2013-07-18 / Sports
Matawan’s Clifton drafted by NHL’s Phoenix Coyotes
Being selected in a professional sports draft will always amount to a big day for an athlete, but to hear his name called in his home state in front of family and friends makes for an unforgettable moment. That was the case for Matawan’s Connor Clifton, who was chosen by the Phoenix Coyotes with the 12th pick of the fifth round (133rd overall) in the 2013 NHL Entry Draft at the Prudential Center in Newark on June 30.
“It was in the middle of my home state, and it was nice that it worked out that way, [being in] Newark,” the 18- year-old defenseman said.
“When [my name] was finally called, we were really excited and happy,” Clifton said of sharing the experience with loved ones. “It was definitely a memorable moment.”
Clifton comes off an impressive season in the United States National Team Development Program (USNTDP) as a member of the U-18 team. Over 66 games, he posted eight goals and 15 assists for 23 points, along with 114 penalty minutes. He also played for the United States at the 2013 International Ice Hockey Federation Under-18 World Championship, where his lone goal in the tournament came in a gold-medal game loss to Canada.
It was when Clifton first started with the national program in Ann Arbor, Mich., that he started to believe a career in the NHL was a possibility.
“The first time I thought it could actually happen was at the beginning of this year when I joined the national team, and I figured it was one of my goals when I decided to go there,” he said.
Previously, Clifton suited up for the New Jersey Hitmen of the Eastern Junior Hockey League, and he played high school hockey at Christian Brothers Academy (CBA) in Lincroft during his freshman and sophomore seasons.
“It was a tremendous accomplishment for Connor,” CBA head coach Ryan Bogan said of Clifton being drafted. “We are so proud of his accomplishments on the ice.”
Clifton, who considers himself a “physical, two-way defenseman” because he likes to take the body on defense and jump into the play offensively, acknowledged that he played a leadership role during his time at CBA.
“I considered myself a leader on that team,” he said. “[The other] kids looked up to me.”
“Connor was a leader as a young player at CBA because of his strength on the ice and his ability to take the game over with a big hit or a big goal as a defenseman,” Bogan said. “He is probably one of the most fearless players I have ever seen play the game. I can vividly remember Connor using his fearlessness and character in defense of his fellow teammates.”
Clifton is the third member of the CBA program to be drafted into the NHL. Joakim Ryan was selected by the San Jose Sharks in the seventh round (198th overall) in 2012, while James van Riemsdyk was taken by the Philadelphia Flyers with the second overall pick in 2007.
“Anytime you have the caliber of player like Connor come to CBA, the influence on future players is invaluable,” Bogan said.
“I believe this influence was passed on to many Colts playing today and will be passed on to others in the future, as well.”
Like many successful players, Clifton got his start in hockey at a young age. “I started at age 3,” he said. “My father taught me and my brothers how to skate. [Being from Matawan], hockey was not a big thing at all. It was just big within my family. It was really just us.
“Since I started, it definitely became more popular. It seems like it’s still growing.”
While he may now have a rooting interest in the Coyotes, his team of choice growing up was the New York Rangers, and he looked up to Rangers defenseman Dan Girardi.
Clifton’s next hockey venture will be at the collegiate level with Quinnipiac University (Hamden, Conn.) Quinnipiac comes off a banner season in which the Bobcats advanced to the program’s first Frozen Four appearance in the NCAA Men’s Division I Ice Hockey Tournament. They fell in the finals to Yale University, 4-0.
Clifton was also selected in the fourth round (75th overall) of the 2013 Ontario Hockey League Priority Selection Draft by the Peterborough Petes, but Quinnipiac’s coaches, facilities and the ability to play on the same team with his older brother Tim made the institution a more alluring option for him.
“I want to get in there and play my game, keep working on every aspect of my game and help the team out,” Clifton said.
Clifton did get a taste of the NHL experience from July 8-12 when he took part in the Coyotes’ prospect development camp. With a chance to get acquainted to the organization and display his skills in front of management, coaches and fans, Clifton joined 35 other Coyotes prospects for drills and instruction both on and off the ice.
“I’ve learned that all the coaches want to do is help you and develop your game,” he said.
With each step in that development, Clifton grows nearer to putting the Coyotes jersey on for real game action one day in the NHL.