Born leader Cloutier in no rush to leave the ice

AFTER more than 20 years playing one of the most physically demanding sports around, Sylvain Cloutier could be forgiven for deciding it may be time to hang up his skates.

But the Hull Stingrays’ player-coach is enjoying life in the fast lane too much to contemplate switching to a full-time career behind the bench just yet.

With more than 1,200 competitive games as a pro – including a short spell in the NHL, the world’s top league – Cloutier has seen it all.

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Regarded by coaches over the years as a born leader, Cloutier’s move into coaching was a natural one, although he admits he still revels in his dual role, a position he is now enjoying in his fourth season in at Hull.

Budgetary circumstances at Hull – long regarded as one of the UK top-flight’s so-called lesser clubs – may be one reason for Cloutier’s split responsibility, but the 38-year-old insists he still has too much of a passion for playing to scale back his duties.

“I feel great,“ said Cloutier. “I feel the best I’ve felt in the last couple of years. I’ve played 19 years professionally already which is an accomplishment and I’m happy with how my career has gone. The key is to stay in shape and work hard off the ice.

“My dream is to just be behind the bench one day, that is ultimately where I want to be. But I’m still having fun playing and I’ll carry on playing as long as I feel I’m contributing.”

Hull is the latest stop in a long and distinguished career for Cloutier who, like thousands of other Canadian kids, grew up dreaming of playing professionally with the ultimate aim of making it to the NHL.

A successful junior career saw Cloutier, aged 18, drafted as a third-round pick and 70th overall by the Detroit Red Wings. But with the likes of fellow centres Steve Yzerman, Sergei Fedorov and Kris Draper ahead of him in the Wings organisation it was always going to be tough to break through at the top level in Detroit.

After four years at Detroit’s American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate Adirondack, Cloutier decided to try his luck in the free agent market in 1998 where he was picked up by the Chicago Blackhawks. Although most of Cloutier’s time was spent with Chicago’s IHL affiliate Indianapolis Ice, it was during this time he achieved his ultimate goal of reaching ‘The Show’.

It may have only been seven games in a Blackhawks jersey, but it’s an achievement Cloutier rightly remains extremely proud of more than 12 years later.

“When I got the phone call telling me I was being called up I was pretty pumped,” recalls Cloutier. “I was jumping up and down – it was the culmination of a long journey to get there.

“It’s your dream as a kid growing up in Canada to play in the NHL and I can say I’ve done that and some of the guys who I played with are now in the Hall of Fame – Doug Gilmore, Chris Chelios – that’s pretty awesome.”

As so often happens in North American hockey, Cloutier was soon on the move, narrowly missing out on a roster spot with NHL expansion team Atlanta Thrashers before being traded to the New Jersey Devils where, as well as witnessing a Stanley Cup triumph, he spent three years with the Devils’ AHL affiliate the Albany River Rats.

It was Cloutier’s next move which brought him his major career highlight, making a switch to the Houston Aeros where, as captain, he lifted the AHL’s coveted Calder Cup.

His coach at Houston was Todd McLellan, a man who would go on to enjoy Stanley Cup success as an assistant at Detroit under Mike Babcock, before graduating to an NHL head coach role of his own at San Jose Sharks in 2008.

“Todd was probably one of the best coaches I’ve ever had,” said Cloutier. “Everything was so professional. He was easy to get along with and you could talk to him about anything – that’s the kind of coach I want to be. It was only one year, but I wish I’d have had a few more with him.”

Already bitten by the coaching bug, Cloutier took his first steps off the ice as an assistant coach with the third-tier United League’s Adirondack Frostbite.

Another North American switch was almost sealed in the summer of 2006 before perhaps the biggest move of Cloutier’s career came, bringing him to the UK for the first time where he spent two highly-successful years under Paul Thompson at Coventry Blaze, winning back-to-back Elite League regular season titles.

“I was captain in the second season and they were two great years there,” said Cloutier. “We made some good friends in Coventry and had a great time – Thommo was very good to me.

“If I’d stayed at Coventry as I was originally going to do who knows, maybe I’d still be there – maybe I’d have retired as a player there.

“But, instead of going left at that fork in the road, I went right.”

That ‘right turn’ took Cloutier back to North America and a seven-month spell as head coach of Corpus Christi IceRays in the Central Hockey League. It ended disappointingly when he was dismissed shortly before the end of the regular season.

No doubt stronger as a result of that experience, Cloutier was soon on to his next challenge, one that brought him back to the UK with Hull in 2009, appointed by the club’s then owners Mike and Sue Pack.

It’s been a far from easy ride for Cloutier in East Yorkshire, two ownership changes have followed, before last season brought another career highlight when, against all odds, he took the unfancied Stingrays to the Elite League final four weekend in Nottingham after dumping Sheffield Steelers out over two legs in the quarter-finals.

A more competitive league this season means it will be difficult to repeat that success but, under current owner Bobby McEwan, there is some overdue stability.

“It’s been a hell of a challenge here,” said Cloutier. “We don’t have the resources that some of the other teams have but I like a challenge – I was told I’d never play in the NHL and I did; I was told I was never the greatest skater when I was growing up and I proved everyone wrong.

“I’m not a quitter and I know I can do the job. We don’t have everything here but, you know what, nobody ever thought in their wildest dreams that we’d make it to the final four weekend in Nottingham – but we did.

“It is rewarding trying to make this club competitive and I think we’re doing that. We’re giving our home fans a belief that we have a chance to win every night.”

WHAT THEY SAY ABOUT CLOUTIER

Paul Thompson (head coach, Coventry Blaze)

“He was everything and more that I could have hoped for. From the day he walked into our locker room he commanded respect – but he gave that respect back.

“People appreciate Clouts and his honesty and that’s why players want to play for him.”

Todd McLellan (head coach at Houston Aeros in 2003 and now head coach of NHL’s San Jose Sharks)

“He was an older role player, a third line centerman, that accepted his role and had elite leadership for us.

“He became an extremely important part of our team and was a big reason why we were able to win.”

Bobby McEwan (owner of Hull Stingrays)

“I’m lucky to have Clouts there helping me out.

“The thing is with Clouts is that we’re also best friends. We often think the same way, which is good for us and the club – some people say we’re like brothers.”