TORONTO — All is not lost in a season where the Toronto Maple Leafs Leafs have dropped seven of eight games. There will still be memorable moments and uplifting stories during this year spent in the weeds.
Stories like Rich Clune.
A year ago today the veteran winger was being sent to the American Hockey League by Nashville. Today, he shook hands with Maple Leafs GM Lou Lamoriello on a deal that brought him back to the NHL.
It’s the type of contract that normally passes by unnoticed on the transaction wire — one year, with a $575,000 salary in the NHL and $350,000 in the AHL — but it represents a major achievement for a man that many had written off.
Through it all, through rehab and a year in the minors and a contract buyout by the Predators, Clune never gave up on himself.
“Even in some of the lowest moments of my life, I’ve always been optimistic that things are going to work out,” he said Thursday. “And I really have nothing to complain about. My toughest days is (when I think): ‘I’ve got to shave.’ When you’re a pro athlete you have no right to ever feel sorry for yourself; I mean I live such a privileged life, even playing in the American Hockey League it’s a privilege to play there.
“I just have a belief, it’s almost like I have a delusional belief in myself, and maybe sometimes I’m the only one who can see it. Sometimes that’s all you have to go on, right?”
Clune will be a fourth-line sparkplug when he eventually makes his way into the lineup. He’ll fight, if necessary, but that isn’t something this rebranded version of the Leafs wants to be known for.
There were internal discussions about keeping Clune near the end of training camp, according to coach Mike Babcock, but he was on an AHL-only deal then and a decision was made to give others the opportunity first.
So Clune was sent to the AHL Marlies and wound up producing two goals and five points in eight games. Most recently, he was playing alongside former first-round pick Frederik Gauthier and promising Russian winger Nikita Soshnikov — and more than held his own.
With the Leafs organization in the midst of trying to establish a culture rooted in character and hard work, he’s a perfect fit for their program.
“He’s a physical guy — can skate and forecheck — and gives us more tenacity on the puck in the offensive zone,” said Babcock. “You know, we’re just looking for as many competitive people as we can possibly get.”
Clune’s promotion came at the expense of Mark Arcobello, who was placed on waivers. He’s no stranger to that position after being plucked off the wire twice last season while playing for four different NHL teams: Edmonton, Nashville, Pittsburgh and Arizona.
He signed a $1.1-million, one-year deal with the Leafs over the summer and produced no points in seven games this season.
“He had lots of goals last year in the league,” said Babcock. “We gave him an opportunity, we played him on the power play, I thought we gave him a pretty good look. For whatever reason he wasn’t able to generate the offence for us.”
Clune won’t be expected to produce much scoring. With seven goals and 18 points in 120 career NHL games with Los Angeles and Nashville, it’s clearly not a big part of his game.
Instead, the 28-year-old Toronto native is being asked to bring positive energy and his strong work ethic to a dressing room that is likely to continue taking more than its share of losses in the coming weeks and months.
It remains to be seen how long he’ll be with the big club. His two-way deal is a sign that he’ll likely end up with the Marlies again at some point.
Clune is a role model who has courageously opened up about his past struggles with drug and alcohol addiction — “I was 23 years old, being paid hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to live my dream, and I was such a mess that I was either going to wind up dead or kill somebody else,” he wrote in a piece on The Players’ Tribune in July — and he’s demonstrated more perseverance than most.
Most importantly, he continues to do it.
“You’re already beat if you can’t get up during the day and tell yourself you’re going to have a good day,” said Clune. “I mean the odds are you’re probably not. Probably through some life experiences I’ve managed to find a way to stay positive — and I’ve got a lot of help along the way — and I’ve just visualized a lot over the years.
“Even at times where maybe everyone outside me thought things weren’t going to work out, I can honestly say I have a pretty unshakeable belief in myself.”
On Thursday morning he walked into Lamoriello’s office and that belief paid off.