David Clarkson’s decision to jump over the boards and join the on-ice mêlée against the Buffalo Sabres last week can be described in many ways: rash, irresponsible, careless, untimely, idiotic, etc.
All of these descriptions are fair and accurate, but they speak only to the decision in itself. They say very little about what might have motivated Clarkson to jump over the boards in the first place.
Why did he do it? What drove him to act in such a way?
Here the number of answers is equally diverse. It may be that Clarkson genuinely felt for the safety of his teammate Phil Kessel, who was being threatened by Sabres enforcer John Scott (there’s no excusing Kessel’s response). It may also be that he simply dislikes Scott and the Kessel incident afforded him the perfect opportunity to act on this sentiment.
My fear, however, is that Clarkson acted primarily out of the desire to prove himself and satisfy outside expectations after signing a seven-year, $36.75 million contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Normally, it’s not a problem when players set about to prove themselves. In fact, it’s how they come to earn those ridiculous contracts. Having said this, I would argue Clarkson’s case is somewhat unique given his preexisting connection to Toronto.
Clarkson grew up as a Leafs fan and his favourite player as a boy was Wendel Clark – a favourite of many Leafs fans. He modeled his own style of play around that of Clark and the two have already appeared together in public on several occasions, underscoring their connection.
It is this connection that has led some people – who appear to rank Clarkson among them – to believe Clarkson is the second coming of Clark. In fact, Clarkson has already earned himself the reverential nickname “Wendel Clarkson” without ever actually proving himself in a Leafs uniform.
Unfortunately, such a comparison is unfair to both players.
Clark was one of those special players who excelled in almost every aspect of the game. He was blessed with a truly gifted set of hands: he could score and he could fight. Nevertheless, his rambunctious style of play wasn’t conducive to a long career in the NHL. Clark retired from professional hockey at the tender age of 33.
At 29 years of age, in contrast, it can be argued that Clarkson is only now entering the prime of his career (Clark was already in the twilight of his career by this point). The Leafs saw potential for further development in Clarkson’s game so they signed him to that ridiculously large contract mentioned above. In other words, he factors into their long-term plans.
Clarkson is known for having a decent pair of hands, not a blessed pair. He can score and fight, but he’ll never reach the career numbers of someone like Clark.
The Leafs pursued Clarkson for the added presence he would bring to the team. He wasn’t meant to become the presence on the team in the same respect that Clark was often seen.
For Clarkson to succeed in Toronto, he needs to establish himself by playing his own style of game. He doesn’t need to assume the expectations and legacy of his boyhood hero. The Leafs already have a number of scorers (e.g. Phil Kessel, Nazem Kadri), emotional leaders (e.g. Joffrey Lupul, Dion Phaneuf) and fighters (Colton Orr, Mark Fraser) on the team. What they’re lacking is that gritty presence in the corners – the David Clarksons of the hockey world.
If Clarkson settles down and plays according to his own brand of hockey, he’ll eventually establish his own legacy in Toronto. One day a Toronto kid might even join the Leafs who claims Clarkson as his boyhood hero.
If he doesn’t settle down, however, Clarkson may come to share the fate of another player who could never carry the weight of outside expectations in Toronto: Mike Komisarek.
Both players came to Toronto under great expectations, and both faulted early. Clarkson must avoid falling into the same vicious cycle of frustration that ultimately claimed Komisarek’s time in Toronto.
He has ten games to think about it.
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