Thursday, July 29, 2010
A few picks later, two Southern California players were taken - Gardena's Beau Bennett at #19 and Emerson Etem, of Long Beach, at #20. However, long before they were supposedly putting California hockey on the map, Noah Clarke played for the Los Angeles Kings.
Born in 1979, he had already been playing for a few years when Gretzky was traded to LA in the summer of '88. His hometown of La Verne - about an hour east of the old Forum - wasn't exactly what you would call a 'hockey hotbed.' In fact, the city didn't even have an ice rink. Nonetheless, Noah honed his craft in several different places and was eventually drafted by the Kings in 1999.
After spending time with both Manchester and Los Angeles, he's been playing in Europe the last few seasons. And just this week he left for Germany to get started with his newest team, the Augsburger Panther. Before heading to LAX with his passport and hockey sticks though, he sat down with The Mayor for a reflective conversation - including his thoughts on several current Kings players (Brown, Kopitar and Doughty), a future player (Kevin Westgarth), a former player (George Parros) and even a rumored player (Ryan Malone).
He also talks about life in Europe, why he left North America and tells a story about one of the funnier pranks you'll hear that went down during his playing days with the Monarchs.
MayorsManor presents an exclusive interview with the original California King, Noah Clarke...
Looking back, what impact did Gretzky coming to the Kings have on you as a kid?
I was probably already a full scale Kings fan by the time he arrived. I was playing and I was passionate about the game. But, he definitely helped. Without Gretzky, some of the rinks I ended up playing on probably wouldn't have been there. I think everybody benefited from the exposure.
Fast forward a decade and the Kings were selecting you in the 9th round of the '99 Draft...a round that doesn't even exist anymore. Assuming you didn't go to the actual draft, how did you find out the Kings took you?
It was funny. I was in New York visiting two of my friends from prep school. We all played hockey and grew up reading The Hockey News and Central Scouting, so we knew all about the draft. I had only talked to a few teams and wasn't getting much interest, so it didn't even occur to me that I would be drafted. After I landed back in LA, my dad picked me up at the airport and he had a computer printout of the drafted players on the front seat. It stopped after my name. I was confused and saying 'What is this?' He said 'You were drafted by LA.' My dad was real low key. You never see him get very excited. So, I wasn't sure if he was just teasing with me or it was real. I thought maybe he doctored it on the computer on something. When we got home and there were voice mails from people saying 'Congratulations,' I started to realize it was real. It certainly wasn't something I was expecting...and to go to LA was perfect for me.
Prior to the draft you played two years in the USHL. How did you end up there and why there vs. the WHL or another junior program?
I was at Shattuck and Scott Owens, the coach in Des Moines (USHL) saw me play. They didn't tender me or sign me right away. The only thing they offered was a tryout. I didn't even really understand junior hockey at the time and how it all worked. I just went there and had a really good tryout. They told me they were going to put me on the 4th line to start out. By the eighth game I was up to the first and second line and I found my niche from there.
You mentioned Shattuck-St. Mary's. It's becoming such a legendary place, especially now with guys like Sidney Crosby, Zach Parise and Jack Johnson having played there. Andy Murray was even coaching there when the Kings hired him as their head coach in '99. Tell us a little about what it's like to play at a premier prep school.
The thing I wanted to do was skate everyday. We had a good group in California, but we skated maybe three times a week. At Shattuck we had a rink at our disposal. When I first got there I was shell shocked though. I was wearing my Jack Purcell Converse and people were looking at me funny, like 'Where's this kid from, California?' It's a small town in Minnesota, in the middle of nowhere. The first week, I was living in a dorm and eating cafeteria food, I would ask myself 'Was this the right choice?' Then, once hockey started it was so much fun. I spent all day, everyday, getting to know my buddies who were kinda in the same boat. To this day, two of my best friends are guys I met there. I loved my time at Shattuck. For me it was perfect. It was what I needed. I could play hockey, it was a good school academically...everything I was looking for.
You went to college at a small school - Colorado College - but it's known for great hockey. Was that your first choice or were you talking to other schools prior to committing there?
After my first year in junior, I was out of high school already, so the pressure was there to get to college. I had a few offers from some Ivy League schools and a few lower end schools. But, I decided to play another year and that's when some of the bigger programs started to notice me - like, North Dakota, CC (Colorado College), Ohio State, UNH (New Hampshire) and Denver. Those were the five I was looking at.
When I went on my visit to CC I kinda already knew I wanted to be in the WCHA and they had a reputation for California guys doing well there. Then, when the coach at the time (Don Lucia) told me 'Look, every year I've been here we've put a kid on the All-Rookie Team. You're going to play a ton here,' I pretty much had my mind made up. Ironically, soon after that visit, he ended up leaving and my junior coach, Scott Owens, was hired to replace him. So, it all worked out.
Your senior year at CC ('03) you guys had an incredible team, but you were eliminated in the second game of the playoffs. Then, two years later, the Tigers made it to the Frozen Four. Although you were probably proud for your alma mater, did you fell like you just missed out on something big?
We should have done some damage that year. We were ranked in the top five all year and I think we had the number two overall seed going into the tournament. We won our first game and then, even though we were top in our bracket, we had to play Michigan in Michigan! That's just how the NCAA screws it up sometimes.
So, here we are in Michigan playing for the right to go to the Frozen Four. It was just one of those games where the crowd was into it and it just wasn't our night. But, that team was stacked. We had Tommy Preissing with 23 goals, as a dman. I think we had five guys with 20+ goals. We definitely had our chance, but we missed out. Like you said, when all those freshman guys got older they ended up making it to the Frozen Four and did well. So, yeah, it would have been to make it to one. I think three years in a row we were knocked out in the game that decided who went to the Frozen Four. That was tough.
On a lighter note, the following year you ended up in Manchester (AHL) and had some pretty colorful characters on that team - guys like George Parros, Ryan Flinn and Tim Gleason. Any funny stories from your first season there with the Monarchs?
This is probably the funniest story... I lived with George. I had met him when we were both drafted in the same year. He had an aunt in LA and he would come out to visit her. We had even trained together during college. So, we signed our first year pro and were living together. He was always a prankster, always doing something funny. He had this Chewbacca costume, which I didn't know before this point in time.
I'll never forget, it was a Sunday morning. We had gone out the night before after playing. I'm laying on the couch, tired, floating in and out of consciousness. I hear a grumbling noise. But, I wasn't really waking up. Finally, I hear this loud grunt. I look up and I see this Chewbacca standing over me. I flip out. I jump up off the couch, yelling 'No!' I didn't know what I thought it was, but I didn't want it coming to get me.
I'm like 'You...what are you doing?' He was dying laughing. I couldn't believe this was the guy I was living with. He was always doing stuff like that, keeping it fun. He's a great guy.
Staying with Manchester, in '04-05 the NHL went through a lockout and several AHL teams found themselves with a sudden influx of talent. For example, you guys had Mike Cammalleri and Dustin Brown. What was that year like?
That was an awesome team. I think we started the year 20-1. It was just fun to play with those guys. It's fun to see them doing so well now too. It was a year that nobody was worried about getting called up. It was just like 'Hey, we're in this together. Let's just go out there and rock out.' We ended up losing in the first round of the playoffs, so that was disappointing. It was a bitter sweet year, to do that well in the regular season and then not find our way in the playoffs.
[note: That playoff failure cost the coach his job. Bruce Boudreau was fired. He's currently the head coach for the Washington Capitals.]
Brownie is obviously now the captain here in Los Angeles. As somebody who's been in the room with him, how would you characterize his leadership skills and ability?
He's pretty soft spoken. However, I think hockey breeds those type of leaders. You need a rah-rah guy sometimes, somebody to do that on your team. Yet, you see a lot of captains who just work hard and play everyday. They're in the gym or out hittin' bodies on the ice. Look at Brownie, he leads the team in hits probably every year. So, it's nice when you have your captain, not only giving you verbal cues, but going out there and punishing their best players, running guys into the boards and setting the tone. I think that's why he's a good captain. He does it both ways, on and off the ice. I think he's also grown into being more vocal and being that voice a team needs.
In '04 you get your first call-up to the Kings. Take us back to that moment in time you'll never forget, you're going to the NHL.
Hubie McDonough called me (Player Personnel guy in Manchester), he said 'Hey, you're getting called up. Get your stuff ready. Your plane leaves in like two hours.' So, it was just a mad dash to pack and leave. On the way to the airport I called home. My mom answered and she can be such a Chatty Cathy, she just starts telling me this story. She's rattling away and I'm trying to cut her off. Finally, I said 'Mom, I'm being called up.' She started going bananas.
Word spread pretty quickly and then people I hadn't heard from in years, like old coaches, started calling the house and texting me like crazy. There were lots of congratulatory messages. It was cool.
And then what happened - you were here for two games, then you were sent back down...
It was an injury situation. The Kings were sorta injury prone during those years. I was doing pretty well in the AHL, but I was a little surprised when they called me up because they had a lot of forwards in the system at the time.
Being in the NHL for the first time, what was the thing that surprised you the most? What's something you didn't know about or weren't prepared for?
It's true what they say, everything is a little quicker. It's almost easier to play in the NHL though, than the AHL, because every pass is perfect. Like my last year in Lowell (AHL), we were a bad team and sometimes we couldn't even make a five foot pass. Where in the NHL, everything sort of hits you in stride. Guys are in the right place. So, it's kinda easier. But, you have to be on point everyday - like with the training. That was eye opening, to see how dedicated all these guys were. I would see guys like Rob Blake in there every morning, taking care of his body and putting in the time.
You were called up again for a few games in '05. Then, the third time was the charm. In March of '07 you finally score your first NHL goal (in a game against Edmonton). More importantly, you became the first Southern California native to score a goal for the Kings. Did you realize that at the time?
I don't think so. I knew I was the first SoCal player to play for the Kings when I came up the first time because there were some stories written about it and stuff. But, a few years later, I hadn't put the two together I guess. It makes sense, I just wasn't thinking about it. At the time, Gabe Gauthier (born in Torrance, CA) was called up too. So, I'm just glad I got it before he scored.
You ended up playing played 13 games with the Kings that year, which also happened to be Anze Koptiar's rookie season. Any memories of him?
I have memories even before that, from when when we played together in camp. It was me, him and Lauri Tukonen. It was Kopi's first training camp with the Kings. He was about 18 years old, but I could tell he was a player. He had the composure and was so good with the puck. He ended up going back to Sweden to play and then I saw him the next year. I think that time, I was the last guy cut in camp or at least one of the last guys. I remember (Ron) Hextall saying that they didn't expect Kopi to make the team, he just blew everybody away...and he hasn't looked back since then.
Now the following season you left the Kings, signing on with the Devils organization. You played mostly in the AHL, but they called you up for one game and you scored a goal...and that was your only game...what happened?
Well, they told me they had four left wingers and I would be the fifth guy. If something happened, I would get a call up. So, I knew the situation. I had an awesome training camp. Probably one of my best ever. I got the call on the last day, I was being sent down. I grinded it out in the minors. A guy gets hurt, I got the call up. First game, I score a goal. I was thinking 'Alright, at least this buys me a couple of days, right?' It's gotta be some sort of money in the bank! Elias was coming off an injury. So, the following day the team was healthy. I caught the bus and was playing in Philly against the Phantoms (AHL) the next night.
It was frustrating. However, they were honest about it, so I can't knock that. It's just frustrating when you get up there and you score...you just want another opportunity.
The following year you were off to Europe, having signed a two year contract in Switzerland. How did that come about and what made you decide to make the move overseas?
I kinda always figured that I would go play in Europe at some point. The idea appealed to me. Going through my experience in Lowell - the call up, being sent down, we were a bad team, lost like 13 in a row at some point...then I was hit in the face with a puck and missed two months after major facial surgery. I had a lot of time to think. Even though I wanted to play in the NHL, I knew what my situation would be - a two way contract, depth guy, always waiting for an injury. This was about two and half years ago when the NHL was starting to go younger too.
I asked my agent to start putting some feelers out. I told him Switzerland was where I wanted to go. Within a week they had a deal done. I actually signed it while I was in Iowa after leaving Lowell. I was visiting my host parents from my junior days. It was pretty quick the way it all got done.
You've now played in Switzerland, Finland, the Czech Republic and you're getting ready to play in Germany this season. What's been your favorite city so far and why?
I really enjoyed Ticino, it's an all Italian area in Switzerland. It's like Italy, only cleaner and with less traffic. The food, the espressos, the pastas and pizzas - all the food was so good. They were passionate Italian fans and they were the craziest fans I've ever seen. We were the underdog team, Lugano was the rival team. They were the rich, banking town team. Our fans would basically smoke weed in the stands and waive Che Guevara flags. They were total left wing, 'we're the people's people.' When we went to Lugano they had to separate the fans because they would fight. If we won those derby games, we'd get treated like royalty. That's all they cared about. It was a cool experience to play in that environment.
What three things has hockey taught you?
Work ethic - whatever it is, you have to work at it. In hockey you're always training, thinking about the next game and what you need to do to prepare. So, it's a mentality. It's also taught me about loyalty. Hockey guys are usually loyal to their team and also loyal to their friends. I like the community too. Wherever you're at, when two guys realize they both played hockey, there is a bond. It doesn't matter if you played pro or they're a pick-up player. I like that part of it.
What's the best advice your parents ever gave you?
Well, they weren't really "on me" a lot as a kid, with things like 'You have to play...' They simply supported what I wanted to do, while their peers or friends were probably saying 'You're getting up at 4am for hockey? Why are you doing this? And you're buying him sticks that cost of hundreds of dollars?' From my parents it was always 'Hey, have fun. Do your thing. But don't do it because you think we want you to do it. Do it because you love it.' That was always cool and I think it's why I pushed myself.
My group of friends and I have even told our parents 'Thank you for shipping us off to Montreal at eight years old' when everybody else in my class had never been out of California. They allowed us do things and see what's out there. In California we thought we were hot shit. You go to Toronto and you get smoked 10-1 and you're like 'Wow, we need to work. I need to go home and shoot pucks, stick handle balls in the backyard, work out on the ice, etc.'
You still follow the Kings, so what do you think about how the team is progressing these days?
That's still my team. It's fun to just be a fan now and root for some of the guys I know on the team. I think they have a nice mix. Their youth is so strong, with guys like Jack and Kopi...and Doughty just blows everybody's mind. They've also done a good job of bringing in some veteran guys, which you need on every team. You need those guys to show young players how to be a pro. How to eat, how to rest properly. When you're young you just think you can hop on the ice and do it. For awhile you can, but all that stuff catches up to you at some point. So, you need that mix of youthful energy and veteran guys that have been there, done that.
Speaking of young guys, in your last season with the Monarchs you played with Kevin Westgarth. He's expected to be with the Kings next year. What can you tell fans about Westie, both on and off the ice?
He's had a very similar path to Parros. They even went to the same college, Princeton. They're both these tough guys than can play though too. Later, when I played against him with Lowell, he surprised me. I was pretty impressed with his play and how he'd come along. He brings a lot of energy, he's a good guy and is light hearted off the ice. I think you need to be that way after being so aggressive. Off the ice you have to keep it light hearted.
The Kings are rumored to be interested in Ryan Malone of Tampa Bay. He was in the USHL back when you were there too. Any memories of him as a player?
He also went to St Cloud State, so we battled in college too. He's great. He's 6'4" and his hands are unbelievable. He can move around the ice well. He looks like a giant out there. I thought he had a good Olympics too. Put him on a line with Kopi and I think he'll do big things.
Final question, if somebody was to write a book about your life up to this point in time, what would it be called?
I feel like a gypsy. I've been calling myself a gypsy because since 16 it's been 'pack your bag and go live somewhere' over and over. So, I feel Gypsy would be fitting for right now. However, I'm not sure if I'd go with that though because in Europe it's a derogatory term. I might have to go with The Traveler for the international version of the book.
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From coast to coast here in America...and now over in Europe...Noah Clarke has just been doing what he loves - playing hockey, meeting people and enjoying life.
Someday, long after he retires...it would be great to see him play in a celebrity-alumni game against some guy in a Chewbacca suit. Damn, that would be funny.
Interview with Andy Murray - former coach of the LA Kings and Shattuck St Mary's
Interview with Rob Blake
Interview with Luc Robitaille
Interview with Marcel Dionne
Interview with Kelly Hrudey
photo courtesy of at Michael Zampelli