Kingston Canadians Chris Clifford Scores first OHL goal by a goalie
In December 1985, Toronto Marlies goalie Sean Burke was chatting with Kingston Canadians netminder Chris Clifford, pointing out that no goalie playing junior hockey had ever scored a goal.
"At that time, goalies were starting to play the puck more and Sean said he was hoping to be the first junior goaltender to score a goal," Clifford recalled over the phone from his Kingston law office at Bergeron Clifford LLP.
Imagine Burke's shock when not only did Clifford score the first goal just a few weeks later - but it was against his own Toronto Marlies squad.
On Jan. 7, 1986, Clifford brought the house down at the Memorial Centre with his goal after the Toronto team - trailing 4-3 - pulled Burke for an extra attacker in the last minute of play. A stunned Burke was sitting on the bench and watched the final moments unravel.
Clifford didn't have scoring on his mind when he played a Toronto shot off his blocker and skated out of his crease. "I wanted to avoid a whistle and face off in our own end," he recalls. "At first, I thought I would just pass it to a player high on the boards but then a Toronto skater pinched in to cover the pass and the middle of the ice opened up."
With the Marlies defence changing, there was now a clear path to the Toronto goal. When Clifford saw the opening, he fired a one-hand backhand shot towards the other end. Initially, the puck didn't look like it had enough momentum to make it all the way down the ice.
Then something strange happened. Near centre ice, the puck turned on its side and began rolling, taking a circuitous route towards the net.
As the puck headed towards the open Toronto goal, a foot race developed between Kingston's Mike Maurice and Toronto's Jack MacKeigan, who had jumped on to the ice from the Toronto bench. Maurice was the first to catch up to the still rolling puck in the high slot of the opposing goal. Instead of tapping the puck across the line, Maurice cut sharply in front of MacKeigan, preventing him from getting to the puck before it went in the net. Clifford was credited with the goal.
"Mike had scored two quick goals a short time earlier and if he had of touched the puck it would have been a record for the fastest hat trick in the team's history," Clifford recalls. "I've always been grateful to Mike for putting my goal ahead of his own record hat trick."
As the fans in the Memorial Centre went crazy, the Canadians' bench cleared and the players rushed to celebrate together.
With the Canadians, Clifford established a franchise record of 75 career wins. The record stood for 31 years until 2018 when Jeremy Helvig of the Kingston Frontenacs broke it.
The Frontenacs will be celebrating Clifford and the Kingston Canadians with a special event on Friday, Dec. 6 at the Leon's Centre when they will be hosting Peterborough and raising Clifford's number 29 to the rafters. Inside the jersey with be a cloth insert with every name of every player, coach, assistant coach, trainer, owner and media personnel who contributed during the seasons that Clifford played with the Canadians.
Says Clifford: "Hockey is the quintessential team sport and I wanted us all to go up together. I am very grateful to the Springer family and the Kingston Frontenacs hockey organization for allowing this to happen."
Growing up in Kingston, Clifford recalls the exact moment when the idea of goaltending came to him. He was four years old and his father was watching a Montreal Canadiens game on TV, with the famed Ken Dryden between the pipes.
"I remember just standing there fascinated by this guy and asking my father who he was. It was like a switch was turned on and from that moment onwards I wanted to be a goaltender."
At 16, he moved to Brockville to play for the Brockville Braves Tier II squad. He returned to Kingston the following year to join the Canadians, putting him under the microscope for the hometown fans.
"We struggled as a team. There's no place to hide when family and friends you've grown up with are aware of how you play every week."
Clifford was selected in the sixth round of the 1984 NHL entry draft by Chicago. He played a single period for the Blackhawks and was sent back to Kingston for two more seasons from 1985 to 1987. He went on to play seven seasons of professional hockey, mostly in the IHL and ECHL, with another single period of play with Chicago in 1988-89.
Clifford's NHL record was perfect - he didn't let in a goal in either game. In what can be put under the heading of odd statistical quirks, Clifford held the NHL record (and may still hold the record as it is difficult to search) for the most minutes and games played by a goaltender while holding a career goals against average of 0.00. Even though his NHL career was short, he's thrilled to have had the opportunity to play in the big league.
Roger Neilson was an assistant coach with Chicago at the time of Clifford's first stint with the Blackhawks. "Roger's nickname was Captain Video because he was one of the first coaches to use video as a coaching tool. As I was carrying my bag out of the dressing room to go back to Kingston, Roger met me and handed me a video he had made of my first game. I will always be grateful to Roger for taking the time to do that."
Just this fall Clifford's wife Denise converted the videotape to a CD and they were able to watch the game together. "I don't recall ever seeing the video and so my last memory of what we were watching was when I was playing 34 years ago."
At the age of 27 and dogged by injuries, Clifford hung up his pads. Over the last three years he had been a player/assistant coach, but he soon realized that coaching was not for him. "I wasn't enjoying the coaching like I thought I would."
It was time for a dramatic shift. Plugging away for almost a decade at his undergrad through Queen's University, he finally graduated with a bachelor's degree. He thought he would become a teacher like his parents, but had trouble getting into a teacher's college. Instead, he headed for law school, following in the footsteps of his boyhood idol Ken Dryden.
Today the Bergeron Clifford LLP office has a team of 35 staff spread across four offices. "We practice throughout Eastern Ontario exclusively in the field of personal injury law. We help protect individuals and their families when they suffer the devastating consequences that arise from injury, loss and illness in their personal lives. At our firm, the practice of law is very similar to hockey in that it's a team environment. We're always helping each other and sacrificing for the betterment of others."
Clifford credits Kingston with being a great hockey community, filled with supportive coaches, volunteers and fans. One such coach was Fred O'Donnell who was behind the Kingston bench at the time of his goal. Oddly, O'Donnell also witnessed the first professional goalie to score a goal while playing for the Oklahoma City Blazers. In 1971, Michel Plasse of the Kansas City Blues notched an empty net goal against the Blazers.