TORONTO — Kyle Clifford has twice felt the euphoria of raising the Stanley Cup over his head.
The first time with the Los Angeles Kings back in 2012, he suited up for just three playoff games as the franchise rolled through four rounds on the way to its first title.
Some 24 months later, the bruising winger was in the middle of the action from start to finish as the Kings survived three Game 7s in a gruelling 16-win spring that culminated with a second championship.
Now a member of the Toronto Maple Leafs following a February trade, Clifford knows if the NHL is allowed to resume a 2019-20 campaign stopped in its tracks by the COVID-19 pandemic, the playoffs won’t have the same look or feel.
And that’s OK.
“We’re not dealing with ideal times,” the 29-year-old said on a conference call Wednesday. ”It’s going to be different, but I think playing for a Stanley Cup is better than not playing for a Stanley Cup at all.”
If the league eventually gets the go-ahead from government and health officials in both Canada and the United States, there’s a good chance training camps will be immediately followed by a 20- or 24-team tournament instead of the usual 16-club format.
The grind won’t be the exact same, arenas will almost certainly be devoid fans, and players could be quarantined in a series of so-called “hub cities” for the duration in hopes of keeping the novel coronavirus at bay.
Clifford took part in 24 games in the 2014 playoffs with Los Angeles, picking up a goal and six assists, including one on Alec Martinez’s title-clincher in double overtime of Game 5 against the New York Rangers.
And while some, including Kings defenceman and former teammate Drew Doughty, have wondered aloud about the legitimacy of a champion crowned with goalposts that have been moved, Clifford doesn’t take issue with the prospect of commissioner Gary Bettman handing over hockey’s holy grail in August or September.
“You’re still playing for the Stanley Cup,” he said. ”It’s gonna be a different format, there’s no question. But (winning is) the greatest feeling other than having your children born.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to win two. It only makes you hungrier to win another one.”
Clifford, who’s spending this period of self-isolation with his wife and three kids in cottage country north of Toronto, confirmed that talk of a 20- or 24-team playoff scenario has been the “hot trend” recently.
“The Return to Play committee (set up by the NHL and NHL Players’ Association) has done a good job,” he said. ”There’s a lot of unknowns out there. They’re just trying to be best prepared for when we do get the green light to get going, and what’s the best way of doing that to keep the integrity of the Stanley Cup.
“Just speaking with the guys on our team, there’s a real strong appetite to get playing no matter the circumstances. We look at our group and we like our chances.”
A player unafraid to drop the gloves or mix it up after the whistle, Clifford is aware that some medical professionals and provincial health officials have mused that full facemasks and even physical distancing in certain situations on the ice might be necessary for the league to return before there’s a vaccine.
“It’s gonna be different if that’s the case,” said the veteran of 83 NHL fights. “But if that’s the road we’re gonna go down, it’s a matter of safety.”
Like most players — other than ones based in Sweden and a few others with personal access — Clifford hasn’t been on skates in two months. His daily solo workout routine includes 30 to 40 minutes of stretching before at least another hour in his home gym.
Acquired by the Leafs along with backup goalie Jack Campbell from the Kings, he’s also had plenty of family time.
“It’s been a bit of an eye-opening experience,” Clifford said. ”I’ve always had an appreciation for what my wife does with the children, but that appreciation has definitely grown. I’ve really enjoyed the time with them. This is not a schedule that I’m used to, but it’s been a lot of fun.
“We’ve got a lot of mini-stick games going.”
While keeping his family safe and staying on top of league news is front of mind, the native of Ayr, Ont., has something else to worry about — a contract beyond this season.
And like other pending unrestricted free agents, he’s in the unenviable position of not knowing what the league’s finances or the salary cap will look like in 2020-21.
“That’s not my focus,” said Clifford, who signed a five-year, US$8-million deal with L.A. in 2015. ”My focus is to be ready to play and compete for a Stanley Cup when we do get back playing.
“The rest of it will take care of itself.”
He’s just hoping this iteration of the Leafs gets an opportunity to finish what they started.
“We have a young team and they’re hungry,” Clifford said. ”They want it, and they want it for the city of Toronto bad. It’s been 50 some years since they’ve won.
“I don’t think there’d be any greater feeling than to take (the Cup) down those streets in Toronto for a parade.”
But only, of course, if parades are allowed by then.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 13, 2020.
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Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press