Barons defenseman Brett Clark has a unique skill that often goes unnoticed by the average fan who attends a hockey game.
Clark intentionally throws his body in front of hockey pucks that travel up to 100 mph.
One of the NHL's top shot blockers in recent years, Clark takes pride in being a human shield that stops a frozen, vulcanized three-inch rubber disc.
“You know it's going to hurt when you see a guy winding up,” Clark said. “That's part of the game. Whatever it takes to win. Every time you can keep that puck away from your net it's one less chance they have to score. That's my mindset. If I get hurt I can recover over the summer.”
Clark blocked 1,255 shots the past seven seasons with the Tampa Bay Lightning and Colorado Avalanche.
“Shot blocking is an art,” said Barons coach Todd Nelson. “You have to know when to go down, where to go in the shooting lane. The second part of it — the willingness — probably is most important. You're sacrificing your body.”
Clark, 36, rarely sprawls to the ice because he's so well positioned in shooting lanes he can stay upright.
“Those type of players make it tough on the shooter,” Nelson said. “Instead of just beating the goalie they also have to beat somebody in front of them. You just can't slide down. Players are smart. They'll hold it, let you slide by and then take their shot. ”
Injuries are inevitable. Ankles take a pounding. At some stage of the season every part of the body — wrists, shoulders, legs — get bruised, sometimes broken.
Clark played in all 82 games last season with Tampa Bay despite suffering a fractured ankle.
“That's probably something you shouldn't do,” Clark said. “You just have to battle through injuries, whatever it takes. There's always a risk something could happen, but you can't think about that.”
Shot blocking always has been a part of hockey. It became more relevant after NHL officials changed obstruction rules to open up play following the 2004-05 lost season.
“Since you can't clutch and grab or use your stick, the game is so much faster now,” Nelson said. “It makes it a lot more difficult to block shots. The teams that do it the best make it very difficult to score on them.”
Clark is more than a shot blocker. A sixth-round pick 17 years ago, Clark is a solid defender that can contribute on the offensive end.
In 681 NHL games, Clark has scored 185 points, including 45 goals. He's scored 15 points in 15 games with the Barons, highlighted by 14 assists.
“Anytime a defenseman makes a play that gives your forwards an opportunity to score it takes a lot of pressure off them,” Clark said. “If the D can make that first or second pass and chips in, it's huge.”
Clark, from Wapella, Saskatchewan, is in his 16th pro season. Two years ago, he was one of Tampa Bay's top defenders on a team that lost to Boston in seven games in the Eastern Conference finals.
“It really helps to have a veteran presence,” Nelson said. “At this level, there will be growing pains for the younger guys. The older guys can really help. They lead by example. They lead in the locker room. The young guys grow up a lot quicker.”
Playing in the AHL for the first time in eight years, Clark is a free agent. He can sign with any of the 30 NHL teams.
“I'm not paying attention to that,” Clark said. “I'm down here. A lot of teams went with their young kids. Things will play out the way they're supposed to. If I'm worried about that it can take away from my game. I've just got to approach it one game at a time, have as much fun as I can and help this team.”