Biding one's time

Author: Jonathon Brodie, Recorder.ca
Date: Apr 5, 2017

It took Clarke Saunders less than 30 seconds into his time with the AHL's San Jose Barracuda to get a reminder he's climbed up the hockey ranks.

The realization came at the beginning of his first practice with the team after signing a player tryout agreement earlier this week. There were only a handful of players on the ice for a warmup drill and one of them blew a shot past Saunders' shoulder from the top of the circle.

"For those who don't know, that's definitely a bad goal for a goalie," Saunders laughed while sitting poolside in San Jose on Thursday. "I was welcomed with a hard snapper that beat me, so I zoned in pretty quick that I need to be on my toes at all times."

Messages have poured into Saunders since his move to San Jose. He almost teared up, he said, when he opened his Facebook a few days after the news broke Tuesday and saw all the messages of support, overwhelmed by the amount of people rooting for him to succeed.

"Thank you to everyone who has sent me a message. Might only take a couple seconds out of your day but it means the world to me," Saunders wrote in a Twitter message he sent in reply to all the kind comments.

It hasn't fully hit the 27-year-old Brockville netminder he's in the AHL. He didn't 't think he would completely realize the magnitude of his accomplishment of being one step away from his boyhood dream of becoming an NHL goalie until he stepped on the ice for his first AHL game.

Saunders was given his first AHL start Saturday with the Barracudas winning 6-3 over the Manitoba Moose. Saunders made 32 saves in the process.

The fact he even got that one game, though, is a feat of its own. Just over a year ago Saunders was sitting in Brockville with plans to step away from the game. It's maybe that brief hiatus that helped pave his way to getting a tryout with the Barracuda.

The former Brockville Brave finished his first season in the ECHL admittedly bitter he didn't get any opportunities to join the AHL ranks by the end of the 2014-15 season with the Colorado Eagles. Saunders took some time off from the sport, the first time he had been away from playing the game since signing up for it as a kid.

For anyone who knows Saunders, though, if he can physically play the game then he wasn't going to turn his back on something he's loved his whole life. He returned to the Eagles midway through the 2015-16 season and was there at the beginning of this current season.

"I think I stopped playing for the wrong reasons and I realized that. Nothing is handed to you in this sport or any sport for that matter. You really got to work for those opportunities," Saunders said. "It's a grind playing in the ECHL and if anyone says otherwise they're lying. It's a lot mentally and getting this opportunity has given me some new hope and I'm excited for it."

You could somewhat say Saunders is playing with reckless abandon. He's been on the other side without hockey and learned what it was like. Life with hockey - especially when you're sitting poolside in San Jose - is a lifestyle the all-time winningest goalie in Braves history is more accustomed to.

Saunders has posted a 28-7-1-1 record in Colorado, while earning three shutouts, a 2.60 goals against average (fifth in the ECHL) and a .913 save percentage (ninth in ECHL) - all of those numbers are ECHL career bests for him in three seasons in the league.

Saunders credited his Eagles team, which is currently ranked third in the ECHL's Western Conference, for being a spark plug for his surge with the squad's high level of skill boosting him to new heights.

"There's a lot of guys on that team that deserve to be here that might not be at the moment," Saunders said.

If you anyone understands biding one's time it's the man who made that statement.

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