When Kelowna Minor Hockey product Kyle Clerke walks into Rutland Arena these days, his mindset is a little different than any other of his 15 or so years of playing hockey.
The 20-year-old captain of the Kelowna Chiefs is having another strong season as is his hockey team, which sits just four points out of first place in the KIJHL’s Okanagan Division.
As a 20-year-old, Clerke is now partway through his final season of junior hockey. And he’s trying take it all in and enjoy the ride.
“For me personally what that means is every time I come to the rink I’m just soaking it in and taking in every moment because this may be my last year of hockey and I want to make it a memorable one,” he said. “It comes with responsibility as well on and off the ice. Being that older guy that the younger guys look up to.”
So far this season Clerke is doing his best to lead the Chiefs back to the promised land of the playoffs, where last year the team made it all the way to the KIJHL championship.
In 25 games, Clerke has 11 goals and 19 assists for the Chiefs. But according to head coach Ken Andrusiak, it’s his leadership skills that are making the big impact.
“He’s got that passion you need from a leader,” said Andrusiak. “He works hard, he loves the game and he’s a good example for everybody on our team. It rubs off on the younger guys.”
Clerke says he learned a lot from last year’s veteran players on the Chiefs, specifically James McEwan and Landon Andrusiak, about being a leader. And he is relishing the role of wearing the C.
“As soon as I came in I wanted to have that role,” he said. “I’ve always liked it. I enjoy taking on the responsibility of being a leader.”
The Chiefs head into a busy weekend this weekend, playing three games in three nights as they host Osoyoos on Friday and Princeton on Saturday at Rutland Arena before traveling to Penticton on Sunday for an afternoon game against the Lakers.
After losing in the league final last season, Clerke says this year’s team has a chance to get back to the final and win it all.
“We’re back in the same position as last year if not even better,” he said. ‘We have lots of experience on this team as well as some really good young players that are on their way up. We have our goalie back from last year and we’re right in the mix.”
As a 20-year-old, Clerke is also taking time to plan for his future. He has always wanted to become a firefighter and is taking carpentry courses at Okanagan College this year, looking to acquire a trade as he starts thinking about his future away from the game of hockey.
He won’t rule out playing somewhere next year if an offer comes about, but is also realistic that his last year of junior may be a turning of the page for his life. And winning a championship would be the best ending to his junior hockey career that he could think of.
“It’s on my mind every time I go to the rink or go to the gym…I just want to have that last memory from this year,” said Clerke, who like a good captain, is also thinking of everyone else on the team. “Winning it all would be just amazing. We have a good group of guys. It would be good for the young guys to move them along because a winning team always helps move guys to the next level.”