Saturday, 20 July 2019

Clark’s place cemented in Raiders’ lore

Donn Clark 1962- 2019

Donn Clark on the Raiders Wall of Honour.
    It seems like the young people in Prince Albert love a certain colourful story about the late Donn Clark.
    The colourful story happened on Feb. 11, 2005, and those who were eight years of age or younger then enjoy hearing about it. Those listeners would be age 22 or 23 and younger now.
    Back on Feb. 11, 2005, Clark was the general manager of the Prince Albert Raiders who were hosting the Lethbridge Hurricanes in a WHL regular season clash at the Art Hauser Centre. The game went to overtime with the two sides locked in a 3-3 tie.
    At the 1:45 mark of overtime, Hurricanes left-winger Kris Versteeg hauled down Raiders captain and standout defensive defenceman Luke Fritshaw with a hook behind the Prince Albert net.
    Versteeg jumped on the loose puck and centred it to linemate Tyler Redenbach. Redenbach shot the puck past Raiders star netminder Rejean Beauchemin to give Lethbridge a 4-3 victory.
    Due to the fact the Hurricanes scored the winning goal on a play that should have resulted in an obvious penalty to Versteeg, Clark came storming on to the ice after referee Ryan Agar protesting the non-call.
    The Raiders and their fans weren’t pleased that night with the work performed by Agar and linesmen Paul Brunen and Zac Wiebe. Debris rained down to the ice surface from the 2,115 spectators in attendance showing their displeasure for the non-call that cost the Raiders the game.
    During that scene, Clark and Raiders head coach Peter Anholt proceeded to pursue Agar.
    At the time, I was working for the Medicine Hat News in my first season covering the WHL’s Medicine Hat Tigers as a beat writer, but I still heard that story from afar with keen interest. I covered the Raiders as a beat writer for the Prince Albert Daily Herald the three previous campaigns.
    The Hurricanes arrived in Medicine Hat to play the Tigers five days after that controversial win over the Raiders.
    I visited with Hurricanes general manager Darren Stocker before that clash with the Tigers, and he still couldn’t believe how that win over the Raiders played out.
    Stocker told me I should have been at that game. Stocker said Clark absolutely lost it that night.
    The Hurricanes general manager admitted the Raiders really got jobbed in that game, but his side wasn’t going to complain about being on the good side of fortune.
    Stocker said he was sitting among the crowd with a couple of Hurricanes staffers, and the Raiders fans in their section gave the look of rage towards the Lethbridge bunch sitting with them.
    Stocker said it seemed like some of the fans thought the Lethbridge side had conspired with the officials against the Raiders. The Hurricanes boss said he explained to the fans all those on his side were just as surprised as they were, and the Lethbridge squad didn’t have anything to do with what the officials called or didn’t call.
    Out of that story you saw Clark’s passion for the Raiders in a visible form. Raiders fans who were so young that they don’t have the most clear recollections of that time love hearing that story, or it seems they do when I visit “Hockey Town North” and tell it.
    Now as young adults or in their late teens, those fans enjoy hearing how Clark was out to stick up for his guys and was mad as hell and not going to take it anymore, when the Raiders were hosed by a non-call by the officials.
    On March 1, the Raiders inducted Clark as a builder on to the Raiders Wall of Honour. Clark was still alive, but he wasn’t able to be at the Art Hauser Centre that night due to his battle with cancer.
    His brother and legend with the NHL’s Toronto Maple Leafs, Wendel, was in Prince Albert to accept the honour and offer thanks on behalf of the family. Donn Clark passed away the next day on March 2 in the palliative care unit at the St. Paul’s Hospital in Saskatoon.
    The Kelvington, Sask., product was 56 years of age and two days shy of his 57th birthday. Clark and I both happen to have birthdays on March 4.
    Clark was a defenceman for the Raiders during their inaugural season in the WHL in 1982-83. He was the club’s head coach for two seasons from 1993 to 1995.
    During the 1994-95 season, the Raiders finished third overall in the WHL with a 44-26-2 mark and advanced to a league semifinal series against the Brandon Wheat Kings. The Wheat Kings claimed the best-of-seven series in a deciding seventh game.
    Had the Raiders won that Game 7, they would have advanced to the Memorial Cup tournament to play for the CHL title. The Kamloops Blazers had won the other WHL semifinal series that year, and they were the host squad for the Memorial Cup.
    Due to the fact the Blazers made the WHL final, their opponent in that series was guaranteed a berth in the four-team field at the Memorial Cup.
    Clark left the Raiders following that season. He returned to the club as head coach at the start of the 2000-01 campaign.
    At the beginning of the 2001-02 season, Clark held both the role of head coach and director of hockey operations. With the Raiders facing financial struggles, it was his idea to break up the general manager’s role into the roles of director of hockey operations and director of business operations to ensure the club’s business aspect got the attention it deserved.
    First Bob Twyver and then Robin Davie proceeded to get the Raiders back on their feet financially in the director of business operations role.
    Shortly into that campaign, Clark gave up the head coach role to focus on the player personnel side of the team to get that aspect of the club on good footing. He even got the better of Brandon Wheat Kings head coach, general manager and owner Kelly McCrimmon on a couple of trades.
    Clark’s position morphed back into the role of general manager at the start of the 2004-05 campaign, when the Raiders were again healthy on and off the ice. That season with a group of players that were extremely popular in the community, the Raiders went on “The Run” and advanced to the WHL Eastern Conference Championship series falling in seven games to the Wheat Kings.
    The Raiders wouldn’t go on another long playoff run until winning the WHL title this past season and advancing to the Memorial Cup.
    Clark remained the team’s general manager until being ousted on Jan. 14, 2008.
    During the time Clark was with the Raiders in a coach or management role over his two stints, the person that was the general manager of the Raiders immediately received heaps of fan criticism similar to the fan criticism heaped on any person that becomes general manager of the CFL’s Saskatchewan Roughriders.
    Looking back on time, I believe Clark dealt with that situation as well as anyone could have. He came up with the Wall of Honour idea for the Raiders and was quick to say he would probably never be on it.
The 2004-05 Raiders team picture including Donn Clark.
    I remember Clark telling me there would always be people that didn’t like Donn Clark, and he was content to live with that being an “it is what it is” situation.
    When I first arrived in Prince Albert in May of 2001 to work as a sports reporter for the Prince Albert Daily Herald, Clark gave me all his contact info and phone numbers during our first meeting.
    Over the years, he always returned phone calls and messages.
    At one point in the first half of the 2003-04 season, I remember stressors were coming up all over the place, and looking back, I wasn’t reading things with the team correctly.
    Clark set up a meeting in his office, where I met with him and Anholt. Clark knew the criticisms that had come up against him in town.
    Clark said whatever might come up that raises a concern his office door is always open.
    He went on to say if I have to come and yell “Clark you’re and asshole,” he said that was fine too.
    Clark said to come in, say that and we’ll talk about it.
    For the rest of Clark’s days on earth, that meeting allowed so many things to hit new heights even after I had left Prince Albert.
    About a month-and-a-half after that meeting, my father passed away from cancer, and the Raiders were a great family-type support system during that moment in time.
    I rode the bus with the team during in division road trips, and that made for great memories. During those trips, I learned how thoughtfully Clark could speak on all sorts of subjects.
    After I moved to Medicine Hat, I went out for Halloween once as NFL diva receiver Terrell Owens in 2006. The Raiders were in for a road game shortly after that, and Clark gave me the good-natured gears about my Halloween night out during a morning skate.
    I almost fell down laughing, because he was able to find out about that night from someone in town.
    Even when he was battling cancer for about the last four years, Clark would not let on with how he was doing in email or social media exchanges regarding his health. He always encouraged me in my freelance sports media pursuits and with the work I did on this blog.
    I remember this one email message he sent, where I was amazed at how beautifully written it was. Clark showed off another talent I didn’t know he had.
Donn Clark shakes hands with Evan Fiala at the Blades 2017 home opener.
    As the Raiders marched on to finish first in the WHL’s regular season standings and win the league crown this past campaign, it was great to see any difficulties people in Prince Albert might have had with Clark were buried in the past.
    It was cool to see that he was being remembered now in a fond way, and his place in Raiders lore was secure. For Raiders fans, Clark will always be one of theirs.
    I should note that doesn’t discount his time with the Saskatoon Blades. Clark was with the Blades for the full 1981-82 season and small parts of the 1980-81 and 1982-83 campaigns as a defenceman.
    Those involved with the Blades 1981-82 campaign are really close, and the group has taken the passing of Clark and Bruce Gordon in 2017 hard. Gordon, who also passed away from cancer, was a captain with the 1981-82 squad.
    Clark was the Blades head coach from the start of the 1995-96 season and was released part way through the 1997-98 campaign.
    Clark liked to show a tough exterior, but he really did have a soft interior. After he passed away, I saw lots of stories over social media telling about Clark’s various acts of kindness.
    Overall, he will always be identified for his time as a coach and an executive with the Raiders.
    Today at 2 p.m. at the Legion Hall in Kelvington, Sask., people from all over the hockey world will arrive to celebrate Clark’s life.
    It is safe to say all who knew him will miss someone who was as genuine as Clark was.

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