ONTARIO, CA — Already leading the Alaska Aces, 1-0 early in the second period of a game on December 1, 2012, at the Citizens Business Bank Arena in Ontario, California, a familiar face to those who follow the Los Angeles Kings, scored a highlight-reel goal to give the ECHL’s Ontario Reign a 2-0 lead.
Left wing Kyle Clifford, who won the Stanley Cup last season with the Kings, scored that goal when he fought off Aces defenseman Alain Goulet. Clifford skated across the low slot, and as he spun, he managed to wrist the puck top shelf, beating Alaska netminder Gerald Coleman over his left shoulder.
The 21-year-old, 6-2, 208-pound native of Ayr, Ontario, signed with the Reign, the Kings’ ECHL affiliate, on November 20, joining Minnesota Wild forward Devin Setoguchi on the Ontario roster. But their presence was not enough to lead the Reign to victory, as they lost in overtime, 4-3.
Clifford decided to sign with the Reign for several reasons, but first and foremost, it was time to get back on the ice, and work on improving his game.
“We want to get going [to end the National Hockey League lockout], but the time came [for him to play],” Clifford stressed. “A bunch of guys [have already gone to play in] Europe.”
Clifford may be feeling some heat after last season, when he scored five goals and added seven assists for twelve points in 81 regular season games, with a -5 plus/minus rating, and 123 penalty minutes.
That heat Clifford is likely feeling—and should be feeling—comes from the sudden emergence of left wings Dwight King and Jordan Nolan, who both greatly exceeded expectations from the moment they joined the Kings in early February 2012, and especially during the Kings’ post-season run to the first Stanley Cup Championship in the 45-year history of the franchise.
Magnifying the situation is when Clifford was hit from behind by Vancouver Canucks forward Byron Bitz in Game 1 of the Western Conference Quarterfinals on April 11, 2012. Clifford suffered a concussion, and did not return to action for more than a month.
In fact, Clifford played in just two more playoff games last season, in Games 2 and 3 of the Western Conference Finals against the Phoenix Coyotes on May 15 and 17, 2012. He did not suit up at all during the 2012 Stanley Cup Final.
In the end, even though he would have his name engraved on the Stanley Cup, injury and coaches’ decisions resulted in Clifford spending most of the 2012 playoffs as a spectator, something that does not bode well for a young, up-and-coming NHL player who looked like a more promising player during his rookie season in 2010-11 than he did last season.
“I just felt that Ontario was a good fit for me,” said Clifford. “They play a grinding style of game, and I [felt that] I could come here, and work on my game.”
“We have a good coaching staff, and a good team here,” added Clifford. “Also, it’s close to L.A., so I’m not shipping my whole life across the world. This’ll be an easier move, going back [to playing for the Kings when the NHL lockout ends].”
But Clifford’s presence, along with Setoguchi’s, serves a greater purpose than just to get them some needed ice time.
“What’s great about it is having them around, and having our guys see how hard they practice, how quickly they get shots away, how they’re [always] in position, how they get in on the forecheck,” said former Kings assistant coach and defenseman Mark Hardy, now an assistant coach for the Reign.
“It’s kind of a double-edged sword, but we really don’t have that many extra guys right now [due to injuries],” added Hardy, who is in his second season with the Reign. “We actually sat out Setoguchi for a few games, even though he was healthy, and we played our guys. That was a big concern from [Clifford and Setoguchi], too. They said that they don’t want to take anybody’s jobs, so they’re really cool guys, but when they play, they play hard.”
“I just think it’s a great thing for our young players to be able to see how professional they are. They come in the room, and they’re just one of the boys. They’re great teammates. It’s been great for both sides.”
Although his current team is the Ontario Reign, like the rest of the NHL players, Clifford is anxious to get back on NHL ice.
“Westy [Kings right wing Kevin Westgarth, the team’s union representative] keeps us updated,” Clifford noted. “It doesn’t sound like it’s going great. They just had the mediators, but it doesn’t sound like the owners want to come our way at all.”
“We’re just asking for a little bit here,” Clifford added. “We’re still positive. I hope we get going here soon.”
But the way things are going between the NHL and the National Hockey League Players Association, that’s probably wishful thinking, at best.
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