Walleye Emerson Clark (26) and Nailer Patrick McGrath (13) slug it out during the first period of the Friday, Oct. 26, 2013, season home opening match up against the Wheeling Nailers in downtown Toledo.
BLADE/KATIE RAUSCH Enlarge
Whether it’s hockey or lacrosse, Emerson Clark has always been the energy guy with a penchant for dropping the gloves.
Clark, a Walleye rookie forward, has already gotten into six fights in 14 games this season. At 5 feet, 10 inches and 181 pounds, Clark has always been scrappy.
The native of Whitby, Ont., also has been equally adept at playing hockey and lacrosse.
“I’ve always played lacrosse in the summer and hockey in the winter,” Clark said. “I love playing both.”
Clark, who leads Toledo with 103 penalty minutes, said he approaches both sports with the same mentality. “I’m just hard working,” Clark said. “I like to go hard on the forecheck, and I will stick up for my teammates. I like to throw big hits.”
In September, Clark was the 35th overall pick in the National Lacrosse League’s draft. The NLL is a men’s pro league that has nine teams in the United States and Canada.
But Clark — who played four years of major junior hockey in the Ontario Hockey League — also signed with the Walleye in late September.
“I had a chance to play in the NLL, but it’s the same season as hockey,” Clark said. “Hockey is my main focus, and we’ll see what happens. I wanted to give pro hockey a try. I knew I’d kick myself in the butt if I had stopped playing hockey.”
Clark injured his hand while fighting in a lacrosse game last summer. He reinjured his hand during a fight in a preseason hockey game in October. Although he has played in just 14 games for the Walleye because of the injury, Clark ranks fourth in the ECHL in penalty minutes. He racked up 67 penalty minutes during a six-game stretch from Oct. 24 to Nov. 30.
Late in the first period of Toledo’s home opener, Clark engaged in an intense fight with Wheeling’s Patrick McGrath. Clark landed several uppercuts and overhand shots, introducing himself to the Walleye fans.
“I mostly focus on helping my team, whatever they need me for,” Clark said. “So if that is getting into a big fight to get the guys up, that is what I will do.”
Clark often throws down with players who are much taller and bigger.
“I think you just have to be born with it,” Clark said, attempting to explain his role as an enforcer. “I don’t know. I don’t mind doing it. I love what I do. I’m never scared.”
When he signed Clark, Walleye coach Nick Vitucci compared him to former Walleye fighter Adam Keefe. The 5-10 forward is still the franchise’s leader with 243 penalty minutes.
“Emerson is a tough, physical, and strong young man,” Vitucci said.
Clark, who turned 21 on Dec. 17, said he fought more while playing lacrosse than hockey while at the junior level.
“Lacrosse may be rougher than hockey,” he said. “Defense-wise you can crosscheck [when the player] doesn’t have the ball, and you can slash, too. You’re cross-checking with metal sticks, and you don’t really wear much [safety equipment]. You just have arm guards, shoulder pads, and kidney pads.”
Clark racked up similar major penalties for fighting with his hometown junior lacrosse team, the Whitby Warriors. He helped lead the team to a national championship last summer.
He said the hand-eye coordination is similar in both sports.
Clark had 131 penalty minutes for the OHL’s Windsor Spitfires, where he had 18 points (7 goals, 11 assists) last season. He said the biggest adjustment to the pro level has been the size of the opposition.
“It’s totally different. The guys are tougher and bigger. You’re fighting men,” he said.
But Clark said the fisticuffs are only a part of his game. He collected his first point last Friday in a 4-3 loss at Fort Wayne.
“I want to be an energy guy and I want to contribute points,” he said.
The Walleye broke a three-game losing streak with a 3-2 win against Kalamazoo on Monday at the Huntington Center. The team is in a stretch of six games in nine days. Toledo (9-15-3) returns home on Friday to face Reading.
Clark said the team has the ability to move out of last place in the ECHL Eastern Conference and get into playoff contention.
“All the guys believe the talent is there,” Clark said. “We’re a close group. We just have to want it and have that end goal in mind.”
Clark amassed a total of 496 penalty minutes in his four-year junior career. He collected most of those penalty minutes through fighting majors, including 72 fights over four seasons.
Now, he said, he is ready to elevate his game.
“I’m happy with my play for the most part,” he said. “Now I have to put up more points. I like to hit and I like to score.”
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