Chris Clayton is the only pinch-hitting captain in Brampton Battalion history, not having started the Ontario Hockey League season in that role.
One of three overagers in 2003-04, right winger Clayton succeeded Ryan Bowness as captain Dec. 1 when fellow 20-year-old Bowness was dealt to the Oshawa Generals. It marked the only time a Battalion captain was traded during the season.
“Ryan and I played against each other growing up, and we were good buddies since we started with the Battalion the same season,” Clayton, 29, said recently via telephone from his home town of Kingston. “We hung out quite a bit, and to see a guy like that get traded was tough, but I had to step in and replace him.
“I tried to lead by example. I tried to work hard and hoped the guys would follow. If I had to yell and scream, I would. I had a lot of great guys to work with on that leadership group, like Ryan Oulahen and Rob Smith.”
Clayton, plagued by shoulder and knee injuries in his final junior season, helped the Troops, seeded seventh for the Eastern Conference playoffs, to a seven-game upset of the second-seeded Ottawa 67’s in the first round. The Battalion bowed out in five games to the Toronto Michael’s Majors in a conference semifinal.
“We never reached our potential that season,” said Clayton. “We probably could have been one of the better teams with the guys we had. We had some injuries. Oulahen was out for a while, and I was banged up most of the season. We probably weren’t a seventh seed; we should have been higher than that. That was a tough season for me, just from a hockey perspective.”
Clayton, who dislocated his right shoulder two shifts into what proved to be his final OHL game, a 3-0 loss at Toronto to end that playoff series, called a halt to his hockey career five games into his first campaign at the University of Western Ontario.
“I tried to go play university hockey and I wasn’t motivated for that because my body was in rough shape. I had my first shoulder operation after I finished in the OHL. I didn’t play at Western until after Christmas, dislocated my other shoulder, and I was finished playing hockey. I didn’t think I was getting much out of hockey at that point. My shoulders weren’t going to allow me to keep playing. I just decided to finish my schooling.”
Clayton, who graduated with a degree in business and now has worked more than two years as an investment advisor with BMO Nesbitt Burns, followed Jay McClement, a fellow Kingston native and longtime minor hockey foe and teammate, to the Battalion.
McClement was the second overall pick in the 1999 OHL Priority Selection, while Clayton was a third-round choice in that year’s bantam draft. McClement debuted as a 16-year-old in 1999-00. Clayton joined the Troops in 2000-01 after playing the previous season with the junior A Kingston Voyageurs.
Clayton was among a number of rookie forwards who rotated in and out of the lineup, but two spots opened up when second-year centre Matt Grennier was traded to the Barrie Colts as part of a deal to acquire goaltender Brian Finley and rookie left winger Jesse Harnden left the team in late January.
“That season all the rookies played a game and sat a game,” said Clayton, who recorded eight points, including one goal, in 57 games. “After the Finley trade, we were able to play a little more. It was tough, but I realized I had to pay my dues. I was a young guy coming into a good team. That might have made that first season a little tougher, but I eventually realized that, once you get through that first season, you’re fine.
“It was a learning experience being away from my home and my friends and family. I had to go to a new school, and Brampton is a different city from Kingston. Jay took me under his wing right away. We’re both Kingston guys; he had a car, and we lived close to each other, so he was able to help me out along the way.”
The following season Clayton moved onto a line with left winger Adam Henrich and overage centre Kurt MacSweyn in place of overage right winger Aaron Van Leusen, who spent much of the season battling a shoulder injury.
“MacSweyn was one of the better players on the team,” said Clayton, who produced 10 goals and 27 assists for 37 points in 64 games. “He was a terrific player. He helped me out a lot that season. He was one of the more underrated players in the OHL and one of the better two-way guys. He was having a pretty good final season before he got hurt. He helped out Henrich a lot, too.”
Clayton enjoyed his finest offensive season in 2002-03 playing on a line with rookie centre Oulahen and Henrich. Clayton played 67 games, finishing fifth in Battalion scoring with 17 goals and 32 assists for 49 points as the Troops captured the Central Division title.
“Oulahen started off a little slow but really came around playing with Adam and me. We had three balanced lines that could score in any game. That was my best season. I was originally known for my offence, but I developed into more of a two-way guy.”
The only club captain apart from Barclay Goodrow, who leads the current Troops, never to play a professional game, Clayton played 239 games with the Battalion and sits 20th on the all-time scoring list with 40 goals and 90 assists for 130 points. He played 32 postseason games, tied with Henrich for 10th place on the all-time list, contributing eight points, including two goals.
“Even though my shoulders ended up in rough shape, I wouldn’t change anything,” said Clayton. “It’s what I wanted to do and what I loved to do at that time.”