His jersey will never be hanging from the rafters inside the arena, nor will he get a statue outside Staples Center. However, his contributions to the LA Kings organization are immeasurable, often unnoticed, and far greater than most people will ever realize.
Last month, Clifford played his 500th NHL game and Dustin Brown, who served as team captain for most of those games, is just one of many who value what the 6-foot-2 gentle giant means to the club.
“Cliffy grew up in a Kings uniform and learned what it took to become a good pro from the older guys we had here when he arrived,” remarked Brown. “He’s always been the guy on our team to do the hard things, the things that most of us don’t want to do, and he’s done it every day. At this point in his career, he is now also teaching the young guys what he was taught. That’s how you can sustain culture. That’s how you learn to win. Whether he is in the line-up or not, he has an impact on this team.”
Pre-NHL Clifford grew up in Ayr, Ontario, a town of a few thousand people in Eastern Canada. On one hand, you would assume the bright lights and big city feel of Southern California would be the furthest thing from Clifford’s comfort zone. And that would be one of only dozens of elements related to Clifford that people would get wrong.
When it comes to Kings hockey, Clifford is everything Los Angeles has to offer.
In 2009, then-GM Dean Lombardi and his key lieutenants had a very specific mission leading into the NHL Entry Draft. They needed a player who would be a game-changer for the organization. No, not a top flight defenseman. No, not a 100-point-a-season forward who would light up the scoresheet on a nightly basis. What they needed was far more important in the big picture.
“That draft had to shape the culture of our team,” explained Mike Futa, now Assistant GM.
Lombardi, Futa, and Mark Yannetti were still in the early days of building the LA Kings at that point. There was still plenty of work to do, yet they already identified a huge gap. To solve for it, they set their sights on a player who could change everything. Somebody who would be the role model for all young players entering the fold going forward.
Clifford had just completed his second season in the Ontario Hockey League, skating with the Barrie Colts. That year, he put up 28 points in 60 games, along with 133 penalty minutes.
“The first time I shook his hand, I knew this was our guy,” Futa recalled. “We had to have him. He was – and still is – everything this organization needs.”
The Kings knew they might need to select Clifford a little earlier than where other people may have expected him to go that year. They weren’t concerned, though; they had a plan and they were sticking to it. There were also privy to some things going on behind the scenes to help their cause.
Clifford had told team officials in no uncertain terms, he wanted to be a member of the LA Kings and was going to do everything in his power to make it happen come Draft day,
Los Angeles was scheduled to pick fifth in the second round. Right in front of them were the Atlanta Thrashers, one of several teams also believed to be heavily interested in the second-year OHL forward, as well.
Even so, Clifford did everything he could to push other teams away, including telling a scout from the Thrashers that he would throw him through a window during one of their pre-draft interviews. Just like he is today, Clifford was focused on a goal and he was determined to make sure nobody got in his way.
The Islanders started off the second round that Saturday, taking a goalie. They were followed by Detroit and Colorado, then came Atlanta. They did the right thing and went with a different player, Carl Klingberg.
“At that point, Cliffy could have gotten up and hugged his parents. He knew what we were about to do next,” Futa said with a big laugh. “There was no question, we were taking Kyle Clifford with that pick.”
What may have looked like a stretch at the time proved to be right. Of all the players selected in the second round that year, only Ryan O’Reilly has played more NHL games than Clifford. After those two, there is a more than 100 game gap to the guy in third place on the games played list, and 19 of the 30 total players taken that round never even made it to the triple-digits in games played. Clifford was a gem of a pick that day, to say the least.
“Without Kyle Clifford the LA Kings would not have won the 2012 Stanley Cup,” Yannetti, who serves as the team’s long-time Director of Scouting, told us several years ago.
At the time, it was a comment that came up in a conversation about a different player. We never used it. However, like Clifford’s play, it was memorable and it resonated. The comment was similar in nature to some of the high praise so many others have shared with us regarding Clifford through the years – something that continues to this day. Despite nine years passing since he was first drafted, along with dozens and dozens of other players coming through the organization, you simply can’t talk to people in Kings management without them waxing on about Clifford. Words like warrior, honesty, and commitment are just some of what is most often touted.
“He is the most genuine player we’ve ever drafted,” said Futa. “Cliffy was a sponge to everything our development guys would talk to him about; anything they would show him.”
Perhaps an even higher honor, though, comes from comments and stories shared by the guys Clifford has shared a locker room with in Los Angeles.
“Beyond his NHL skill set and team-first mentality, he’s a tireless worker,” Dustin Penner told us. “The type of guy that even after the occasional time that you run over him over or engage him in a fight, he still won’t stop coming at you. So you’re left with asking him nicely to stop as a last resort. He won’t.”
Back when they played together, following a game one night, Penner told us, “Cliffy is one of those throwback guys like Wendel Clark (of the Toronto Maple Leafs) when it comes to toughness. Clifford has that same mentality. A guy who would take on anyone despite the size differential. He has his nose in every scrum. He’s a great guy to have on your team. Doesn’t matter who comes knocking, he will always answer the bell.”
One of Clifford’s favorite linemates ever was Colin Fraser. The two often played together leading up to the Kings first Cup in 2012.
“I love Cliffy!” Fraser immediately said when we were pulling this article together. “He is the ultimate throwback guy who always puts the team’s success ahead of his own. He is the guy willing to do whatever it takes to help the Kings win. I’ve seen Cliffy fight for his teammates, block shots, take a big hit to make a play – whatever it took for the team. He never complains and always gets the job done at full throttle. He is a man-child, who pound-for-pound might be the toughest guy I ever played with.”
As much respect as the two players have for each other, there is at least one key difference between them, as Clifford once told us.
Following the Kings elimination by Chicago in the 2013 Western Conference Final, Fraser did an interview with us about his drive back home to Canada. Soon thereafter, we checked in with Clifford about his own cross-country drive back to Ontario.
“No Nickelback!” Clifford proudly boasted. “I know Fraz probably has all their albums blaring the whole way back home, but not me!”
Those earlier compliments shared by Fraser have been echoed in various forms by numerous guys we’ve spoken with over the years when bringing up Clifford’s name. And the ‘man-child’ phrase is an interesting one in itself because Mark Hardy, then Assistant Coach of the Kings first used that line with us following Clifford’s first Development Camp with the team. Longtime readers may remember it was Hardy who told us he crowned Clifford as MVP of camp that summer – even over highly touted prospects like Brayden Schenn.
We probably got our first real taste of Clifford the person, not the hockey player, shortly after he attended Team Canada’s World Junior Championship evaluation camp in the summer of 2010. Before he even arrived back home, he was already on the phone with us, talking about the experience. Go back and read the interview today. You’ll see how, even as a teenager, he was already the team-first guy, pumping the tires of five other Kings prospects who also attended the camp.
A few years later, he was in the NHL, and Fraser vividly remembers their first encounter on the ice.
“I was with the Oilers, and we had a game in LA,” Fraser began. “I was lined up on the wing and Cliffy lined up next to me. Of course, Cliffy being Cliffy, he gave me a shot. After I gave him a shot back, then he looked at me – only 19 years old, but looking like he’s 30, his eyes just pierced a hole right through me, saying, ‘You wanna go?’ I kindly declined.”
On a personal note, the MayorsManor archives are littered with fun Clifford interviews during those early years. From the time we found out about his nickname in juniors – The Colonel (a takeoff on his initials, KFC) – to the time Clifford interrupted a conversation we were having with Kings heavyweight Kevin Westgarth in 2010. The usually quiet youngster offered a challenge – the first guy to get a Gordie Howe hat trick would owe the other dinner. Westgarth quickly agreed and a deal was born. Two years later, Clifford notched a goal, an assist, and a fight in a win over the Senators. Back in the locker room after the game, Clifford gave us a typical short, but sharp as a dagger quote regarding the bet he just won – “I once did a 52-ounce (porterhouse). So, we’ll see if I can top that.”
Clifford may not score often, but he has notched some truly memorable ones through the years. Like the one he recorded early in the first period of a game at Levi’s Stadium in 2015, kicking off the scoring for what became a Kings 2-1 win over the Sharks in front of over 70,000 fans.
One year earlier, at Dodger Stadium, Clifford made a different type of contribution at the Kings first outdoor game, this time against the Anaheim Ducks at Dodger Stadium.
“Darryl Sutter was ripping into me in the office and I was late trying to get back out for the second period,” Willie Mitchell recently revealed to us. “Sutter told Cliffy to get out, and Cliffy told him, ‘I’m waiting for my [expletive] teammate!’ He just happened to be in room when Sutter was giving it to me, but he had my back. Cliffy is the best and one of the most respectful new age NHLers.”
Over his career in Los Angeles, Clifford has been up and down the line-up. Primarily a third and fourth line guy, he’s been a stalwart for the Kings, even spending time with some of the more offensively skilled players. Like the time coach Terry Murry put him up top, on a line with Anze Kopitar, for his 20th birthday in 2011. It wasn’t a one-time novelty either. Clifford also spent time with Jeff Carter in 2012 and again with Kopitar during 2013. Coming after the NHL Lockout, when Clifford skated with ECHL Ontario, he was one of the players most ready to go once the league started back up again.
However, Clifford’s goal scoring prowess has never been something he brags about.
“Just got the puck on net and good things happen,” Clifford said at the time. “Sometimes I just close my eyes and put it on net.”
As much as Clifford has grown up a King, he’s also taken to the lifestyle here in Los Angeles. Yes, he lives in a beach community, but he’s always seemed more at home when you run into him at a Metallica concert or with his family at Monster Jam. He doesn’t live a posh lifestyle, yet he clearly enjoys his time at the state’s golden beaches.
“Cliffy is one of the best teammates I ever had,” said Jarret Stoll. “The way he plays and sticks up for his brothers is one thing everyone likely notices. But, off the ice, he and his wife Paige also have the guys over for holiday dinners and organize beach days. They make sure the new players coming in feel welcome. Maybe it’s the small town Ayr, Ontario morals in him. Whatever it is, though, we’re lucky he’s been an LA King for all these years.”
Currently, Clifford is in the third season of a five-year contract with the Kings. When he agreed to the extension, he shared with us he we would have happily signed for more years. Just like he told Kings management prior to being drafted, this is the organization he wants to call home – no matter the money, apparently.
“Whatever it ends up being, it’s going to be good money; better than shoveling shit for $10-an-hour, like I used to do when I was a teenager,” he quipped while negotiations were wrapping up at the time.
The idea of being an LA King seems far more important than the idea of being a professional hockey player. For Clifford, this team is his identity and he is the identity of this team. A hard-working, hard training, leave it all on the ice, ultimate teammate kind of guy.
There is no denying the Kings are in a bit of a transition period presently, attempting to re-tool the team on the fly. Gone are bottom-six forwards like Dwight King, Jordan Nolan, and Nick Shore. Yet there is a key reason why Clifford remains with the team and will be part of their future – his work in Los Angeles isn’t quite done yet.
“The LA Kings need No. 13 to raise another banner,” Futa exclaimed. “He’s pure gold!”
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