Clint Malarchuk, AJHL Fort Saskatchewan Traders. Photo courtesy of the Malarchuk family
Hockey Career: Junior & NHLClint’s junior career began with the AJHL Fort Saskatchewan Traders, now the Whitecourt Wolverines, and from the Traders he moved to the Portland Winter Hawks in 1978.
Clint Malarchuk and the Portland Winterhawks (front row on right). Photo courtesy of the Malarchuk family
Graduation into the professional ranks brought an end to Clint’s frequent Grande Prairie visits and an end to a very significant phase of his maturation. It would be thirty- two years before he would return to his hometown. However, he never lost sight of his Grande Prairie roots and frequently contacted Uncle Max especially when he had special news to share such as a shut out. It is likely that Max was aware that a call was coming as he had a satellite dish installed so he could watch his nephew’s games. Throughout his life from birth to the present an unbreakable thread has connected Clint to Grande Prairie.
After three years with the Portland Winterhawks in 1981 Clint was drafted 74th overall by the Quebec Nordiques.
Clint Malarchuk, netminder with Quebec Nordiques. Photo courtesy of the Malarchuk family
Everyone who breaks into professional hockey has beaten enormous odds but few cleared the kind of hurdles Clint faced to get there. He spent an exciting decade in the NHL (1981 – 1992) with the Quebec Nordiques, the Washington Capitals and the Buffalo Sabres earning a record of 141 wins, 130 losses, 45 ties and a .885 save percentage. For his first six years in the NHL (1981 – 1987) he shuffled back and forth between the Nordiques and their farm team the Fredericton Express. As a member of the Nordiques Clint was involved in brawl with the Montreal Canadians known as “The Good Friday Massacre”. Two hundred and fifty-two penalty minutes were assessed during the game and ten players were ejected - Malarchuk was one of them. Clint never shrank from a scrap. His Dad had taught him to box and on the ranch toughness of body and spirit was reinforced. His ability to rumble served him well during his hockey career. He acknowledges that he is “old school” as it relates to physical aspects of the game. Nobody took lightly a challenge from him to do battle, even the notorious Tiger Williams. Tiger and Clint had an entertaining encounter on one occasion when Tiger bumped Clint while skating through his crease. Clint retaliated with a goal stick “shiver” to Tiger’s legs and a challenge “to go”. When the next whistle blew Tiger skated back to Clint and Clint repeated the challenge. Tiger waited while Clint removed his mask and “away they went”. It was no big deal – just business as usual. Clint and Tiger are friends and the incident is nothing more than humorous bar stool and dressing room chatter. In 1987 along with his best friend, Dale Hunter, Clint was traded to the Washington Capitals. It is considered by some to be one of the most famous trades in hockey and marked the beginning of the downward slide of the Nordiques and their eventual departure from the NHL. However, it was a good move for Clint.
From 1987-1989, Clint suited up for the Washington Capitals and played 96 regular season games, compiling a 40-38-11 record. He enjoyed his stint in Washington that included events such as meeting the U. S. President. He was the last player in the Capitals lineup to meet President Reagan. In typical Clint style, he was heckling a security guard when his buddy Dale Hunter poked him in the ribs. There in front of him was the President waiting to shake hands. “I loved watching your Western movies,” blurted Clint. “I loved making them,” replied Reagan. For insurance reasons Clint’s contract with the Capitals stipulated that he was not to participate in any dangerous activities off the ice but rodeos and riding were an addiction of sorts – healthier than some of the addictions he has experienced but risky none-the-less. Clint declares he is not a rodeo star, but reports, “I could hold my own on the old nags.” He did not share the details but states that he won his first rodeo event in a rodeo at Crystal Creek, a small community near Grande Prairie. He claims that he wasn’t there to compete but ended up getting thrown into an event at the last minute winning a belt buckle that he still has among his souvenirs. This activity pre-dated Twitter, Face Book and other social media that would not have enabled him to keep his rodeo activities secret today.
Clint Malarchuk with Washington Capitals. Photo courtesy of the Malarchuk family
The Calgary Stampede has a higher profile than Crystal Creek. An event for kids was scheduled in Calgary and the cowboys scheduled to conduct the riding exhibitions thought the event had been rained out. The story goes that his friend Winston Bruce, an official at the Stampede was in a bind, and Clint offered to stand in for the delinquent cowboys. “The ring was all slop. I'd worn a slicker, the kind of yellow coat the Cowboys wear, because it was pouring rain, but I was covered in mud. I rode about eight different horses for the kids, showing the mane and tail, bareback and a lot of fun stuff. I didn't think anything of it.” The next day the Washington Post published a photo of the Capital’s number one goalie flying through the air having just been tossed from the back of a mustang. The picture did not escape the attention of David Poile, the Capital’s GM – Clint was busted. In a telephone conversation with David Poile, Clint tried playing dumb when asked, “What the Hell are you doing? You are flying off a horse that is ready to kick your head off.” A fast thinking devious Clint replied, “That was my brother.” In truth, Clint’s brother Garth is afraid of horses and does not go near them. Poile did not buy Clint’s fabrication. Fortunately he was not hurt and as far as we know that was the end of Clint’s rodeo exploits while he was in Washington.
Clint and Washington Capitals, front row fifth from left. Photo courtesy of the Malarchuk family
Clint had enormous admiration for the Russian goal tender Vladislav Tretiak. At the age of twenty-seven and playing professional hockey in the US Capitol Clint learned that Tretiak was conducting a hockey school “… so I signed up. I was on the ice with 10, 11 and 12 year olds. I would take any opportunity to learn. Talk about humbling - on the ice with kids. It was worth it. He gave me a lot of private lessons. He respected me for attending. I was already in the NHL after all.” (Malarchuk interview with Neufeld) In 1988 after a season in which Clint shared the League leading statistic in shut outs, he was traded to the Buffalo Sabres.
It was just two weeks after he arrived in Buffalo that Clint and Steve Tuttle of the St. Louis Blues collided. Clint came within moments of bleeding to death on the ice when Tuttle’s skate severed Malarchuk’s carotid artery. The quick thinking of Buffalo’s Athletic trainer Jim Pizutelli saved his life and ten days later a determined Clint Malarchuk, eager to show the Buffalo fans that he was committed to them, was back on the ice. Unfortunately this incident defines Clint for many hockey fans that have not been exposed to his entire story. Not the team, not the league nor macho-minded Clint gave any thought to the possible long-term mental health implications of the trauma he suffered. Furthermore it is likely that this incident helped to unleash a host of mental health challenges that Clint was harbouring: stress that had its roots in childhood. Take your pick: anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression, anger, post-traumatic stress disorder, paranoia and addiction. In spite of the incident and the demons he was battling, Clint enjoyed three excellent seasons in Buffalo. Were it not for the skate cut incident, it is impossible to imagine the heights Clint may have reached in the NHL. But – given the current perspective we have on Clint’s accomplishments, was it really a loss? As we shall see, this incident was the gateway to a different pinnacle in Clint’s journey: one that has already and promises to have even greater positive implications for many more people than he could possibly have reached by spending further time in the NHL. Back to Clint’s three years in Buffalo, in spite of his emotional struggles there was a good fit between Clint and the fans.
Buffalo Sabres, 1991-92. Photo courtesy of the Malarchuk family
He has always identified with blue-collar characteristics in people and the Buffalo fans were his kind of folks. An indication of his popularity is expressed by two radio talk shows he hosted in Buffalo – one in the morning and a one hour show in the evening that allowed him to connect with his fans. “I loved Buffalo. Because of its proximity to Canada it was more like a real Canadian hockey town: the climate, lots of snow, its hockey-loving atmosphere. They liked the blue-collar athlete. I had a good relationship, a camaraderie with the fans. They appreciated me and really supported the way I came back so soon after my injury. It was a special relationship they had with me.” Following three impressive and professionally fulfilling years in Buffalo, Clint’s adventures in the NHL ended but it was far from the end of his emotional struggles.
Clint Malarchuk standing second from right. Submitted photo
Reflecting on his NHL adventures Clint believes that playing on the 1987 Rendezvous Canada team was the highlight of his professional career. It was a series of All Stars from the NHL playing against an All Star team from Russia. “I was in the locker room with Gretzky, Lemieux, Grant Fuhr, Ron Hextall, Messier, Kurri, Doug Wilson. You name it - they were there. It was pretty special. It was a highlight. I didn’t have the most confidence back then. What am I doing here? I thought to myself. I was pretty overwhelmed by that experience. What the heck am I doing here?” (Malarchuk interview with Neufeld) It took some time for Clint to prove that he was not out of his element with the NHL’s elite.
1987 Rendezvous Canada team. Malarchuk front row on right. Photo courtesy of the Malarchuk family
Another of Clint’s exploits involved being hired by the US Army to teach horsemanship to soldiers. “They were on the lookout for Bin Laden in Afghanistan. Central Nevada is very desert like, high and mountainous. That makes for an ideal training setting. The terrain is much what you’d experience in Afghanistan. We helped the soldiers catch a horse, saddle it and most importantly ride it. We had four days with each group. They were preparing to seek out Bin Laden in the caves in Afghanistan at the time.”
Clint teaching horsemanship to U.S. soldiers; Photo courtesy of the Malarchuk family