Kyle Clifford’s oldest son just couldn’t help himself.
As the Kings were about to walk out to the ice before a game this month at Staples Center, Brody, 4, was standing in the hallway and had to be pulled back, or otherwise get run over by goalie Jonathan Quick and teammates.
The Kings posted the moment on the team Twitter account as a GIF, which Clifford retweeted.
“You get a laugh out of him every day,” Clifford said. “He’s always got something hockey related going on.”
The son takes after the father: Anxious and eager to the point where he needs to be held back. Until recently, that was the story of Clifford’s career. He carved a role with the Kings as a fourth-line forward with fighting skills and little else.
But he has evolved, along with today’s NHL. No longer strictly a tough guy, Clifford has tied his career high with seven goals and he’s two points short of a career-best 15. The telling number is Clifford’s team-leading plus-seven rating on a squad with more minus readings than a Midwestern winter forecast map.
“I think in some ways his roles changed a little bit,” coach Willie Desjardins said. “I think, before, he was a little bit more of an enforcer, a guy that had to play that role more, and I think the league’s gone away from that a little bit. So now he has more room to play. And he sees himself in a different light.”
“The game’s kind of changing,” Clifford said. “There’s still a physical element in playing hard and being hard to play against. You look at the teams that are sticking around in June, they’re hard teams to play against.
“It’s not always necessarily running someone through in the fifth row or beating the crap out of somebody, but just having that identity and that culture is important. But at the same time, the game is changing, transitioning to speed and skill. I think I’ve been able to adapt with that, and with the game, and that’s why I can still play.”
Clifford, 28, is a long way from his first meetings with Jeremy Clark, a Kings strength and conditioning coach who trains hockey players, martial artists and MMA fighters. General manager Rob Blake once described Clark as a “confidence coach,” or as Clark puts it, “the biggest thing is, how to walk around like you’re 10 feet tall.”
Confidence and work ethic were never an issue when Clark first worked with Clifford.
“Cliffy, from the beginning, we were identical,” Clark said. “I told him to put his head through the glass, and he would do it. An hour later he’d be putting his head against the wall.”
But that energy was over the top and Clark had to harness it. That was tricky because of Clifford’s protective instincts when it comes to his teammates.
“That’s Kyle in a nutshell,” Clark said. “If you go after anybody he’s connected to, he’ll go after you … I didn’t have to turn up the confidence or turn up the nuts factor. We had to go from angry and crazy [to calming him down]. Our goal was making him more into a calm and calculated enforcer.”
Clifford racked up 141 and 123 penalty minutes in his first two NHL seasons. Not all of those fights were wins. He was literally knocked out of the lineup early in his career by Ryan Reaves, and then-coach Terry Murray had to talk to Clifford about protecting himself better.
Clifford eventually found a niche with a tough, grinding game that snapped in place with a new coach who loved that so-called “heavy” style.
“Darryl Sutter comes in and he structures his team after a certain way, and you play that way, or you don’t play at all,” Clifford said. “It worked for us. We had success there to have a hard, heavy bottom-six team. We were able to push teams out, and it made a difference. Now, there’s a lot of more freedom to make plays and be an all-around player, especially being in a bottom-six role.”
This season, Clifford fell in favor with another coach. Desjardins initially played Clifford on the second line, sometimes for 14-plus minutes a night. Back in his fourth-line role, Clifford recently had four assists in five games.
“I think he’s really confident right now and you can definitely see it in his game,” Trevor Lewis said. “He’s making a lot more plays. He’s still playing the power-forward game but making a lot more plays, and that’s probably why he’s producing a lot more because he still works just as hard.”
Clifford recorded two assists on the night of Brody’s near-interference infraction. The older brother to siblings, Ryker, 2, and 9-month-old Cooper, Brody is a fixture in and around the Kings’ dressing room.
“He’s always at the game,” Clifford said. “He doesn’t miss a game. Kings’ biggest fan.”
Brody became a symbolic bundle because he was born during the start of their 2014 Cup run. The pictures of him sitting in the Cup quickly circulated. Now able to skate and play hockey, Brody sometimes takes the ice after Kings practices. It shows how quickly time passes and how much people can change in a short span.
Like father, like son.
When: Saturday, 2 p.m. PST.
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Update: The Kings recalled Jonny Brodzinski following his conditioning assignment and he is expected to play at some point on the trip. Florida features three 20-goal scorers with Mike Hoffman, Aleksander Barkov, Frank Vatrano and Evgeny Dadonov. Kings assistant coach Marco Sturm played his last NHL season with the Panthers, in 2011-12.