By RYAN MCCRACKEN on February 20, 2021.
As the sole overager on a young blue line, Medicine Hat Tigers defenceman Cole Clayton knows he has an important role to fill as his team pushes toward the Western Hockey League’s 24-game season.
With 10 of the team’s 23 players sporting no more than a game’s worth of experience, the 20-year-old Strathmore product has been pushing his young teammates in practice in an attempt to prepare them for the ferocious competition to come.
“That’s one of my biggest things,” Clayton said in a phone call with the News. “I like to push guys with battles and how hard you work in practice and at the gym. I think the guys are starting to pick it up and I think that’ll help translate in the games. Obviously it’s going to be a short season and not many guys have a lot of games, but I think the more we practice like a game the easier it will be.”
Tigers director of player personnel Bobby Fox says Clayton has “taken charge” at camp with the team’s younger players, approaching puck battles in practice the same way he would in a game, but still helping the rookies find their bearings on and off the ice.
“He’s showing them what it’s like to compete and he’s not taking it easy on these guys,” said Fox. “They’ve got to learn how to compete against a big strong defenceman like Cole and he’s showing them the ropes but he’s also helping them in the dressing room. He’s a competitor on the ice and he’s a leader … He’s definitely a guy we rely heavily on in the dressing room.”
It was a long wait before Clayton could finally return to the Hat for what will be a shortened overage season, but the defenceman known by friends and teammates as “Cowboy” managed to fill the time between working on the farm with his family or at his summer job, hitting the gym and skating on his outdoor rink at home.
“It wasn’t too bad because being on the farm there’s lot of stuff to do, whether it’s helping my dad or working at my job all summer,” he said. “But once that was all over and in December when all the gyms and rinks shut down, it was kind of hard to find training, so I just tried to do as much as I could at home. I think I came into camp in relatively good shape and I think I’ve shown that so far.”
While the shortened campaign is largely being viewed as a development season, Clayton says he believes the 11-month wait experienced by players across the league should fuel a highly competitive season rife with rivalry play.
“I know I’m going to be going as hard as I can so I hope the other guys are too,” said Clayton, who had two goals, 28 assists and a plus-28 rating through 63 games last season. “We’ll see what happens but I think everyone will be chomping at the bit to get back to playing. It should be, if not the same, it might be better.”
Away from the game, life is quite different for Clayton and the Tigers. Long days at the rink and quiet nights at the billets – with enhanced protocols like symptom checks and masking at both locations – will make up the bulk of the next few months for Clayton and his teammates, but as long as there’s hockey peppered in along the way, he’s fine with it.
“It’s rink to the billets, which is fine,” he said. “I want to be able to play hockey and if that’s what we’ve got to do, then I think that’s what we’ve got to do, but we’re hanging out at the rink together as much as we can, masked up. Hopefully things get a little bit back to normal soon so we can start hanging out a bit more outside the rink as well.”
Clayton and the Tigers open the WHL season on Friday in Red Deer against the Rebels.