For the members of the locked-out NHL workforce who have decided to join new teams during the labor disagreement, many have immersed themselves in unfamiliar surroundings.
Winnipeg’s Tobias Enstrom and New Jersey’s David Clarkson fled to Salzburg, Austria and now drive near Mozart statues and past gardens depicted in “The Sound of Music” while on the way to the rink. Vancouver’s Cory Schneider, recently signed by Ambri-Piotta of Switzerland’s National League A, will now travel to work by navigating through narrow valleys dominated by towering peaks and glacial waterfalls in the middle of the Alps.
Kyle Clifford, who won a Stanley Cup as a member of the 2011-12 Los Angeles Kings, is in Ontario.
Not his native province of Ontario, Canada — where he grew up in the quaint village of Ayr, a 90-minute drive west of Toronto — but the suburban community of Ontario, Calif., where he has joined the ECHL’s Ontario Reign for an indefinite stay as the league’s owners and NHLPA work on constructing a new collective bargaining agreement that will allow him to return to his Kings teammates.
“Obviously I wanted to stay back with the boys, but [I’m a] young guy,” Clifford said, who was injured during the Kings’ Stanley Cup and played in just three games. “I thought it was time to go in and get some games, and try and become a better player.”
He’s also becoming a valued member of the Reign’s locker room and was instantly accepted by a close-knit group, which came as no surprise to head coach Jason Christie.
“His personality alone fits in well with our group, you know what I mean? He’s a hard-working guy, a blue-collar type of guy,” Christie said.
“He’s still got jump in him, and we’re excited that he can come out. Just work alone — his work ethic, it’s been phenomenal.”
In a 6-2 victory over the Orlando Solar Bears on Wednesday night at Citizens Bank Business Arena, Clifford opened the scoring when he (allegedly) deflected a Chris Huxley point shot past Hanno Toivonen for his second goal as a member of the Reign.
Replays — and Clifford’s own admission — indicated that the puck may have been blasted clear through traffic by Huxley, though credit Clifford for providing a presence in front of the net while clearing up additional space for his teammates.
“I don’t know if I got a stick on it or not. We’ll let the league decide,” Clifford said. “Huxy made a good play there. C.J. [Stretch] won the draw. So, just simple, hard hockey.”
The performance came one game after he amassed one goal and two assists and a plus-four rating in a 7-3 win at Bakersfield in which his linemate Stretch, an Irvine native and Kings training camp invitee a year ago, scored four times as part of a five-point night.
“He’s a straight ahead kind of guy,” Stretch said of playing with Clifford, “so I kind of just followed his lead.”
Clifford’s acceptance into the Ontario locker room was illustrated early in the third period Wednesday when he took a questionable hit from an Orlando skater near the teams’ benches. In an instant, defenseman Matthew Clune made a beeline straight to the offender before demonstrating in very clear terms that such liberties against any member of the Reign would be dealt with punitively.
“It just shows the character in the room and the good guys and how welcoming they are, and how we all stand up for each other,” Clifford said. “It’s been like that the last three games. Anytime there’s been a bad hit or something like that, guys have stepped in and stood up for each other.”
Not that Clifford needs any assistance in such matters, having accumulated 141 and 123 penalty minutes in his two NHL seasons. If there’s anyone qualified at providing a sandpaper lesson of how to be a good teammate, it’s the net-crashing and boards-effective forward who has proven his selfless disposition many times over to those he shares the locker room with.
“The guys, they’ll give me some material on the ice if guys want to fight me,” Clifford explained. “[Colton] Yellow Horn filled me in with some chirps to give guys if anybody wants to fight me or anything like that. I just work hard and come in. I’m usually a pretty quiet guy around the room.”
With the Minnesota Wild’s Devin Setoguchi — who was held out of the lineup on Wednesday — Ontario has commanded an interesting stockpile of NHL-based forwards during the lockout; 734-game NHL defenseman Paul Mara is also attempting a comeback with the Reign. Only the Alaska Aces, who are led in scoring by Washington Capitals forward Joey Crabb, have more than one NHL-based player on their roster. Columbus’ Brandon Dubinsky, Montreal’s Scott Gomez and Tampa Bay’s Nate Thompson are also playing for the Anchorage-based club.
Clifford is seeing time in all situations for Ontario. ECHL teams only rotate three lines, so there is ample ice time in the attacking and defensive zones as well as in special teams play. A left wing in Los Angeles, he has seen the majority of his time on the left side alongside Stretch, a center, and right wing Derek Couture.
As one of the team’s NHL liaisons, he’s also tasked with imparting his experience as someone who earned a regular roster spot as a 19-year-old onto his teammates, all of whom are hoping to continue to rise throughout hockey’s hierarchy.
“It’s more about stories and just around the league — coaches, the Stanley Cup — those kinds of things,” Clifford said about the questions he has been asked.
“They want to know what [Kings head coach Darryl] Sutter’s like.”