CHELMSFORD, UK – Former GB International Gary Clarke signed off his career in the best possible way, as he led his Chelmsford side to an incredible quadruple at a packed Riverside.
After over a thousand hockey fans celebrated the 6-3 aggregate Play-Off final win over Wightlink Raiders just minutes earlier, the Riverside ice rink in Chelmsford is slowly returning to a scene of calm.
Outside the victorious Chelmsford Chieftains locker room stand the usual gaggle of girlfriends, fans, team officials and a lone reporter from Pro Hockey News.
After noisy celebrations inside the confines of the room, half kitted players slowly emerge clutching bottles of beer, cups of champagne and pose for photos and sign autographs.
Shut-out hero of the night Ben Clements emerges grinning from ear to ear, local boys James Ayling and Ross Brears share jokes with those around and the bare chested goal scorer Michael Ranby stands sweating and smiling whilst two girls giggle nervously nearby.
Finally, the familiar face of player-coach Clarke walks out of the door with an outstretched hand and the interview can begin.
It isn’t the first time Clarke has had the pleasure of a post-championship winning interview with Pro Hockey News, but the difference this time, is that it will be his last.
Composure and decisiveness on the ice are traits Clarke has mastered over a long career in the game, but what is always clear during interviews, is that he has the same attributes when speaking about the game.
There are no stutters or irrelevant sound bites from the Chieftains Coach and indeed the 35 year old speaks like someone who knows his hockey and has courage in his convictions.
Predictably Clarke was on the ice in the closing stages of the Wightlink game and surely this placid, calm individual must have had all sorts of emotions racing through his head knowing it would be his last shift of competitive hockey?
“To be honest nothing with regards to my retirement” he says, as we retire to a dark corner of the rink away from the celebratory noise.
“Just getting the job done and getting the win was all I was thinking but it sunk in a few minutes after the final buzzer. I made the decision to retire because the time was right for me and more importantly for my family so I have no regrets and it was a great way to go out”
Indeed, not even the most optimistic Chieftains fan could have predicted the team would lift the South East Trophy, South East Cup, League title and the NIHL Play-Offs trophy this year.
“When I saw some of the teams out there at the start of the season I honestly didn’t think it (the quad) would happen” admitted Clarke.
“Invicta strengthened massively and had huge offense, I always knew Romford/London were going to be tough and obviously Wightlink brought in better offense, so the league had improved again”
“For us to achieve what we did last season (the triple) and then go one better than that was always going to be a massive challenge”
After the success of 2012/13 it was always going to be a hard ask for Chelmsford to replicate that, never mind go one step further.
The more Clarke talks however, the more you realise that this long time goal-scoring machine, worries just as much, if not more about the other end of the ice and knew exactly what he needed to do last summer to strengthen the Chieftains.
“We knew that every team would want to beat us every time they stepped out on the ice against us this year after our success in the previous campaign so I had to tweak a few things, and most importantly make us tough to beat” explained Clarke.
“I knew we would always stand a chance of winning games with the offense we have, but I needed to make us tougher to beat”
“We brought in two excellent centre men in Matt Turner and Daniel Volrab who play at both ends of the ice and are somewhat underrated in my opinion as a lot of things they do on the ice goes unnoticed”
“We brought in Julian Smith and John Connolly on the blue line and suddenly I had six defensemen I could trust on the ice against any offensive line out there, and you could see that with our shutout records”
“Our defensive record has been superb and we have now played a Play-Off semi-final and also a Play-Off final on home ice without conceding. It is a fantastic achievement and that has been the difference”
Just winning any trophy on its own would be a big achievement for most players, but Clarke has had success at higher levels and when asked how this quadruple compares to his other achievements in the game, the veteran had a record to set straight.
“I actually played for GB seniors contrary to what has been written over the last few weeks in PHN” laughed Clarke, who had been inaccurately described as a former GB junior by this esteemed website on more than one occasion.
“I was very fortunate to play for my country in the World Championships in Innsbruck, Austria but I also had a lot of success with Milton Keynes and I loved every year there”
“Milton Keynes is my home and the first result I look out for every weekend is how the Lightning have got on”
“I’ve obviously played elsewhere and got looked after in places like Guildford and I am very grateful for that but it doesn’t matter what league you are in or what team you play for, there is a lot of pride every time you go out on the ice”
“These guys here in Chelmsford, not just the local guys, but those who came in from elsewhere and overseas, they’ve bought into something and we have achieved something special this year and I couldn’t have asked for a better bunch of guys to coach”
Winning everything in sight and ending a mini golden era in Essex, after taking over from Dean Birrell in 2011, Clarke now leaves a Chelmsford team looking towards another new chapter. Does he leave a legacy for the Chieftains, or indeed the league after his three years in the NIHL South?
“I’d like to think that after coming down from the EPL after so many years I have put a different dimension to the type of hockey that is played in this league” explained Clarke.
“I’d like to think that further afield there is a bit more respect in how this league is viewed and that it isn’t goon hockey”
“Don’t get me wrong there are teams that play goon hockey and it isn’t pleasant at times, but on the whole there are teams like Streatham who have improved, Wightlink play physical but they play the game the right way and things are heading in a positive direction”
“I’d like to think that I have helped improve some of our guys individually and technically, but more importantly they understand that they need to take care of both ends of the ice, what it takes to win and that it isn’t all about scoring fifteen goals a shift”
“In the main I think I have brought a bit of professionalism to the team, not to say it wasn’t there already because I can’t really say what was or wasn’t there previously as I can only put my own stamp on it”
“I’ve tried to instil in the guys the importance of preparation in the week prior to our games, and more importantly two hours before the game and how they conduct themselves during the sixty minutes for the good of the team”
“I have really enjoyed my time at Chelmsford and am really grateful to the fans for taking me on board. I was appreciated and liked in Milton Keynes but the fans here from day one have been truly amazing and I couldn’t ask for anymore”
With that said, Clarke smiles and turns back towards his room full of celebrating hockey players. The party will last long into the night in town, but whether it will continue in 2014/15 remains to be seen.
Clarke leaves a massive gap both on and off the ice for Chelmsford and now joins the many hockey players before him, who start to give a little more back to their families after giving so much to the hockey family.
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