Joe Clark has watched Connor Hellebuyck play long enough to know when the goalie’s game is off.

From his home in McCool Junction, Nebraska, Clark watched the Winnipeg Jets open the 2019-20 season on Oct. 3 against the New York Rangers in Madison Square Garden, and he knew.

Hellebuyck was off.

The 6-foot-4 standout goaltender looked clunky, Clark recalled. The player he’d mentored since his days as a junior player in Odessa, Texas, looked out of whack. Winnipeg lost that night, 6-4, with Hellebuyck allowing five goals on 31 shots, finishing the game with a mediocre .839 save percentage.

That night, Clark’s iPhone buzzed with a text message that he expected. It was Hellebuyck. Did Clark, an Augusta native, have time for a call?

Clark and Hellebuyck spoke for approximately a half hour. They broke down what Clark noticed in Hellebuyck’s play.

“We just talked it out. You’ve got to tell them the truth,” Clark said. “The mental part of the game is when I come in. The only time I talk to (Hellebuyck) is when (crap) hits the fan. When he needs me, he’ll call.”

Hellebuyck didn’t play in Winnipeg’s next two games, a win at New Jersey and a loss to the New York Islanders. He was back in the net for the Jets’ game Oct. 8 in Pittsburgh. Hellebuyck allowed a goal to Sidney Crosby 32 seconds into the game, but was sharp thereafter, making 37 saves for a .974 save percentage in a 4-1 win. Two nights later in Winnipeg’s home opener, Hellebuyck made 38 saves in a 5-2 win over the Minnesota Wild. Two nights later in Chicago, he made 27 saves in 3-2 overtime win.

“Joe knows all the little things. He knows when I feel good, when I look pretty good,” Hellebuyck said. “I had to just clear my mind completely. It’s truly nice to have him there.”

Hellebuyck completed this pandemic-interrupted NHL season with a .922 save percentage and 31 wins. In September, Hellebuyck won the Vezina Trophy, awarded annually to the league’s top goalie. At 27, Hellebuyck is arguably the best goalie in the world right now, and he can’t thank Clark enough for helping him get there.

“The biggest thing is he helps me if I feel too good about myself or not good enough,” Hellebuyck said. “He taught me how to be even with my emotions. How not to let the game play me.”

Clark , who celebrated his 60th birthday earlier this month, describes himself less as a goalie coach and more of a “goalie shrink than anything else.” Along with Hellebuyck and James Reimer, an 11-season NHL veteran who spent last season with the Carolina Hurricanes, Clark works with goaltenders at all levels.

“I call him after every game,” said Devon Bobak, a goalie with the Twin City Thunder, a junior team in Auburn. “The other day, I had a very tough goal I let in late in the game. We had a 20-minute conversation on how to bounce back. You have to quickly move on. You can’t let it stick in your brain.”

Augusta native Joe Clark, left, works with goalie Connor Hellebuyck during a 2019 Net360 clinic in Kelowna, British Columbia. Contributed photo/Joe Clark

Getting into the heads of his goalies keeps Clark from getting into his own. Right now that’s exactly what he wants and needs. Last summer, Clark was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer that starts in the lymphatic system. Clark makes the trip to the Fred and Pamela Buffett Cancer Center in Omaha — around 212 miles round trip from McCool Junction — for his treatment.

“I’m in pretty good hands, I think. The biggest challenge is fatigue and nausea. Life is normal,” Clark said.

When he’s thinking about goaltending, Clark’s mind doesn’t go to dark places. If he focuses on Hellebuyck or Bobak or any of the goalies with whom he works, Clark can’t get lost in self pity.

“One thing that really helps, and I’ve told them all, the more time I spend with you guys talking shop is less time I spend thinking about other stuff,” Clark said.

LIFE IN THE GAME

Clark’s life in hockey has taken him across the world. A 1979 graduate of Cony High School, Clark’s coaching career began when Meylon Kenny, Clark’s high school coach, suggested he help out with youth hockey. Clark served as an assistant coach to Norm Gagne with the Gardiner Area High School hockey team for five years, helping the Tigers win three state titles, before joining Shawn Walsh’s staff as a goaltending coach at the University of Maine in the late 1980s.

Clark spent 10 years coaching in Europe, in the Danish and Norwegian elite leagues. He’s been a scout, coach, and general manager. He served as head coach of the Odessa Jackalopes, when the franchise was a minor league affiliate of the New York Islanders, and was the team’s general manager when it became a junior club in the North American Hockey League.

An 18-year old Hellebuyck arrived in Odessa in 2011 — about five years before he’d make his NHL debut in the 2015-16 season with the Jets — and the pair immediately connected.

“I was new to juniors and didn’t know what to expect. He took me under his wing,” Hellebuyck said. “After our first couple games, I’d talk to him and he’d go over the good, the bad and the ugly. Then he’d say let this one rest… I knew right away he knew what he was talking about.”

Hellebuyck had an outstanding season in Odessa, with a .930 save percentage and a respectable 2.49 goal against average. Hellebuyck moved on to play Division I hockey at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell for two seasons, leading the River Hawks to back-to-back Hockey East titles and a 2013 Frozen Four appearance. Turning pro after his sophomore season, Hellebuyck spent a season and a half with Winnipeg’s minor league affiliates, including the St. John’s IceCaps and Manitoba Moose. He then joined the Jets for good in the middle of the 2015-16 season. Clark has been a friend, mentor, and confidant the entire time.

Clark thinks Hellebuyck has found what he calls the goalie’s sweet spot, that combination of physical ability and mental focus that elevates a goaltender to the peak. Finding that sweet spot at age 27, younger than most, could keep Hellebuyck among the game’s elite goalies for some time, Clark said.

“His sweet spot started early. It’s handling failure. It’s handling doubt. You’re a goalie in the NHL, you live in a pinball machine, so good luck,” Clark said. “The doubt still creeps in. You need someone to lean on and talk you through it. He’s as mentally bulletproof as you can be right now.”

 

 

Clark was scheduled to fly to Winnipeg and spend some time with Hellebuyck in March. Those plans were scrapped when the COVID-19 pandemic hit and the NHL season paused before it restarted this summer in Toronto and Edmonton. Clark kept in touch with Hellebuyck and all his clients through phone calls and Zoom meetings.

Clark saw four of Hellebuyck’s post-Vezina interviews. In each one, Hellebuyck thanked Clark and cited his mentor’s influence on his career. He didn’t have to do that, Clark said.

“That lifted my spirits,” Clark said.

CLARK’S CONNECTIONS

Hellebuyck is not the only goalie to lean on the advice from  Clark, who’s built a solid reputation as a goalie whisperer. Reimer, an NHL veteran who’s played for the Hurricanes, Toronto Maple Leafs, San Jose Sharks, and Florida Panthers in his career, joined Clark’s InsideEdge Goaltending consulting service in October. Reimer and Clark met in 2017, at a Net360 goalie development camp in Kelowna, British Columbia. Alpha Hockey, an agency that represents Hellebuyck and Reimer, put on the clinic.

“He’d been in the league 10 years,” Clark said of Reimer. “He needed a sounding board on the mental part of the game.”

Most of Clark’s clients are young goalies just starting their path to college or professional hockey. As proud as Clark is of Hellebuyck and Reimer, he’s equally proud of the improvement he sees in players like Bobak. In five games for the Thunder this season, Bobak carries a .927 save percentage and is starting to draw attention from college programs.

“What I tell (Bobak), he’s going to take seriously,” Clark said.

“He’s provided a lot of guidance, coming up on a regular basis and working with our guys,” added Clark’s nephew Ben Gray, a Farmingdale native and co-owner of the Thunder. Gray, who also owns and runs the Maine Moose junior hockey program, is a former goalie. He spent time as a professional player with various minor league teams, including the Pensacola Ice Pilotes, Cincinnati Cyclones, and Utah Grizzlies of the East Coast Hockey League.

“Joe helped me get to a couple places in the professional ranks when I was still playing. He’s a big piece for us with the Moose and Thunder,” Gray said.

Dan Hodge, who co-owns and coaches the Thunder, said he consults Clark during the summer on goalies the team is interested in signing.

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Winnipeg Jets goaltender Connor Hellebuyck keeps his eyes on the puck as Maple Leafs center Jason Spezza shoots during a Jan. 8 game in Toronto. AP photo

“Joe knows what goes into being a goalie. How goalies think. He knows the right questions to ask them,” Hodge said.

Along with helping the young goalies with whom he works improve the mental aspects of their game, Clark advocates on their behalf with coaches at the next level.

“He’s been throwing my name out to a lot of colleges. That’s opened a lot of doors,” Bobak said.

Having a client like Hellebuyck, gives Clark cache with anybody willing to put on the pads and put themselves in between hard vulcanized rubber pucks and the net.

“It doesn’t hurt,” Clark said of the attention his relationship with Hellebuyck has drawn to InsideEdge. “I have a limited number of clients I can take on, maybe 30 to 40.”

With travel restricted by the pandemic and Clark needing to stick close to home to continue his cancer treatment, most of his work is done remotely. Clark stresses he is not a replacement for the coaching staff working with his goalies on a daily basis. He augments that coaching. He may only speak to Hellebuyck a few times each season, but those short discussions are exactly what Hellebuyck needs at that moment. Clark is the breakwater to any doubt or lack of confidence that may try to seep into the goalie’s mind.

“Over the course of the season, that’s going to happen to anyone. You’ve got to tell them the truth,” Clark said. “I can make a difference in someone’s life, and I think I’ve done that.”

With the Vezina Trophy and a career hitting its peak, Hellebuyck is proof of that.

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