Adam Clendening allowed himself a pity party for about 24 hours last year before going back to work. Of course, it would have been incredible. How many Western New Yorkers ever had a chance to play in the World Junior Championships when they were held in Buffalo?
Clendening would have been the first but instead experienced a different first. For the first time in his career, the defenseman failed to make a hockey team. He was part of the final round of U.S. cuts days before the 20-under tournament began in First Niagara Center (then HSBC Arena) and Niagara University.
Seeing the dream temporarily derailed was especially tough for a kid who lists Niagara Falls as his hometown. (He's actually from Wheatfield and spent his freshman year attending Niagara-Wheatfield High). In the end, he came away a stronger person and better player after a lesson about overcoming adversity.
"Obviously, the day they tell you that you're going home is never the best day," Clendending said last week by telephone. "It was one day that hit me. I was like, 'Oh [shoot], I can't play in front of my family.' But it was a learning experience. I played my game and thought I played real well, but I just wasn't on the good end of it."
Looking back, it was little more than a pothole. Clendening is expected to be a key member of the U.S. team in the WJC this year in Calgary and Edmonton. The best amateur hockey tournament on the planet starts Monday. The United States, which won the bronze medal in Buffalo a year ago, is again among the favorites.
Clendening, now 19 and a slick-passing sophomore at Boston University, officially made the team last week. He had been on USA Hockey's fast track, which included two years in its development program and going to high school in Ann Arbor, Mich. He helped the U.S. to its second straight gold medal last season in the under-18 world championships, tying for the team lead with 10 points.
The world juniors are a different beast.
"All the veteran guys that are here say the same thing: it goes by so quick and it's such a fun experience and just embrace each moment," he said. "That's exactly what I'm going to do. We're all expecting the fans to be on the opposite side of us, but it should be a fun environment either way."
It will be wild.
The WJC isn't a hockey tournament in Canada so much as a religious experience. Thousands of Canadians made the pilgrimage to Buffalo last year before heading home following a stunning loss to Russia in the gold-medal game. The tourney has grown every year in U.S. hockey cities, especially Buffalo. The NHL Network will carry 15 games.
Zack Kassian, Marcus Foligno, Brayden Schenn and Ryan Johansen are among the Team Canada players who played in the WJC and jumped to the NHL this season. Jeremy Morin, Kyle Palmieri and Justin Faulk are among the Americans who already have played in the NHL. Others made similar leaps from Europe.
Clendening, now 19, was a second-round pick of the Blackhawks last season and could someday join Morin, who is from Auburn, and South Buffalo's Patrick Kane, who scored nine points in seven WJC games in 2009 and was picked first overall several months later. The storybook career is still very much intact. He's hoping it will include a chapter that has him winning gold in the WJC and -- who knows? -- a fairytale ending in the NHL.
"You reflect on that every day," he said. "It's part of your end goal -- play college hockey and play in this tournament. A lot of our guys that have played in this tournament have had some time in the NHL. I'm only a little bit away. I'm getting better. We'll see how soon I can get there."
Cunneyworth's French lesson
Canadiens owner Geoff Molson should have understood francophone fans wanted a French-speaking coach before he hired interim Randy Cunneyworth, but I'll bet the language barrier would be less of an issue if the new man behind the bench had a history of success in the NHL.
Cunneyworth walked into an inferno after taking over for Jacques Martin, becoming the first Habs coach in decades who did not speak fluent French. Bilingual fans had a good laugh when French newspaper Le Journal de Montreal's headline blared "Another Loss For Cunneyworth" in English after the Habs lost their first two games under him.
He had plans to learn French, but it's not going to matter. He'll be replaced after the season by someone who speaks fluent French, even if it means the next coach will have an inferior resume. Cunneyworth spent seven seasons behind the bench in Rochester. He guided Hamilton to a 44-27-2-7 record and into the conference finals last season. In between, he was an assistant coach for two seasons in Atlanta.
The problem isn't coaching. It's the roster. The Habs entered the weekend 25th in scoring, 29th in power play and had the second-worst record when scoring the first goal. They were thin on defense, had a lack of overall depth and mediocre goaltending.
Watch your tongue
Devils goalie Martin Brodeur, for years a Hall of Fame quote, chimed in last week when reporters in New Jersey asked about the HBO series "2 4/7 Road to the Winter Classic" that's become a major hit in hockey circles.
"I'm not a big fan of the [foul] language," Brodeur said. "It happens, but it's kind of over the top a little bit to me. People swearing all the time. I know it is what it is. I've been doing it for 19 years now. But that's one thing I don't enjoy about it because my kids are watching it.
"It's a good thing to show how hard three weeks of hockey is and what guys have to go through the travel, the hotels, the games, the stitches, the treatment, the concussion with [Claude] Giroux. It gives you an unbelievable perspective."
Staal needs to produce
Hurricanes center Eric Staal bawled out himself after a rough game last week in a 4-3 loss to Phoenix after Carolina blew a 3-1 lead. Staal was minus-3 and was held without a point for the third straight game.
"No excuse," Staal said. "I've got to be better than I was and be there for our team, and be a guy to step up in a situation when things don't go your way [and] you need someone to score a big goal and make a big play. We need guys to step up, guys like me, guys who have been here a while and played in the league to perform in a game like that."
Staal had two goals and nine points in his first seven games under new coach Kirk Muller before the three-game drought. He had five goals and 11 points in 24 games under former coach Paul Maurice.
Arniel safe, for now
Blue Jackets GM Scott Howson gave coach Scott Arniel a vote of confidence but stopped short of guaranteeing his job. Columbus has a 9-20-6 record after management spent the summer trying to build a playoff team.
For weeks, there's been speculation that Arniel is headed for the exit.
"Coaching is not an issue on this team as to where we are right now," said Howson, whose own job could be in jeopardy. "The players have to take it upon themselves to play better. We're all struggling through this, players included. This is not easy."
Arniel, who blew off the media except the Columbus Dispatch after a 6-5 loss to Nashville last week, previously said he speaks with Howson every day but hadn't heard anything from him or anyone else in upper management. Arniel also wasn't looking for reassurance, also known as the kiss of death.
"I don't want somebody to tell me that," Arniel said. "I've been in this business long enough. What does it mean? It's like telling a player you're never going to trade them. Then you see what happens."
Kings winger Dustin Brown, on the difference between professorial former coach Terry Murray and his in-your-face replacement, Darryl Sutter: "After we played poorly [under Murray] we'd come in and watch video of how we played poorly, whereas, from what I gather [under Sutter], I don't think we'll be watching video."
Around the boards
Oilers center Eric Belanger, who signed a three-year deal worth $5.25 million last summer, had one goal in 34 games this season. He's never had 20 goals in a season, but he also never had fewer than 13 in which he played at least 65 games. "I'm never going to be a 50-goal scorer," he said, "but I am better than a one-goal scorer."
Jarome Iginla, on the other hand, is a scorer. He had 13 goals this season and was three shy of 500 for his 15-year career with the Flames. He had 28 goals or more in 12 consecutive seasons and 30 or more in 10 straight. He had four 40-goal seasons and twice reached 50. He has 28 goals in 54 playoff games. "I'd like to keep going," he said.
Former Bruins great Phil Esposito will be the next Hall of Fame player with a statue in his honor. Espo is being honored next weekend by the Lightning, the team he founded. "I'm not a crier but I'll be emotional," he said. "This is a big deal. Like my number  being retired in Boston, this will be there forever. That makes me feel great."
Daniel Alfredsson skated into the weekend looking for his 400th career goal. This season could be his last. Alfredsson, 40, has spoken about retiring. "I love what I do," he said. "The tough thing is the travel, the physical part of waking up sore and not feeling as eager to practice some days as others."