Imagine for a second you are an undersized defender patrolling the blueline for the Jersey Hitmen, a Tier 3 Junior A ice hockey team in the Eastern Junior Hockey League. The dream of playing professional hockey, let alone in the Stanley Cup Final, is just that. It’s a dream, a far away one that unfortunately will never become a reality for most young men that suit up.
Connor Clifton is not most young men. He patrolled the blueline for the Hitmen, in his home state of New Jersey, during the 2011-12 season. Clifton managed to draw into 28 games, where he scored a single goal and added eleven assists for 12 points. Modest numbers, but numbers that caught the attention of the US National Team Development Program.
Clifton found a way to get noticed. He was never the sexy player in Tier 3 Junior A, but he managed to wrestle his way to the USHL and then eventually to the NCAA, where he earned a scholarship at Quinnipiac University. Four solid seasons later, no one expected Clifton to be a Stanley Cup hero. Yet here we are.
Clifton, a fifth-round pick of the Arizona Coyotes in 2013, wasn’t worth an entry-level deal in the mind of Arizona. He wasn’t worth an entry-level deal in the mind of any team. Clifton had to settle for an AHL contract with the Providence Bruins and then forced his way to an entry-level deal last spring.
Even then, he was never on the radar of fans or media. Clifton, as he has throughout his career, didn’t care about the odds. When injury struck the Bruins in November of this season, Clifton leaped from Providence and never looked back. He worked hard, played physical and chipped in with an assist in 19 solid performances. He earned a spot in the playoff lineup and has only grown from there.
Clifton has been under the radar his entire career. Fittingly that has not changed even though he has emerged as a key cog for the Bruins this spring. “Sneaky kind of guy, he’s not a guy you notice a lot, he’s not flashy, but he’s certainly good out there” proclaimed Bruce Cassidy following Monday’s 4-2 victory in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final.
It was Clifton (2) who scored mere minutes after Vladimir Tarasenko (9) gave St. Louis a two-goal lead early in the second period. That Clifton marker lifted the Bruins and the TD Garden crowd, igniting a comeback. “He’s certainly a guy that can add offense from the backend” admitted Cassidy.
Clifton helped turn the tide with his goal by going to the dirty areas and engaging physically, which his coach has known he is willing to do for quite some time: “He’s certainly not afraid to get involved. We noticed that when we first saw him and it was almost a detriment at times. We saw him at rookie camp in Buffalo, so he’s learned when to go when to be a good support person on the rush, he’s done a great job for us since he’s been here.”
Clifton was never supposed to be the hero in the big moment, heck he was never supposed to make it.
His hard work, determination, and grit got him to this point. He’s not afraid to do what he needs to do, and it has made a massive difference in his hockey career.