It was the mother of all bittersweet phone calls.
At least it seemed that way to Scott Clemmensen, who was barely out of high school when the phone rang and he was told he had been drafted to the NHL. That was quite the accomplishment back in 1997 for a kid from a state that didn’t produce hockey players, but the reality check on the good news was having the New Jersey Devils at the other end of the line.
|'I've always known I'm able to play in the league, but you have to have someone give you a chance,' Scott Clemmensen says. (Getty Images)|
"I was an eighth-round pick and it was my second year of (draft) eligibility," said Clemmensen, recalling why he was able to contain his excitement. "And I wasn’t even the first goalie they took in that draft. They took a goalie in the first round that year."
In other words, no one had to explain to Clemmensen that the Devils saw him as a long shot at best. Then again, he already knew that coming from Des Moines, Iowa, where the game is played mostly for recreation and kids from 13 different local schools are needed to form one travel-type team. There was a regional junior level team there that helped earn him an NCAA scholarship from Boston College, but the overall competition wasn’t at a particularly high level, certainly not good enough for anyone to think seriously about an NHL career.
"No one from Iowa had ever played in the NHL," Clemmensen said. "I didn’t even knew the path to get there, so when I was drafted by New Jersey, it was more of a feel good thing for me."
Apparently it still is, even if 11 years have passed and Clemmensen is only now getting his first chance to show what he can do on a regular basis thanks to Brodeur’s long-term injury.
"It’s unfortunate the way it came about for Marty and the team, but this is a big opportunity for me to show what I can do at this level and I want to make the most of it," he said. "To me, the hardest part of playing in the league is getting the chance. There’s a lot of great players who never played one game in this league."
Clemmensen had actually played 28 NHL games prior to this season since turning pro with the Devils in 2001. But he has spent almost all of his time in the minors, working only on one-year deals, most of them two-way contracts that pay significantly less for time spent in the minors. The bright side was that Clemmensen got to learn from Brodeur at training camps and during regular season call ups, but there was little chance for him to play in the NHL.
"I worked very hard, but with Marty around you're just not going to play and I understood that," Clemmensen said. "But you start to go stagnant."
Clemmensen tried to fix things by leaving the organization last season to see if he could move ahead with Toronto, but ended up spending most of his time in its minor league system, playing only three games for the Maple Leafs. Still, New Jersey general manager Lou Lamoriello had no trouble bringing him back to play for his Lowell team in the AHL, but with a familiar role in mind.
"Players move along for different reasons and you respect that because it’s part of the business, but we never think twice about bringing someone back if they can fit a need and want to be here," Lamoriello said. "Scott is the type of individual we love having in the minors with our young goalies, and if there’s a need, we know he’ll be ready."
The need came Nov. 1 when Brodeur injured his bicep muscle and left a game against Atlanta. A few days later, the team announced Brodeur would undergo surgery, leaving the goaltending chores for the next four months to backup Kevin Weekes and Clemmensen, who was in the AHL. The idea was for the pair to share the work, but Clemmensen has been the sharper of the two, winning his last three starts as New Jersey has rebounded from its initial malaise with Brodeur, winning four games in a row.
Overall, the 31-year-old carries a 3-2 record with a .909 save percentage and 2.60 goals against average into the Devils rematch with the Panthers in Florida on Wednesday. Clemmensen drew praise from coach Brent Sutter in New Jersey’s home win over the Panthers last week and seems to have laid a stronger claim to the No. 1 job for the time being. It means that Clemmensen will get a chance to play at more than just sporadic intervals, which gives him his best, and maybe last shot at proving he is a full-time NHL goalie.
"I’ve always known I’m able to play in the league, but you have to have someone give you the chance and you can’t take it for granted," said Clemmensen. "I have an opportunity now to play which is something I never did before in the NHL because I didn’t have a golden path to the NHL. But I’m here now and doing the job and no one will take that away from me."