During the recent National Hockey League lockout, Jay McClement took some time to return to the place that helped prepare him for the professional career he now enjoys.
McClement skated occasionally with the Brampton Battalion, the Ontario Hockey League club with which he played four seasons. It afforded him a chance to get caught up with Stan Butler, the director of hockey operations and head coach who made him the second overall pick in the 1999 OHL Priority Selection, and former teammate Ryan Oulahen, now an assistant coach.
“I have nothing but great memories of my time there,” McClement, a member of the NHL’s Toronto Maple Leafs, said recently via telephone. “I’ve got back in touch with a couple of my old teammates. I’m still close with Chris Rowan, and Brad Topping played in a Toronto men’s league I was playing in during the lockout, and Matt Grennier was playing there too. Being back in Brampton during the lockout brought back a lot of memories when I was reminiscing with Stan and Ryan. I’m still close with my billets, Gord and Sue Bell, who made life a lot easier for me than it could have been.”
After recording 53 points, including 28 goals, in 51 games as a 15-year-old with the junior A Kingston Voyageurs, McClement, a Kingston native who turned 30 on March 2, joined the Battalion in 1999-00. It started his transition into a two-way forward.
“I was always an offensive guy. I think Stan might have seen that I wasn’t going to be a top-end offensive guy in the pros, and the way the team was set up that year there really wasn’t room on the top two lines.”
Butler put McClement between two second-year players, left winger Richard Kearns and right winger Aaron van Leusen.
“Stan told me he was going to throw me right in. We played a third-line role against a lot of the top lines on other teams in the OHL. I’d never done that before, and I learned quickly. There were a lot of good older guys on that team who took me under their wings. I used to ride to the rink with guys like Jason Maleyko and Kurt MacSweyn, and I learned to grow up quickly there.”
McClement recorded 13 goals and 16 assists for 29 points in 63 games and contributed four assists in six playoff games as the Battalion advanced to the playoffs for the first time only to be ousted by the Erie Otters in a bitter six-game Western Conference quarterfinal.
“The goal was to make the playoffs, and it was a big deal for the organization. The measuring stick was the Mississauga IceDogs, because they came in the league at the same time and everyone saw the struggles they had. We were a competitive team that made the playoffs.”
In his second season McClement scored a career-high 30 goals and added 19 assists for 49 points in 66 games.
“I had a much better season offensively,” said McClement, who would go on to be chosen by the St. Louis Blues in the second round of the 2001 NHL Entry Draft. “I played a little with Raffi Torres and Lukas Havel. We had no shortage of guys who could score.”
McClement registered six points, including four goals, in nine playoff games as the Troops swept the Guelph Storm in the first round before losing in five games to the Otters.
“We had a really good team, but Brian Finley came in and he wasn’t healthy, and we had some crazy things happen in the playoffs. We had a lot of battles with Erie, and their rink was pretty crazy to play in during the playoffs. I had some good chats about those days with Brad Boyes when we played together in St. Louis. That rivalry was pretty crazy.”
An injury-riddled Battalion team missed the playoffs in 2001-02. McClement finished second to Adam Henrich in team scoring with 26 goals and 29 assists for 55 points in 61 games. He also made the first of two appearances with the Canadian team at the World Junior Championship, winning a silver medal under head coach Butler.
“It was pretty disappointing to miss the playoffs, especially after the season we’d had before that,” allowed McClement.
Butler named McClement captain for his fourth season in 2002-03.
“It was an honour. We had a lot of good leaders before me, and I learned a lot from them in the three seasons previous to that. Stan doesn’t just pass out the captaincy, and it was my one chance to do it in junior.”
The Battalion welcomed a solid group of rookies, including Oulahen, Brent Burns, Kevin Couture, Jamie Fraser, Martin Lojek and Wojtek Wolski, and Butler acquired two outstanding overagers, right winger Scott Rozendal and defenceman Kevin Young.
The Troops, playing their first season in the Central Division and Eastern Conference, won 34 games in capturing their first division title. They beat the Barrie Colts in six games in a first-round playoff series before being eliminated in five games by the Toronto St. Michael’s Majors.
“We did have a good team. I played some with Wolski and Burns in his days as a forward. He just came out of nowhere. Young was a good, veteran defenceman who was really calm with the puck and settled things down back there for a young team. Rozendal was a great overager. That team had a great mix of veteran and good young guys.
“That Barrie series was a real battle. I remember having a good series playing with Burns. We just couldn’t get anything going after the first game against Toronto, and they really knew how to play in that small home rink of theirs.”
McClement played only 45 games that season as he was sidelined for 15 games after tearing the meniscus in his left knee in a preliminary-round game with Canada at the World Junior championship at Halifax. McClement played with the injury in the semifinal, a 3-2 win over the United States, and the final, a 3-2 loss to Russia.
“I didn’t have an MRI, but they told me my meniscus was torn. There wasn’t much that was going to keep me out of the final.”
McClement finished fourth in regular-season scoring with 22 goals and 27 assists for 49 points before adding seven points, including three goals, in 11 playoff games.
“It was tough to try to better yourself every year. I never got back to 30 goals again. If you have that one really good year, you want to do better than that, and I wasn’t able to.”
No sooner had his junior career ended than McClement found himself in the middle of a playoff series with the Worcester IceCats, the Blues’ American Hockey League affiliate. He played one game with the IceCats, who were swept in three games by the Binghamton Senators.
“There wasn’t a lot of time to think about anything. I went down there and I was trying to find my bearings, being thrown right into a playoff series. I’d never played a pro game, and they put me right into the lineup, taking out guys who had been there all season. It was different but, the longer you play in the pros, the more you realize it’s a business.”
McClement played the next two seasons with Worcester, producing 29 goals and 47 assists for 76 points in 148 games.
“The AHL is a tough league to play in. The schedule is tough. It’s very physical, maybe even more than the NHL, because there isn’t as much speed or skill there. For me it was an adjustment. You’re playing with guys who are much older and who’ve been in the AHL for 10 years or more. It’s a valuable experience, and you appreciate the little things once you get to the NHL. You learn about how to keep your mouth shut and stay out of the way.
“The first season in the AHL wasn’t easy, but I got more confident in the second season, which was a lockout year, so St. Louis had sent their coaches down there to work with us. They gave me a chance the following season, and I think a lot of that was based on the season I had in the AHL. And making that jump was tough; you’re out there against the big boys, who are all bigger and stronger.”
McClement moved to the NHL in 2005-06, skating in 67 games with St. Louis and collecting 27 points, including six goals. He went on to play 382 more games over four-plus seasons with the Blues, scoring 46 goals and adding 83 assists for 129 points. On Feb. 19, 2011, he was traded to the Colorado Avalanche, where he would play with another former Battalion star, centre Matt Duchene. McClement played 104 games over two seasons, recording 21 points, including 10 goals.
“I learned how to put together an NHL career in what might be a niche role. If you’re not scoring, you’d better be doing something else positive to contribute, and I learned that right from the start of my junior career, and I can always go back to my roots as a strong defensive player and penalty killer. I always need to have that in my game every night.”
McClement, who signed with Toronto as a free agent last July 1, relishes the opportunity to play closer to home.
“It’s a lot of fun. It’s nice to play in the east. It’s a change. My friends and family are enjoying it and can see a lot more games without staying up into the middle of the night. It’s an awesome experience playing for the Leafs.”