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Watch out: Connor Clifton to fill void in defense left by graduating seniors
The summer before Connor Clifton’s senior year of high school, he was an ice hockey player for the New Jersey Hitmen with his brother, Tim. He had plans to play for the Hitmen, live at home and finish his senior year at the Christian Brothers Academy – but his plans changed.
He was invited to try out for the U.S. National Under-18 Team in the beginning of August and had less than a month to pack his things and leave.
Though Clifton was not invited to tryouts for the U-17 team the year before, he was asked to play in a few games near the end of the season. The scouting and coaching staffs liked what they saw and knew he was the one they wanted.
They offered him a full-time spot on the U.S. National Under-18 Team for the 2012-13 season.
Not only did Clifton play on the national development team, but he also played on Team USA in the Men’s Under-18 World Championship in Sochi, Russia in August. His team secured a silver medal, losing to Canada in the gold-medal game.
Team USA may have lost the gold, but Clifton won big – gaining national exposure to NHL scouts and valuable experience playing the game he loves.
“We saw him really become better aware of his assets and better aware of how to use them within the game,” said Don Granato, head coach of the national development team. “He’s about as strong a player on his skates as there will be in college hockey, as a freshman.”
Clifton improved in his confidence and ability as a defenseman while playing for the national development team, Granato said, noting his attack and intensity on the ice.
“[Clifton is] an aggressive player,” he said. “He really takes a lot of initiative in situations. He’s very determined, very, very strong on his skates.”
The U-18 team played 15 games against Division I teams in the 2012-13 season, giving Clifton the opportunity to face players he will see again this year now that he has joined Quinnipiac in the ECAC.
“The other team knows when he’s on the ice, they could get hurt,” Granato said. “They watch him. I think he makes people think twice about coming down his side … [He’s an] important player to watch and an intimidating player to play against.”
Clifton’s intimidation factor and experience with these teams will serve him well in the fast-paced college games at Quinnipiac, according to Quinnipiac men’s ice hockey assistant coach Bill Riga.
“He’s not going to be rattled by crowds or tough situations and environments because he’s been there before,” Riga said. “The pace of the game, the speed and the strength … that won’t catch him by surprise. He’ll be able to come in right away and pick up where he left off.”
Riga alludes to simple math when calculating Clifton’s chances of playing this season, as the four defensemen who played in nearly every game last year – Loren Barron, Mike Dalhuïsen, Zack Currie and Zach Davies – have graduated.
“Three [defensemen] are coming back that played at all last year, so he’s probably going to come in right away,” Riga said. “He’ll be a big part of our D-core from start to finish … and chip in offensively when he can.”
Clifton is more than ready to step into his role on the team.
“We’ve got to work with each other,” Clifton said. “So we all make each other better, and that’s what will make the team better.”
Yet while he plays for Quinnipiac, he still hopes to play in the World Junior Ice Hockey Championships either this year or next year.
“It’s definitely a privilege wearing the USA logo,” he said.