With injury in rearview mirror, Aurora’s Clark banking on bounce-back season with NOJHL’s Eagles
For Kris Clark, his first season of junior hockey didn’t go as planned in 2021-22 with the NOJHL’s Soo Eagles.
He’s hoping 2022-23 is a direct 180-degree turn from last season when the pandemic and an injury put a damper on the Eagles’ season, a season that saw Clark play just 15 games during the regular season.
“This past season was monumental on both a team and personal level, without a doubt,” said Clark, an Aurora native. “On a team level, the Soo Eagles are the only American team in a Canadian league, meaning there’s a lot of extra hoops the Eagles need to jump through in order to have a normal season. When I arrived for my tryout, the borders were still closed due to the pandemic and as a result, the Eagles could not play in the 2020-21 season. Instead, they picked up the occasional odds and ends games with local college and junior teams within the states in order to develop as a program. All of this made for a very hard year and meant all the more pressure to have a good year once the 2021-22 season were to kick off and hopefully have the pandemic lift.
“In the 21-22 season, the team faced many challenges, including the gradual release of strict protocols for teams to travel over the border. We didn’t have any home games for the first couple of months of the season, mandatory COVID tests at least 72 hours prior to crossing the border and waves of COVID shutting down teams in the league meant a very hard year. Once the Omicron variant started picking up case numbers, the league went into an emergency shutdown for three weeks because of Canada’s COVID restrictions. With all of these stressful factors, it was unclear if we could finish off the year. Miraculously, our league worked tirelessly to put together a finishing schedule and protocol that could allow us to finish off the season and still send a team to the Memorial Cup. With all the restrictions and shutdowns, our window for completing a minimum amount of games was shortening, meaning that we had a brutal schedule of up to four games a week in order for us to catch up, all the while avoiding COVID in the process.”
Clark credits the team staff for working to get around the obstacles.
“And by the tireless efforts of (GM) Bruno Bragagnolo, (head coach) Doug Laprade, the team, and the community of Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., we were able to get through and make it to playoffs, going into the division finals, but ultimately losing to our rivals, the Soo Thunderbirds,” Clark said. “Even with the unfortunate ending, the fact that the Soo Eagles as an entire organization manages to keep pushing through some of the toughest times the hockey world has ever seen shows that they are a truly incredible program.”
Back up a year, and after finishing up his youth hockey career, Clark had no idea where he would play next.
“Basically, I was looking for the next step in my hockey career outside of AAA and didn’t really know where to start,” Clark said. “A good friend of mine recommended me to an advisor over at JDM Sports to help fill the open gap. My advisor, Justin Maciuk, recommended me to the Eagles, who were open to players coming down for a few practices to showcase their talents. I talked with Bruno and Doug and went up to the Soo for the weekend to see if I could be a part of it for the next season.”
Now firmly entrenched with the Eagles organization, Clark could not be more excited for the 2022-23 season.
“There are many things that make the Eagles an appealing team, but the one thing that really stood out was how welcoming and nice they are to fellow players as well,” Clark said. “For any tryout, there’s always that huge amount of nervousness and uncertainty about how the program runs, if you are good enough to make a spot, and things like that. But the moment I stepped into the locker room, the team dynamic was unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Everybody was so understanding and nice, and instead of feeling like a job interview, it felt like a home. How everybody treated each other it was like you were walking into another family, and that’s something that is really hard to find.”
Clark also reflected on “major personal adversity” he had to overcome nearly 18 months ago.
“Over the couple of days that I had spent practicing with the Eagles in March (2021), the coaching staff saw potential in me, and wanted for me to return to their camps later in the summer to further my shot of becoming an official Eagle,” explained Clark. “Unfortunately, about 90 days later, I received devastating news that I was in immediate need of double hip surgery, and if I were not to, I would have to discontinue playing hockey. My left hip had a partial tear in the cartilage, while my right one had a complete tear, hip fluid leaking, and a cyst encompassing it. Basically, it was a long shot if I could ever play competitive sports anymore. I’ve always had hip pain for years and years, but have always thought it was just muscle, and common remedies have always helped it, but during the recent times before I was diagnosed, I stopped being able to skate and play at a normal pace and from there I could barely walk. But still, if there was any shot at trying to get back to playing the sport I love to play, I was going to take it.
“From there, I talked with a highly skilled orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Justin Newman, about being able to undergo intensive surgery. It was possible, but it wasn’t going to be easy. I would then spend the next three months tied to my bed and crutches, and then re-learning how to walk. Finally in October, I was able to touch the ice for the first time in about five and a half months.”
The whole time, the Eagles’ staff never once wavered from its support of Clark.
“All while I was in intensive recovery, the Eagles’ coaching staff were more than happy to accommodate me and try to help me recover as best as I could when I was healthy enough to start putting on full gear again,” Clark said. “They were fully supportive in all steps of my recovery, and I will never be able to thank them enough for their generosity and compassion. As soon as I was done climbing one recovery mountain of getting to be normal again, a much bigger mountain of trying to play at a competing level came. The first few months were the toughest I think I will ever have in my life. The only objective was to do as much as I could do without damaging my hips. The coaching staff was very cautious with undoubtedly good reason. First came being able to make it an entire practice, then came being able to skate without limping my way to the locker after practice. And it slowly worked up to being able to play back to my normal self. Every day was always a challenge, be it mental, physical, or both, but the one thing that stayed the same was just to be better than yesterday.
“If it wasn’t for the incredible support of my teammates, and the coaching staff and community, I don’t think I would have lasted a month. But all through the tough season, they were fully supportive, and finally through months and months of hard work, I was finally able to play my first game in about a year right near the beginning of February. I didn’t really have any nerves, because I was so confident that my team and coaches believed in me and were understanding of the hard miles that it took for me to even practice, let alone play a game. We won 9-3 that game, and I managed to get an assist in that game. From there, I continued throughout the rest of the season developing and trying to return back to normal, and through that I was able to get 15 games under my belt and tally up seven assists. Considering the difference between before and after the season, I’d say that it has taught me a lot about myself not just as a player, but as a person. And considering the tough COVID-filled year the Eagles have had alongside with their benevolence to helping me recover, that has helped me instill unwavering confidence in the program for my junior career.”
Going through the process, on and off the ice last season, has been a turning point in Clark’s career.
“This past season prepared me for juniors in the sense that I had finally gotten a good baseline into my recovery,” said Clark. “I had put in six months of hard work into my recovery and was able to put a few more months of work into the summer to get my legs fully recovered. The one thing that juniors taught me from the odd season last year is that it is a long year, which means if you want to be able to give 100 percent every time, you must put 100 percent into yourself. That means staying on top of recovery, vitamins, and listening to whatever your body needs from you.
“This is even more of a crucial factor when recovering from major procedures in hopes of returning back to normal, and now that it is part of a routine for me, I think this year returning to a normal level will be huge for me in terms of performance.”
Looking back on his upbringing in hockey back home in Colorado, Clark found many positives there as well.
“I started out ice skating for the local in-house league over at Family Sports for a couple of years,” remembered Clark. “The coach, Justin Wild, taught me all of the basics while still making everything fun. He allowed me to grow and learn to enjoy the game through the most positive environment I could think of. Without him, I don’t think I would have gotten very far with the sport at all. I then had the opportunity a little later to try out for the AA team over at Big Bear Ice Arena, the Colorado Evolution. It was there that coach Sergei Bautin really developed my intermediate level skills, such as the proper shooting form, puck handling, and important defensive skills. He broke down every aspect in the most simple way possible, only to show every detail needed to build the correct, fundamental way. He pushed me to be better every day and taught me how to be competitive, and how to be a better core hockey player.
“The year after, a new AAA program arose in the Big Bear, and I was able to be coached under Nick Turcotte. Nick had a very different type of coaching style that I had never seen. He was a very advanced skills coach and would teach us these skills in a very unconventional but very effective way. Sometimes they would be somersaults all the way down the ice, sometimes they would be going out back toward the hill behind the rink, and going up and down it, all while puck handling a golf ball. It was a very unique type of coaching, and one that was very effective.”
After that, Clark joined the Colorado Rampage and played AAA from 14U to 16U.
“There is where I really learned how to work hard and compete,” Clark said. “Every year, the practices were always intense, fast-paced, and developed your competitive nature. One coach that really stood out was my 16U coach, Luke Fulghum. Luke’s practices were always fast-paced, and you had to show up to work every day. His practices were very advanced, in that he was showing us what you might expect from practices of the next level, how competitive they are, and what the next level is really looking for. Now that I am in juniors, his practices and teachings were spot on into what it’s really like. Without him, I would have never been prepared.
“Over the summers, I also had a coach who taught me how to be mentally tough. Ever since I was 14, I skated with coach Chad Macleod, who taught me everything I know on how to be mentally tough. His practices were tough, and there were no easy days whatsoever. He made them that way so he could build you not just into a strong hockey player, but a strong-willed person as well. He pushed me to heights I would never have thought were possible, and given my long battle with double hip surgery, I would have never even been able to come close to getting through it without the coaching of Chad Macleod. Out of all the coaches I’ve had, Chad is undoubtedly my favorite and highest recommendation. He is such an effective coach because he truly cares about the people he works with, and because he knows what the next level is looking for.”
Going forward, Clark has a clear head on what he wants to accomplish.
“In the short term, I just want to be able to have a really good bounce-back season from my injury and be able to enjoy junior hockey as a healthy player,” said Clark. “In the long term, I want to go to college and study exercise science, and possibly become a personal trainer or rehabilitation specialist. Hopefully, I can reach a high enough level that I can earn a scholarship somewhere to be able to pursue my goal in college.”
— Matt Mackinder
(September 15, 2022)