Aside from the players, Ian Clark might be the most popular person in the Canucks organization right now. It seems odd that a coach might earn such admiration, particularly a goaltending coach that rarely interacts with the public, but Clark has an impeccable reputation and a solid track record.
Over the last few years, Clark helped Jacob Markstrom become a top-tier goaltender worthy of getting Vezina votes. He’s done the same for Thatcher Demko, who, despite a rocky start to the season, was outstanding overall in his first year as the Canucks’ starting goaltender.
According to Clear Sight Analytics, Demko was second in the NHL in what they call “Goaltender Save Contribution” behind only Marc-Andre Fleury of the Vegas Golden Knights. By this statistic, Demko saved 23.83 goals above expected this season, just edging out Andrei Vasilevskiy. Considering Demko played seven fewer games than Vasilevskiy, that’s particularly impressive.
It’s understandable why Demko would be, in his own words, desperate for Clark to keep coaching him.
“Clarkie is unbelievable. I owe probably just about everything to him,” said Demko late in the season. “Obviously, I’m putting in the work, but the way he’s guided me and mentored me, it’s been amazing. I desperately hope that they can figure something out and have him return.”
Fortunately, the Canucks got a deal done with Clark, though it almost didn’t happen. While some doubted reports that Clark might be on his way out of Vancouver due to delays in contract negotiations, according to Clark himself it was a close call.
In the wake of signing his contract extension, Clark has made a couple of rare radio appearances. On the Halford and Brough show on Sportsnet 650, Clark was asked if there was a time where he wondered if he would be back with the Canucks.
“I certainly would say that,” said Clark. “I had been through this before in Columbus and we made the decision to move on. But, again, the organization pushed hard at the end here and we’re happy, we’re excited, and ready to get to work on bringing a Cup to Vancouver.”
In a separate interview on the Sekeres and Price show, Clark said that he and his family "were prepared to move on," but were also very happy to return.
"I'm from Vancouver, I have family," said Clark. "I've built these relationships, not only with the goaltenders, but I have a very strong relationship with Jim [Benning] and John [Weisbrod] as well as, obviously, the coaching staff with Travis [Green] and the rest of the gang. It's not easy to just pick up the whole family, move your children to a new school, a new city, a new environment. So, we always wanted to be in Vancouver and we're certainly excited to be here."
New job title for the same role
That hard push from the Canucks meant not only a five-year contract that matches the term of Demko’s deal and is longer than anyone else on the coaching staff, but also a new job title. Clark has long been more than a goalie coach for the Canucks, as he’s also advised them in all areas of goaltending. It’s fair to say it likely comes with a little more compensation in salary as well.
“Really, it's nothing different than I've been doing anyways,” said Clark. “I've been plugged in on the amateur side, I've been plugged in on the pro side — obviously the goaltending coach responsibilities, certainly reaching down to the prospects and working with Curtis Sanford with our guys in Utica, and with our draft assets.”
Clark’s new job title better reflects the scope of everything he does: director of goaltending and goaltending coach.
When Clark was hired as goaltending coach by the Canucks in 2018, Dan Cloutier was moved to the role of director of goaltending. It was a player development role, with Cloutier overseeing the team’s prospects. A year later, he left the role for personal reasons.
The Canucks are not the only team with a director of goaltending. The league seems to be moving in that direction as teams have started committing more resources to hockey’s most important position.
Mitch Korn was named director of goaltending for the Washington Capitals in 2017, then moved to the New York Islanders a year later to fill the same role. Other teams with a director of goaltending, either currently or in recent years, include the Vegas Golden Knights, Montreal Canadiens, Calgary Flames, and Arizona Coyotes.
"I expect them to be the fiercest competitor on the team."
Clark went into some detail about his philosophy on coaching goaltenders, which is fascinating to hear given how rarely he speaks with the media.
“It starts with the non-negotiable items,” said Clark. “I really have two...you play the most critical role on the team — I think we can all agree that is often the case for the goaltending position — and so it would only make sense that you’re going to be our hardest worker. It would make no sense whatsoever for the guy that plays that critical role not to be the team’s hardest worker.
“The same goes for competitiveness. I expect them to be the fiercest competitor on the team; I expect them to be the hardest worker.”
“When I sit down with a goalie, they have to embrace those ideals,” he added, “and everything else for me is essentially up for negotiation. But those two are not.”
Clark said that Demko embraced those ideals as a backup goaltender after years of being the go-to guy in junior and college hockey, putting in the work that has helped him develop into the goaltender he is now. With Matt Sekeres and Blake Price, he talked about Demko’s willingness to work and how grateful he was to hear Demko go to bat for him in the media.
“He has certainly, for lack of a better phrase, put his nose to the grindstone to really go on that journey,” said Clark, then laughed as he added. “I'm a bit of a taskmaster when it comes to these things and certainly he has bought in fully, so to hear him say those words, especially when I grind them the way I do, it's always nice to hear those sentiments.”
"Your job as a goalie is to inspire the group."
Further on the philosophy side, Clark also talked about how a goaltender needs to also lead the rest of his team and give them confidence. He said that the goaltender is essentially the captain for every top team, even if they don’t necessarily need the label.
“Your job as a goalie is to inspire the group,” said Clark. “That means, obviously, making key saves in key moments. That means, obviously, to the best of your ability, playing mistake-free goal. That means always having great body language out there where you're never sort of shifting or deflecting responsibility from your role.
“You're the only guy responsible for stopping pucks and stopping them from going across the goal line and I don't have a problem putting that pressure on them. If they can't handle that pressure, they really they shouldn't be in the business.”
That’s been a regular theme in post-game interviews for both Markstrom and Demko. At no point did they even insinuate that a goal might be someone else’s fault. Despite frequently facing both a high quantity and high quality of shots against, both goaltenders always laid the responsibility for stopping each and every shot at their own feet.
"To be elite is a lifestyle choice."
In many ways, taking responsibility for every goal is a reflection of a goaltender's competitiveness. They need to believe that they can stop every single puck and not just in games.
“You're either a full-time competitor or competitiveness does not exist within you,” said Clark. “So it all starts in practice. At the end of the day, when your goaltender is extremely hard to beat in practice — which our goaltenders are and their teammates will tell you that — that's where it starts.
“It's not just a habit thing but so many other parts of goaltending come out of the instinctive ability, the ability to find a creative solution in a difficult moment, maybe making a save you only ever make once in your life. It's a body position that somehow you contort to find a solution in that difficult moment and you might only ever do that once in your life, like how do you create that when you only do it once?
“Normally, repetition is the mother of all skill...but in this case, we're only going to do that once in our life, so how do we create that? Well, It all comes from that [competitiveness].”
Perhaps that’s why the Canucks skaters cheer so loudly when one of them scores a goal in practice because their goaltenders are so hard to beat.
“To be elite is a lifestyle choice,” said Clark. “It's an all-the-time thing that you have to live and breathe. You have to make decisions away from the ice, you have to be able to close the door on whatever took place today in a manner that's going to allow you to open it tomorrow with renewed vigor and spirit, and to bring it all again that next day.
“It is an incredible, all-encompassing thing to become one of the best in the goaltending position.”
The Canucks are hoping that Demko, under Clark’s tutelage, will be one of the best for the next five years.