Mike Clemente has played goalie for 20 years, from playing in North America in the AHL, college hockey at Brown University to playing in Denmark and now in the UK’s Elite League, he has many stories to tell about his time playing the game we all know and love.
At only 27 years old, the Great Falls native came to Manchester from Denmark at the beginning of this current season but I asked him where it all began, because the best place to start is at the beginning, right?
“I never wanted to do anything other than hockey, I mean I enjoyed playing baseball but once I started playing I wanted to play hockey at the US program college hockey and those were my goals and that’s what I wanted to do.”
Just speaking to Mike, it’s pretty clear that he is a driven and determined individual, who always strives to better even his best performance. Naturally, I moved on to asking about the position of goalie and why specifically that position.
“Everyone tries goalie once when you’re five or six and I tried it once and I never skated out again. Everyone got a turn to try goalie on my team and it must have been around January or February , oh no wait it was before Christmas my first year and I loved it so much that I played goalie for the team for the rest of the year. I wasn’t forced to do it, I just tried it and liked it so much more than skating out. I ended up being a goalie just because I liked playing it.”
Now, having done my research before coming into this interview I had discovered that when he was small, the young Clemente idolised Washington Capitals starting goaltender Olaf Kölzig. So of course, I had to ask about his love of the Caps goalie. Was it simply an Ollie thing, or more the fact he was a Washington sports fan? “You know, he was the starting goalie from the first game I went to until I was like 14, probably. He was always the starter and always really good. He was the first goalie I ever really watched.”
One Christmas, Mike was surprised with a replica of the famous Godzilla helmet for his own and he used to go to games and watch the Capitals on TV as a child, growing up. “I’m from about thirty minutes from where the Capitals play but watching him on TV, yeah. Meeting him a few times he was always a really good guy and he was awesome. He took the Caps to the Stanley Cup finals in 1998 and i went to one of those games. They were playing the [Detroit] Red Wings and didn’t stand a chance in the finals but he was amazing to watch. He literally carried that team for at least 5 or 6 years, he didn’t have much help.”
He begins to lament about the Capitals getting to the Stanley Cup final in 1998. “It was insane and once he left they were at the bottom of the league for a couple of years and obviously, they’re back now with Ovechkin in his prime and Holtby’s so good but it’s kind of the same situation, long-term starter which I think at times doesn’t really help them much, Kölzig though was awesome to watch.”
Now for a topic you don’t see much discussed with goalies. Fights. Now I’d been on YouTube and seen a couple of fights that Mike had been involved in and of course I was intrigued to know more about how it came about, as we as fans do not often see the goalies coming to blows.
“I’ve been in two and I think the one that’s on YouTube, I think it was probably the one from Missouri and the guy kind of one punched me but we had three goalies on our roster at the time and it was a home game against our biggest rivals. I had a shutout and I didn’t want to get cut so…”
Clemente gives a little shrug and a smile. “Their goalie wanted to fight and there were 15 seconds left in the game so we ended up fighting. He broke my nose but the next day we traded one of the other goalies so…”
He might have broken his nose, but he got to keep his spot on the team. “I probably didn’t have to do it but it kind of ended up being a situation that presented itself I couldn’t turn it down.”
The other thing I noticed when I was reading the Behind The Mask story that the Storm wrote earlier on in the year was the decal on the back of his mask of the five arrows. “That represents your brothers? So is there six of you, or five of you?” I ask him, a little bit confused.
I know from experience the fun of being from a big family, being one of six siblings myself. “When they all got the tattoos, there were only five brothers. So all my other older brothers got the tattoo and I said nah, I don’t want to get the tattoo, I’ll put it on my helmet and then the next spring my parents adopted another baby boy and then there were six boys and so I said to the ones with the tattoos, are you guys going to add another arrow or just keep it with five arrows and they were all nah we’re just going to keep it with the five arrows and it be just for the five other brothers, it used to be one arrow for yourself and the four for everyone else but now it’s just five for the others. It just became complicated for them to have to add another arrow.”
“So growing up in a house with five siblings? What’s your experiences of that?” I ask, I already have expectations about what he’s going to say and I laugh when he starts describing it. I probably could have answered the question on his behalf, since it sounded similar to my own experiences.
“It was mayhem! I’m the second oldest and it goes from 28 and I’m 27 – all the way down to 2. The youngest four are adopted, I mean it’s a lot of fun, it was crazy. I mean with everybody going a million different places at once, there were some days it was so loud in the house that you thought your ears were going to explode.”
“Do you not think it helps, when you’re on road trips and such, that you can pretty much sleep anywhere because you’re so used to the noise?” I had to ask, I know I can sleep through pretty much anything, it’s handy at times.
“Yeah, the noise doesn’t really bother me. Saturdays and Sunday mornings when I was living at home was just… You were up before 7:30.” I laugh. ‘One up, all up’ was pretty much an unwritten rule in our house too when I was younger.
Mike continues, “Yeah, because there was so much noise but it was a lot of fun, it still is a lot of fun when I do go home and spend time with them because they’re all a good time. My parents are still in Great Falls, where I grew up. They haven’t moved at all, they still have the same house that I grew up in. I don’t have a room anymore, it’s gone but I still have the right to kick people out of my former room, that’s the right I exercise!”
We next move on to talking about his learning experiences growing up and some of the teams he used to play for. Something I’d really wanted to ask was about him finding out more about himself, both as a person and as a goalie. Which team in his past taught him the most about this?
“Ohh man, that’s a good question.” He takes a little while to really think about what I’ve asked him. “Probably the team I played on my last two years at high school, the US youth National team just because that’s the first time you really go from being the star of your team. Like, from the time I was eight til sixteen, I was the best player on my team and then going to a team where everyone else was the best player on their team, it just kind of humbles you and kinda realise.”
Like, these guys are really, really good and it was a good experience to kind of be knocked down a couple of pegs at a young age as opposed to if I was older. So that was a really good learning experience and it was the first time I was away from home, the first time I was exposed to strength training, goalie coaching and thinking about hockey on a different level and understanding the game better and just what a goalie had to do.”
And what does a goalie have to do? In his opinion?
“Like a goalie has to make saves at a certain point in the game and it as kind of non-negotiable, you had to do it, you have to do certain things. It was a good experience for me, it was tough, very hard, it was just a great learning experience and it was unlike anything else, it was so crazy and an intense period of time.”
What attracted him to the Elite League? Having now spoken to a few other goalies, I wanted to know what about our league made him want to sign up and come here.
“Just the really good positive reviews from players and friends that have played in his league and they enjoyed it and one of the people I grew up with was in Fife last year and Jordon Pietrus was my captain in college. Talking to Piety really sold me on the league and how it worked and I had to see if I could play in the league because he had such a strong opinion it the league.
I was in Denmark last year, it was a good time but it’s just a completely different culture and a different language. Everyone speaks English but everyone also speaks Danish and you’re always a step behind sometimes. I enjoyed it there, Jordan had kind of done a similar thing with being in Poland where there was a completely different language and then he’d come over to the UK and he really enjoyed his experience and I wanted to experience that for myself.”
A huge thanks to Mike Clemente, Neil Russell, Mark Ferriss and the Manchester Storm organisation for making this interview possible, I had a lot of fun getting to chat with Mike.
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