"I’m not smart. I’m dumb. Just play along," wrote a cagey and probably smirking Rich Clune in an email to OTF when we pointed out that some of our readers think he’s the smartest Predator on the ice. Acquired via waivers by the Nashville Predators in January 2013, just ahead of last year’s lockout-shortened season, the 26-year-old enigmatic Toronto, Ontario native has his sights set high, both in his professional hockey career, and for life after the NHL. Clune’s uncanny wit, matched only by his humility and humanity, provided us with an unparalleled look at life in the big leagues through the eyes of Nashville’s newest fan favorite.
Clune’s play last season earned him a two-year, $1.7 million contract extension this summer, a full year ahead of his current contract’s expiration. That means Nashville has the forward’s services for the next three years, and he doesn’t plan to changes how he plays the game. "When players are desperate [for a job], they do tend to make suspect plays on the ice (which I have definitely been guilty of)," said Clune. "So the security of a one-way contract means that desperation is kind of removed, but that doesn’t mean you lose your sense of urgency."
While not a traditional enforcer, put on the ice to protect star players (of which Nashville has a dearth anyway), or to play only a handful of minutes featuring a lone tussle with another known bad boy, Predators head coach Barry Trotz uses Clune in 3rd and 4th line checking and energy roles. Sent onto the ice to throw his body around, "chirp" (trash talk) with opponents, draw penalties, and occasionally drop the mitts, #16 says he wouldn’t change his role on the goal-starved Predators for anything.
"These are the cards I’ve been dealt, I just need to continue playing the hand better," he said. "I was not given the gifts to be the best goal scorer in the league, and that’s okay. But I do have the gifts to be the best agitator," which, in Clune’s view, requires offense and physicality. Time will tell how he develops offensively, but his penalty shot goal in Dallas last spring—the 8th such goal in Predators franchise history—and the priceless interview he gave following that game, prompted Nashville Scene and Nashville Post scribe J.R. Lind to bestow inaugural "Threero" honors on Clune.
We asked Clune if he worries at all, as a banger and a pugilist, about his long-term physical health. In quintessential larger-than-life fashion, he replied, "I don’t worry about the future at all . . . I’ve developed a style where I know how to protect myself from taking a major blow, and I’m hard to hit clean in the face." Diminutive former Predator Scott Nichol used to take jiu jitsu lessons to learn how to throw bigger players to the ice if he ever got into a jam while fighting. Clune prefers a different approach when the on-ice heat gets too hot. "I pick my spots. I’m not afraid to admit when the big heavyweights come after me [and I can’t win]. I know what I can handle . . . I like laughing at how angry and dumb they look." In the immortal words of Jack Handy, "It takes a big man to cry" – or, in this case, pick a fight – "but it takes a bigger man to laugh at that man."
Clune would, like any player, like to see his offensive numbers and ice time increase throughout the course of his career. But unlike many players, Clune’s role model in professional hockey almost defies explanation.
"Ever since I was about 11 or 12, I’ve idolized Sean Avery," said Clune, who used to attend Ontario Hockey League (OHL) games with his father and watch Avery play. Avery, Clune said, inspired him to pursue professional hockey. "I’ve followed his career [from junior to professional] . . . With him retiring, that title of ‘best agitator in the league’ has been vacated, and I would like to claim it." For the uninitiated, Sean Avery, who retired from the NHL in 2012 with 247 points and 1,533 PIMs in 580 career games, became one of the more legendary agitators in the history of the NHL in his career. Commonly reviled by fans, players, and coaches—even his own coaches and teammates—Avery earned his stripes by, among other things, goading other players in the media when they dated his ex-girlfriends, by having a rule change implemented because of his on-ice behavior, and by carrying on a very public spat with former New York Rangers head coach John Tortorella.
Clune isn’t so ambitious in his pursuit of Avery’s crown that he’s willing to estrange everyone around him, like his predecessor managed to do. "I have a lot of work to do, but by the time my next contract is up, I will be best at my role in the entire league, without my own teammates hating me," said Clune. "[Avery] is a nice guy, but [he] played his cards wrong," added Clune, in what may be a contender for understatement of the year. Clune also doesn’t believe in breaking "The Code," an unwritten, unspoken agreement between all players on the ice on a given night, that’s in place ultimately to protect everyone’s safety. Fights sometimes take place because referees blow or miss too many calls, and the players take it upon themselves to sort things out with their fists.
"No one wants to see anyone get their head taken off with a blind-side check or a stick to the face. If a guy is down or knocked out in a fight, no one wants to see anyone take an extra shot. At the end of the day, we play each other to the max . . . but you can’t cross the line as far as damaging someone’s brain or body with a dirty move." Avery, it seems, had few scruples, if any, in playing a pesky game.
Avery’s lewd, misogynistic comments, too, separate him from Clune, although "there is no Mrs. Clune," the Preds winger told us. "I did have a girlfriend early in my pro career, for almost a year. I learned a lot about myself and about relationships. I believe in marriage and I believe in family. Ultimately I believe I will marry a woman one day and have children," he continued. While he’s open to the prospect of being happily and accidentally struck by Cupid’s arrow, Rich Clune makes no bones about his maturity and availability. "At this point in my life, I’m still learning a lot about myself, and what it means to be an adult. So at this point, I’m enjoying connecting with new people on my journey, and exploring what the world has to offer." Sorry, ladies!
But Clune and Avery do share some traits. Both are effective pests on the ice, and both understand the powerful and lucrative media industry (Clune says if not for hockey, he would be "acting in major motion pictures and television," and wants to build "a major [film] production company" with his brothers when he retires from the NHL). Clune wears #16 in Avery's honor, both are veterans of the Dallas Stars organization, both spend a lot of time in penalty boxes around the league, and most importantly, neither have a problem going after fans. "The nicest [penalty boxes in the NHL are in] Nashville, for sure. The worst is Dallas," claims Clune. "The fans’ comments [in Dallas] are awful . . . I don’t know if it’s a bunch of season ticket holders who sit down there, but they give Texans a bad rep. The IQ is extremely low in that section."
Rich Clune is quite a provocateur on the ice, too. He’s so good at agitating opponents that he says he’s never played with anyone better at it. "I’ve honestly never been impressed by any of my teammates in the past. I played one season in junior hockey with Daniel Carcillo," said Clune, who actually once lived with the Los Angeles Kings winger. "He was decent at [chirping], and not a bad player." Carcillo was among the first of two players (the other being his opponent, Boston Bruins forward Shawn Thornton) to fight during an outdoor game, at the 2010 Bridgestone Winter Classic on New Year’s Day that year.
"But as far as the chirping goes, I’ve always been the mouth of any team I’ve played on," Clune continued. With David Poile adding gritty players like Matt Hendricks and Eric Nystrom to the Predators roster via free agency this offseason, both of whom are tough customers in their own right, Clune may have to learn to share his responsibilities with the other guys. "Matt Hendricks is growing on me, but we haven’t officially played a game together, other than preseason. I think he’s going to be good." Score a vote of confidence for The Paralyzer.
Of course, no telling of the Rich Clune saga would be complete without mentioning his recovery from alcoholism and addiction, or the impact it has had on his life and career. "I was numb to the world," said Clune of his former life, even though he was playing a similar role on the ice back then. "Since I’ve quit drinking and using drugs, my awareness of my emotions and my overall experience has increased drastically. I feel alive and aware. I feel the adrenaline pump through my system," he added. The lack of artificial anesthesia has made Clune a more careful and surgical fighter. "Before, during, and after a fight, time stands still and you lose yourself." That probably wouldn’t happen if Clune was still befogged by substance abuse, and he knows it.
But Clune doesn’t really seem to find any special sense of kinship to other NHLers with substance abuse issues in their pasts, players like former Predators forwards Jordin Tootoo and Brian McGrattan. "I personally haven’t met too many guys in the NHL with a history or story like mine," he said. "Brian McGrattan and I were friends in the past, and played together very briefly. Other than that, I don’t know anyone else with the same struggles." That’s very good news for the NHL, indeed. When the original Predator David Legwand was arrested for DUI in early 2008, it came as a shock to many fans. Personal tragedies seem to strike rarely in the world of professional hockey, certainly less so than they do in other professional sports. That extends, too, to the use of performance enhancing drugs in the NHL—or lack thereof—according to Clune. "I don’t have any reason to believe hockey has a problem with [use of PEDs]."
Surprising as that may be to some, the biggest surprise to Clune about his career is that, despite his battles off the ice, he’s still playing. "When I went to treatment for substance abuse, I was extremely close to walking away from the game. I was about to send emails to my old high schools to send me transcripts, so that I could apply to university . . . I promised my mother that if she let me play in the OHL, I would somehow one day get a degree," he recounted. The Clune family prizes education, and "Dicky," without a college degree, is a bit of a black sheep in this regard. Former Predators forward Stu Grimson, who earned both undergraduate and law degrees after a long and physically brutal playing career, is now is part of the Preds' broadcast crew, providing Clune a daily reminder that it can be done.
"I’m lucky to have accepted who I am, and to be able to talk about it publicly," he continued. "I’m sure there are a lot of other [players with substance abuse pasts] out there who are private about it, which is how I used to be. I still am," he added, noting that he doesn’t share anything but the basic facts with media and the public. "What's allowing me to be successful these days is that I have truly let go of any expectations in my life. I know what I want, but if hockey doesn't work out, I'm cool with that. Every day I wake up is the best day of my life—even the tough ones . . . If I'm patient and diligent, I usually get what I want, even if it comes to me a little differently than I planned it."
But Clune’s shyness about aspects of his personal story didn’t stop him from endearing himself to fans over the summer when he joined Twitter (@richcluneshow), even if only to terminate his account shortly thereafter. A grassroots petition didn’t persuade Clune to re-join Twitter, but the opportunity to give back to Renascent, the treatment center in Toronto where he began his recovery, by raising money online for a charity golf tournament in support of the center, was enough for a brief re-entry into the land of 140 characters.
The @richcluneshow account was an instant classic, and veteran Predators forward Mike Fisher reportedly gave it as his answer when he and his teammates were asked for their Twitter handles on a panel at this year’s Skate of the Union address at Bridgestone Arena.
But we couldn’t coax a full-throated response out of Clune when we asked if fans would see him online again anytime soon. "Okay, kids," he wrote cryptically. All is not lost, however: the Clune brothers—Matt, Ben, and, yes, Rich—now have a joint Twitter account, @CluneBrothers. Tweets by the Predators agitator will, of course, be signed #Dicky.
For a few laughs to close out the interview, we asked questions that only American southerners would ask of a Canadian. First, we asked for Clune’s thoughts on the new Poutine sold at Bridgestone Arena concession stands that features country-style sausage gravy instead of brown gravy. Ever a purist, regaling us with fond memories of his old friend, Colorado Avalanche forward, and master Poutine maker Marc-André Cliche, Clune replied, "Well I guess it can’t be called ‘Poutine’ then, right? I miss those old days with my amigo Clicher." We also asked Clune to settle a serious debate for us; we asked him to respond to charges that Canadian bacon is not, in fact, actual "bacon," that it is just ham—and #16 was naturally up to the task.
"If I were the smartest player on the team, I would know that only one man could truly tell us the answer to this question: Darwin." Naturally.
On the Forecheck editors and staff would like to thank Rich Clune for his time and candor.