Seven years after joining the Maple Leafs organization, and Rich Clune is still playing the game he loves.
The bus was getting packed up on Thursday as the Toronto Marlies get set for a six-game US road trip. Clune walked out of the dressing room wearing a Gold’s Gym crewneck and track pants. He had some nice shoes on too.
He greets you with a big smile on his face and a kind “Hello.”
Clune had just gotten off the ice after a 40+ minute practice. The team also had time on the ice after to work on whatever they wanted. The 34-year-old spent it skating from blue line to blue line, back and forth, at some points also receiving pucks from teammate, Joseph Duszak.
He would stop, take a breath, watch what other players were doing, and then go again. There’s always something about players who work on their craft alone after practice. Bobby McMann, who was the captain while playing at Colgate University does the same thing at Marlies practices.
Players like that are doing what they love, while still finding a way to lead by example.
“I grew up in an area of Toronto where we flooded the streets,” Clune said of where his leadership may have come from. “Whether it was basketball, hockey, and I guess I was always surrounded by older kids and my younger brothers. I think everyone sort of had that mentality of just being loud, having fun, and loving what we’re doing. I was fortunate enough to always be exposed to tons of different sports as a kid — I played lacrosse, soccer — I played all the school sports and track, so I’ve seen different ways people lead.”
When Clune was young, his Dad was a partner of an advertising company in Toronto called Capital C, while his mom was a manager in retail. The 34-year-old credits his parents for both being “huge influences” on him.
“Between him [Clune’s father] and his partner, Tony Chapman, I was exposed to leadership in the corporate world.” Clune said. “And then, my Mom’s been a manager in retail, now she works at the Eaton Centre, and I think I guess it’s sort of inherited from them. They just seem to be, like, very driven people, very vocal, and very big communicators.”
Before the 34-year-old joined the Maple Leafs organization, he spent time with the Nashville Predators, L.A. Kings, Milwaukee Admirals, and Manchester Monarchs. During his career in the NHL, Clune also battled substance use disorder, which he has a documentary about (it’s worth a watch).
All of this was a part of a journey to get him to where he is now.
“Going through my playing career, I’ve been surrounded by tons of great leaders like Shea Weber, and going back to the L.A. King days, Jarret Stoll and Matt Greene.” Clune said. “They won some Stanley Cups, and I guess I had been fortunate enough to have good people around me.”
Being a leader has as much to do with the people around you as it does yourself.
“Just for better or for worse, I’ve always been myself.” Clune said. “So, I just kind of try to trust my instincts and if I’m wrong, I’m wrong. If I’m right, I’m right. But I think the common denominator I’ve found amongst most guys and women is that they don’t really try to be leaders, they just be themselves. And I think that’s something I try to do, not take myself too serious.”
When you ask the younger players about Clune, they talk about how much he welcomed them in. Coming into a new team, a new school, a new job — it’s scary. But the 34-year-old wants each and every person to feel as comfortable as possible.
“I think that anything from growing up with two younger brothers, I was the eldest. I guess it’s just similar to that, in our household is that, I have a soft spot for, obviously, the younger players. It feels good, it feels good.” Clune said. “And I’m proud of all of them, everybody here, I’m always here for them.”
Throughout this season, I’ve asked as many Marlies as I can about Clune and what he means both as a person, and as a leader. Each person had a smile on their face when they answered a question about Clune.
So, here are some of their answers.
Joseph Woll: “I think he’s been able to be really outspoken. With certain guys, they don’t always have those traits of being able to just speak out and lead a group vocally. I think he’s been great for us in that aspect and he obviously has a lot of experience here and he’s a really great guy to be around and talk to, and everything he’s gone through — he’s just an awesome person. And it’s cool that he’s able to share that experience and lead vocally, and by example.”
Curtis Douglas: “When you’re talking about mentorship from guys, he definitely would be one of the top ones. I think almost every single person on the team would say the same. He’s an amazing player, an amazing person. I mean, he brings a lot of experience in his own life experiences and teaches a lot of the guys, and I mean, he’s been nothing but amazing to me and to a lot of the younger guys, and kind of taking us under his wing.”
Alex Biega: “I’ve known Rich for a long time. That guy, he leaves everything on the ice. I remember playing against him in the minors, in the NHL, and you knew what you were getting out of him every single shift. And he still does it today. I mean, he’s 34-years-old, he’s the captain of this group, and he certainly could be comfortable, but he’s not. He plays uncomfortable and he plays like his job is on the line every single night. I think guys look up to him, and he’s obviously done an incredible job for himself, the Toronto Marlies, and the organization through the past couple of years. I can’t say enough good things about that guy.”
Alex Steeves: “The number one thing I appreciate about Dickey is how he lets younger guys be themselves. I think Dickey really loves to get to know guys and let them be comfortable, even if it’s your first year, which you really don’t see anywhere. I think that helps younger guys be more comfortable and play as high to their potential as they can. I’d say also that he’s so well respected. Anytime you have a leader where they don’t have to try to lead, they don’t have to act any different than who they are and they’re just a natural leader who guys look up to, I think that’s the best way to get a locker room together, and I think Dickey’s a great example of that.”
Matt Hellickson: “Having a guy like Rich on your team is huge. Just the experience that he brings and the energy that he brings to the locker room. He’s such a nice guy to have around. He’s always around to talk about anything, so he just makes the young guys feel really comfortable, and it’s awesome to have him on the team.”
Greg Moore: “He’s extremely smart. Every time I talk to him, I become a smarter coach. With his experience, the amount of scenarios and situations he’s found himself in as a player throughout the years, on different teams with different dynamics, going through different ups and downs of the season, I can always shoot ideas off of him. He gives me great ideas on things that we can do as a staff, or as a group to help our team along. So, really, I almost see him as an extension of our coaching staff. He has a lot of experience in helping our group get better every day and set the standard, and push them.”
Ryan Hardy: “It’s hard to quantify what he brings to a locker room with the young players especially.” Marlies GM, Ryan Hardy said earlier this year. “He has a tremendous amount of experience in so many different ways that he can rely upon. For me, personally, I reached out to Rich right when I got this job. He’s had a long history of playing for the Toronto Marlies. He represents this organization and this team probably as well or better than anyone. And it means more to him than it does to anyone, and I think that, for all of our young players that watch Rich come to work every day and do what it is that he does, in the way that he does it, they’ll all benefit.”
Clune is incredibly humble. There’s not a time of day where he’s saying that he helped someone get to the position they’re at today. When Steeves and Kristiāns Rubīns were called up to the Maple Leafs, the 34-year-old was asked if he felt a sense of pride seeing them get called up.
“Not a sense of pride, but probably a shared joy,” said Clune. “I can’t honestly sit here and say that I’m in it for everybody else, like, I have my selfish reasons, I’d be the first one to admit it. But, I wouldn’t be able to come to the rink every day if I was just doing it for myself, especially the last number of years. It’s been a while since I played in the NHL and a big part of me being motivated and getting excited to come to work every day is to see the success of teammates move up from the Marlies to the Leafs.”
He’s the captain of this team because he wants to see the success of others. Clune leaves it all on the ice for the people around him, and he does it because he cares so much. Heck, he even told me after my interview with him to “Keep up the good work.”
Before the interview ended, though, I thought of one final question. What if I turned this around on Clune? What if, instead of asking other players about him, I tell him about how they react when his name comes up.
And after telling him, his response says it all.
“It feels nice. It feels really nice. I think that, I guess, one thought that I can stand behind was I haven’t screwed them up,” Clune said with a smile. “I guess if some people acknowledge that maybe I’ve helped them along the way, that’s great. But, it’s really nice to hear. I mean, it makes me feel appreciated and valued.
“They help me more than I’m helping them. I don’t know if they know it.”