Theoretical physicist Albert Einstein once said that “in the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.” The saying is meaningful in all walks of life, including sports and the game of hockey.
Darcy Kuemper’s injury against the Calgary Flames on December 4th began a string of goaltender callups and re-assignments for the Washington Capitals’ organization, as the Capitals, Hershey Bears and South Carolina Stingrays all scurried to adjust their rosters, accordingly.
As a result of the roster re-workings, Kuemper’s injury provided an opportunity for Hunter Shepard to join the Capitals. It also provided rookie Clay Stevenson with his first opportunity to play in the American Hockey League (AHL).
“I was just out with my girlfriend, Walker, after the game. I got a message that said be ready in the morning and in the morning I got the call to head to Hershey,” Stevenson told NoVa Caps.
“They were planning a flight but my girlfriend was with me and I like having my own vehicle around. Plus I don’t mind the drive. So, my girlfriend made the 10-hour drive to Hershey that Sunday.”
Stevenson’s call-up from ECHL South Carolina to Hershey was officially announced by the Bears on Monday, December 5 and he was tossed into the proverbial AHL fire just five days later. Stevenson would shine in his AHL debut, stopping 25 of 27 shots faced in the Bears’ 3-2 win over the Cleveland Monsters in Hershey.
Stevenson, 23, got the start again a week later against Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and stopped 23 of 24 shots he faced for his second consecutive win. In the end, Stevenson made three starts during his first stint in Hershey and won all three games, posting a 1.96 GAA and a .924 save percentage.
— Hershey Bears (@TheHersheyBears) December 18, 2022
“The players become a lot sharper in the AHL, the execution of plays goes up and more shots and saves become critical. I find the game as you move up becomes simpler, but the play is just that much harder. Of course there are always nerves as you move up in hockey, but I find I am able to keep calm and remember what got me there.”
Finding His Way
While Stevenson initially went undrafted by an NHL team, there was a discernible rise in his game after the dust had settled following the draft. There was enough of a difference in his game that multiple NHL teams were looking to sign the college free agent. It was up to Stevenson where he would go, and luckily for the Capitals, he decided to head to Washington.
“During my recruiting process I knew I had to be going to a place that I had an opportunity to develop and grow my game. The people in Washington’s organization showed me a developmental philosophy that I trusted and thought I could really build my game to the next level with,” said Stevenson.
“I would say the three major factors in the process were; opportunity, development, and people.”
Danny Brooks, the Capitals Director of Player Recruitmant, has done an incredible job in finding undrafted “diamonds in the rough”, so to speak. Just consider players like Joe Snively and Bobby Nardella, who also went undrafted and were successfully recruited by Brooks, and you can see that Brooks is good at what he does.
“Danny Brooks is a great recruiter and coach,” said Stevenson. “He has an incredible view on life and is a great person to know and talk to. He is also a good guy to have in your corner.”
On To Washington
Stevenson made his first visit to Washington for the Capitals’ development camp in July, and also participated in the Capitals rookie camp and main training camp in September.
“My initial impressions of the camps were quite positive overall. I thought the camps were put together well with very hard, but good and fun skates. I learned a lot about becoming a pro player there simply by observing the habits of the personnel at the camps,” said Stevenson.
For Stevenson, his initial visits to the District were important to connect with his fellow goaltending brethren.
“It helps with learning to transition your game to the pro level and the coaching staff are very good with helping to do that. I always enjoy making friendships in hockey and there are many guys I am getting close with in Hershey and South Carolina,” said Stevenson.
“One of the earliest friendships I made was with Garin Bjorklund and it has been nice to get to know the guy. The goalie coaching sessions were great to get to learn from Scott Murray, Ollie, and Juha.
”We had a lot of good and fun sessions out there talking about goaltending. It was also nice to have my Dartmouth goalie coach, Jason Tapp, out there for development camp. Having someone I know very well on the ice was awesome to continue talking and working with, even at development camp.”
Work Remains In Carolina
Stevenson returned to South Carolina to mind the net for the Stingrays following his three impressive starts with the Bears.
“South Carolina has been great so far. The players and coaching staff have been easy and fun to work with,” said Stevenson.
Stevenson, who likes online gaming in his free-time, is also adapting to life after college.
“There will always be differences when you transition to a life outside of college and the basic differences are pretty evident. However, you do have to make changes to your preparations because you are so independent. I like that there is a lot more accountability and it is something I was prepared to do.
“There is a lot more free time, not doing school, that is nice too but you have to find ways to keep busy. The hockey has been good. I mean you are playing with experienced pro guys, you get to learn how they shoot and make yourself better as a pro goalie. The hockey changes a little bit, it becomes a little bit more simplified ’cause the players are better and know what to do.”
By Jon Sorensen