“Being a single guy, not having a wife down here,” Laich said, “the last three Christmases I’ve been at Chris Clark’s house. He invites me over for Christmas Eve…. He has Christmas morning with his family and he invites me back over…. And in the last couple years there’s been a couple guys who’ve gone over there…. So he’s always looking out for guys and making them feel at home.”

Whether Clark can return to rugged form remains to be seen. What’s clear is that he has a locker room full of fans rooting for him.

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