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It's Maple Leafs madness, and David Clarkson feels right at home in Toronto

Nicholas J. Cotsonika
Yahoo Sports

TORONTO — It was past midnight when David Clarkson came home. An unrestricted free agent, a power forward in demand, he had been touring NHL cities – Columbus, Edmonton, Ottawa – and struggling as he weighed his options. Time to decide.

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David Clarkson grew up in Toronto as a fan of the Maple Leafs. (USA Today)

He walked into his Toronto house, where his parents had been babysitting. He sat down with his father, Eric, and played a video that had been part of the Maple Leafs’ recruiting pitch. It ended with “CLARKSON” being stitched into the blue-and-white.

“I got tears in my eyes,” Eric said.

“I could see it in his face,” David said, “and I said, ‘Dad, that’s where I’m going to play next year, I think.’ And he just went dead quiet.”

The Clarksons had loved the Leafs for generations. Eric had learned from his father, Doug, who was born in Toronto and a fan as far back as the 1930s. David had learned from his father, who worked for the City of Toronto in human resources and shared a pair of season tickets for more than two decades.

Eric used to take the kids in rotation – usually sons David and Doug, sometimes daughter Candice. They would make it to Maple Leaf Gardens at 4:30 p.m. and stand on Wood Street, so they could snag autographs as the players crossed from the parking lot to the back entrance, even though that left hours until faceoff. They’d grab pizza or something and talk about the game.

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David had multiple Leafs sweaters – Wendel Clark, Doug Gilmour, Gary Roberts, Darcy Tucker. He got to go to the last game at the Gardens. His brother got to go the first game at Air Canada Centre. So many memories.

At one point in free agency, David asked his father where he should sign. His father did not say Toronto. The decision had to be made for sensible, not sentimental, reasons, and David was the one who had met with the teams and seen the cities.

“I said, ‘You’ve got to make up your mind, because you’ve got to live with this decision. You can’t do what I want you to do,’ ” Eric said.

Now here in the wee hours of July 5, David’s mind was made up. He could live with the decision, whether he would live up to everyone’s expectations or not. He was going to do what he had dreamt of. He was going to give the autographs, not get them; wear his own sweater, not his heroes’; come off the street and out of the stands and onto the ice.

He was going to play for the Leafs.

“I haven’t seen my dad cry that often,” David said. “But being a fan of that team for so long, and to have his son be a part of something he raised me on, was special.”

* * * * *

The next day, David Clarkson’s photo was on the front page of the tabloid Toronto Sun – sort of. It was his face, but with a Photoshopped mullet and handlebar mustache. The headline: “WENDEL CLARKSON! He fights. He scores. He’s from Toronto. Guess who his idol was?”

“I didn’t even know if it was real,” said Doug Clarkson, a winger in the Philadelphia Flyers organization who skates with his brother in Toronto in the offseason. “I thought I was dreaming. I asked him, ‘Is that the front page of the Sun today – you as Wendel Clark? He couldn’t believe it, either. He’s like, ‘Yeah, this is Toronto.’ ”

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Phil Kessel can give Clarkson some pointers on handling the pressure in a hockey-mad market like Toronto. (AP)

Yeah, this is Toronto all right, and this is the other side of the story.

When you’re a kid, you dream of scoring goals and winning games and hoisting the Stanley Cup for your favorite team. You don’t think about the money and the media, the pressure and the pain. Dreams can become nightmares. Free agents can become busts. A guy who should be a fan favorite can become a whipping boy all because of a contract.

David Clarkson signed a seven-year deal, the longest in Leafs history. He has a $5.25 million salary-cap hit, third-highest on the team. He’s playing in the so-called Centre of the Hockey Universe, where the attention and analysis can be overwhelming. And he’s wearing No. 71, the mirror image of Clark’s old No. 17, making it seem like he’s the second coming of Clark or trying to be.

Toronto is not for everyone, especially under these circumstances.

“It’s nuts,” said one NHL star, a Canadian who plays in an American market. “I don’t think I could ever do that.”

David Clarkson is not naive, though. He might be living his childhood dream, but at age 29, with six-plus years of NHL experience, with friends who have played in different markets providing advice, he’s not a kid anymore.

“He knows what he’s getting into,” Eric said. “He was a fan himself, so he knows what it means to be a Leaf. He knows there’s pressure here. He’s just going to go out and play his game and do his best. That’s it.”

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David Clarkson is not Wendel Clark. He is not even Wendel Clarkson. Wendel Clark was the first overall pick in the 1985 NHL draft, and he scored at least 30 goals four times and might have done it more often had he not missed so many games. David Clarkson was never drafted, and he reached 30 goals and only 30 goals only once for the New Jersey Devils. His next-highest total for a full season: 17.

But David Clarkson is not necessarily trying to be Wendel Clark or even Wendel Clarkson. After wearing No. 23 in New Jersey, he’s wearing No. 71 in Toronto only indirectly because of Clark. It was tough to get No. 17 growing up, for obvious reasons, so he started wearing No. 71 in ball hockey and grew to love it. He battled to make the NHL and make his own name for himself within it.

“I think I’ve proven I can score 30 more than once,” said David, who scored 15 goals last season in the lockout-shortened, 48-game schedule, the equivalent of about 25 goals over an 82-game schedule. “But am I going to score 30 every year? Probably not. Some of the best players in the game don’t score 30 every year. So I think what I bring is a little bit of grit, heart, sticking up for teammates and leadership in that room.”

Even though David said he doesn’t use Twitter and rarely reads newspapers, he has heard it already – the contract is too long, the money is too much, the cap hit has handcuffed the Leafs with other players.

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But there was going to be pressure to produce wherever he signed. There might have been even more elsewhere, because he said there was even more money elsewhere. As for the fans and media, well, Edmonton and Ottawa were two of his other suitors. They’re pretty hardcore Canadian markets, too.

And where would he fit better than Toronto? Leafs GM Dave Nonis has said he doesn’t expect him to score 30 every season. Coach Randy Carlyle is famous – or infamous, depending on your point of view – for valuing grit as well as goals. The job will be to grind down low at right wing on the second line – in other words, to play to his strengths with teammates who can put up numbers. The term of the contract could be tricky, but the money might look better as time goes on if the cap rises as dramatically as expected.

“I’m so down-to-earth and easy-going that I will never let it bug me,” David said. “I went golfing the other day, and some guy will make comments. But it doesn’t bother me. People will say things. There’s always people saying silly things. I think if you’re old enough, you know to ignore it, you know which people know what they’re talking about. But the fact that those fans have an expectation, that’s fine, because they’re paying to watch the game. They should. And I have expectations myself.”

* * * * *

Sometimes it takes more than talent and dedication to fulfill your dreams. Sometimes it takes guts, too. To succeed, you can’t be afraid to fail.

At first, David Clarkson wasn’t afraid to leave home. He actually passed up a chance to sign with the Leafs as an undrafted free agent out of the Ontario Hockey League, choosing the Devils instead. It wasn’t the right time. It wasn’t the right fit.

This time, David Clarkson wasn’t afraid to come home. He wasn’t going to pass up a second chance.

“I don’t know if there would have been a third one,” he said. “It was a tough decision, but I believe I made the right one and in the end I’ll have no regrets. Now it’s on me. I’ve got to go out there and do my job.”

This is the right time. This is the right fit.

This is the right attitude, too.

David made his exhibition debut Monday night at the ACC – failing to score a goal, but scrapping with Philadelphia defenseman Nicklas Grossmann. Eric was there and said he only wished his late father could have been there to see it. Doug was in town with the Flyers and said it was special, even in the preseason, to see his brother skating around in “that number” in “those colors.”

There was a kid in the stands, sitting next to his father, wearing a new sweater with “CLARKSON” stitched in the blue-and-white.

“I was that kid,” David Clarkson said. “If I saw Doug Gilmour in a mall, I was that kid begging my dad to find me a Leaf hat or a Leaf card of Doug Gilmour to go get it signed. I feel very lucky to do what I do. Every day I’m thankful for it. I think to be able to play in a city where hockey matters every day, it’s kind of cool.”

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