Perhaps no one is more surprised than Walleye veteran forward Aaron Clarke that he is seven years into a well-traveled professional hockey career.
Toledo is the seventh team the offensively productive Clarke has played for since turning pro in 2007-08. The 31-year-old center from Peterborough, Ontario said he didn't decide to make a career out of the sport until his senior year at Robert Morris University.
“It was coming down to the end of my last year of college and I realized I'd either have to get a job or play hockey as a career,” Clarke said. “I decided I wanted to do all I could to make a go of it. I never thought I would have played seven years and have been all over the country and overseas. It's been a great life experience.”
Clarke started his career with Wheeling and also has played for Stockton, Kalamazoo, and now Toledo in the ECHL. Clarke also played for three American Hockey League teams (Binghampton, Providence, and Albany) during the 2008-09 season.
He said the crowning achievement came in 2011-12 when he won a championship while playing for the Belfast Giants in England.
“It's been a dream come true,” Clarke said.
Clarke started last season in Kalamazoo where he had one of his most productive seasons. He racked up 56 points with 19 goals and 37 assists in 72 games with the Wings.
That production fell off a bit during the start of this campaign. Clarke had four goals and five assists in 25 with the Wings.
Toledo coach Nick Vitucci acquired the veteran forward on Jan. 7. Clarke has picked up the production with 11 points in 14 games for the Walleye with eight goals and three assists.
“I wasn't having the greatest year statistically. But the trade did come out of the blue,” Clarke said. Nick called me and told me he had my rights here in Toledo. It was all a surprise. It's part of the business. You can't do too much about it. But I look at it as a positive. This team wants you. When I came here it was a fresh start.”
Kalamazoo initially traded Clarke's rights to the San Francisco Bulls. Clarke said he balked at the trade when he heard the franchise was in trouble.
“I talked to some of the guys and heard some rumors about them folding and I made the decision not to go there. It turns out it was true,” Clarke said.
The San Francisco organization ceased operations on Jan. 29.
“I wanted to be closer to home,” Clarke said. “This is like starting at square one. I'm back playing center and I'm more involved. I'm working hard every night. I should be a guy who puts up numbers.”
Clarke and his teammates will continue a stretch of five straight road games when Toledo plays at Wheeling today and at Kalamazoo on Friday night. The Walleye return home on Saturday to host Cincinnati.
As for joining a struggling team in the middle of the season, Clarke said he remains optimistic. Toledo (16-25-3) is last in the Eastern Conference.
Toledo won two of three games last week, both over Cincinnati. Clarke scored twice last Tuesday in a 3-2 victory.
With 28 games left in the regular season, the Walleye are 16 points out of the eighth and final playoff spot. Clarke said he believes there is enough time left for the team to squeeze into the playoffs.
“You never know if you start to win two or three in a row, you could get on a roll,” Clarke said. “And then you could get that eighth spot. Then anything can happen.”
Clarke said he entered a similar situation in 2010-11 when he was traded from Stockton to Kalamazoo. The Wings were in ninth place at the time.
“The rest of the year, we played great and ended up second. Then we went to the finals,” Clarke said. “That gives me a bit of perspective. I've been there and done it. It may look dreary. But we may go 22-6 and we can make the playoffs. I've had experience with teams that have made good pushes.”
Clarke said he does not know what the future holds for him in his hockey career. His first son, Easton, just turned nine months. His wife Susie and their son are back in Peterborough.
“The older I get, the biggest challenge is being away from family,” he said. “They were with me up until a week ago. No matter what kind of day I had at the rink, once I got home everything goes away. So being away from them is the toughest.”