- Scott Burnside, NHL
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- It's the spring of 2010. Rich Clune is sitting on the Los Angeles Kings' bench in the first round of the playoffs as the Kings take on the Vancouver Canucks.
The Toronto native is in the NHL. He's on "Hockey Night in Canada." He's living the dream.
Except his legs are cramping up because he's not sleeping and he's not eating properly; he hasn't for a long time, in fact.
The perpetual drinking and the other drugs have sapped him of his strength and conditioning and, worse, his desire to play the game. And in the moment that should have been a cherished memory for life, burnished to a healthy glow to be remembered with pride and shared with children and grandchildren, Clune is instead filled with disgust and self-loathing at what his life had become, what he had become.
"Here was every kid's dream, and I wished I was anywhere else," Clune recalled. "I was so disgusted with myself. I was just so emotionally bankrupt.
"When I got called up, I didn't even want to be at the rink anymore," Clune said during a lengthy interview in a Nashville restaurant. "I was finally in a place I'd dreamed of being, and I was like, oh no, I can't go there. I need to restart. I couldn't wait for the season to be over."
On this day a vibrant, well-spoken Clune sports a nasty cut across the bridge of his nose courtesy of Kings defenseman Drew Doughty from a recent game.
In a game shortly after the end of the lockout, Doughty's teammate Mike Richards caught Clune with an elbow that knocked out four of Clune's lower teeth, the fragments of which ended up going down Clune's throat.
He's been wearing a protective shield over his jaw until recently and, with the Predators' heavy road schedule, Clune has just recently moved into an apartment. He jokes that his closest non-hockey friend in his new home city might be his dentist.
Clune smiles easily, and the implication is clear, that these battles are, relatively speaking, easy to fight. These are wounds that are, relatively speaking, easy to heal.
And if it's possible to be delighted with a little dental work or a nasty gash on the nose, then a clean and sober Clune is as happy as a clam.
After that series against the Canucks almost three years ago, there was one more bender, a team trip to Las Vegas.
Back in Los Angeles, alone, unhappy and unhealthy Clune decided he had had enough, decided he couldn't go on; not just in terms of hockey, not just in terms of pursing the dream of being a professional athlete, but could not go on. Period.
So he called the only people he felt could help him, the only people with whom he could share his burden: his parents.
"Help me, please," he said from miles away.
It is a moment no one in the Clune family will ever forget. It is a moment that changed everything, changed all of them.
"Was I scared? For sure. Absolutely," said his mother, Anne Marie Clune.
She had seen her son on television, the close-up of his face on the bench, a face that did not look like the son she remembered, certainly not the face she had helped move into a Nashville apartment less than two months earlier.
"I was, of course, devastated. Of course, I felt terrible guilt. What did I do to cause this in my son?" said Anne Marie, the chief talent officer for The Talent Co. in Toronto.
But when that initial shock passed, Anne Marie Clune and her husband, Tom -- one of the founders of a successful Toronto marketing agency and currently the COO of marketing company Capital C -- Anne Marie's parents, her younger sister and Clune's two younger brothers joined in the process of getting Clune the help he needed and ensuring that he found the life he was seeking.
Clune was 2 when he first picked up a foam hockey stick.
"He just loved it," his mother recalled.
He learned to skate when he was 5; his father, Tom, a former college hockey player, made it a condition of his agreeing to help teach skating to other kids in their East End neighborhood that his oldest son could join him on the ice.
Tom Clune is a graduate of St. Michael's College in Toronto, a private school with a long and storied hockey tradition. Clune and his father used to watch junior hockey games together, and Clune became enamored with a young player named Sean Avery. Scrappy, fast, fearless -- those were the qualities of Avery's game Clune would admire and, in some ways, would try to emulate as he began to excel at the game in his early teens.
"Richard always had this fire in his eyes with every sport," his mother said.
Although his parents and agent Bobby Orr felt Clune should consider college as an option, once scouts began to follow Clune's progress through the Toronto minor hockey system, he was determined to play junior hockey in Canada.
And so, at 16, Clune headed off to Sarnia to play for the Ontario Hockey League's Sting.
Tom and Anne Marie Clune agreed to allow Clune, a top-notch student, to move away from home provided he agree to a contract with three conditions: do well in school, keep your nose clean and pursue a post-secondary education.
Clune agreed, and for a time those conditions were met.
In his second year in Sarnia, 2004-05, Clune was named the OHL's scholastic player of the year.
That season also saw Clune selected to play on Canada's under-18 team that earned a silver medal at a tournament in the Czech Republic. He also was asked to compete for Canada at another international tournament later that summer. By that time, the Dallas Stars had made him the 71st pick of the 2005 draft.
It's hard to imagine life being any better for a teenage boy anywhere, let alone one in Canada. And yet, as all the tumblers that would open the door to a successful NHL career -- a successful life -- seemed to click into place, Clune found himself charting a course down a darker, self-destructive path that would nearly cost him everything.
How he hit bottom
Clune first got drunk at 13. Even then, he understood that, although he enjoyed the sensation, it wasn't something he should be doing. It would take him a decade or so to come to grips with those conflicting emotions: the guilt and shame that came from abusing alcohol, and later other drugs, and the overriding desire to keep doing it.
Made captain of the Sting before the 2005-06 season, Clune spent more and more time drinking, hanging out at bars. He broke curfew regularly to pursue his party lifestyle. Often, he and some teammates would cut school to begin drinking early in the day.
Although he continued to put up decent offensive numbers, he was unhappy.
"I had all this positive stuff that I had going for me," he said. "I was always a happy-go-lucky guy, but I started walking around with a chip on my shoulder."
Maybe he was tired of trying to live up to expectations. Maybe he was, in his own way, rebelling.
"That's when the drinking really started to pick up," he said. "I pretty much made friends with all the shady characters in town."
That offseason, he demanded a trade, creating nonexistent issues as a rationale for team management, his agents, his family.
"I put the team in an awful position," Clune said.
Steven Stamkos was coming to the team, and the Sting were looking to Clune to be a mentor for the young prospect. But instead of being a leader, Clune was increasingly concerned only with himself.
"I was a different player back then. I was kind of selfish. I would never fight to stick up for my teammates. I really had no interest in the team anymore," he said.
Instead he wanted out.
In the vernacular of alcoholics, it's known as "geographical cure," Clune explained, the idea that the problem isn't inside but rather external; that by going somewhere else, things will get better.
In fact, they got worse.
After being traded to Barrie, with which he had played his final year of junior in 2006-07, Clune continued to spiral. At one point, there was an alcohol-related brush with the law. Criminal charges eventually were dropped, but if the incident itself did not bring his problems into focus for Clune, it did for those around him.
He was, he concedes, the extreme junior hockey player: drinking too much, doing other drugs, carousing with women. Although he had the swagger of a young man with a big ego, he suffered from low self-esteem.
"From the outside, you feel you have everything going for you, but inside you're hurting," he explained.
In his one season in Barrie, Clune's production continued to be at odds with his lifestyle. He scored 32 goals and 78 points.
"The more I scored, the more I partied," he said.
He was never late for practices or games. But hungover?
"All the time," he said.
Looking back on those days, Clune shakes his head in wonder that he was able to pull it off physically.
By the end of his junior career, Clune had been kicked out of two billets' homes for misbehavior. Now, sent to the Stars' AHL affiliate in Iowa, he was a professional player living on his own without supervision, hardly a recipe for getting his life back on track, even if he did flirt with the idea several times in the next couple of years.
Clune recalls getting emails from longtime Dallas Stars executive Les Jackson encouraging him to find balance not just in his game but in his life away from the rink.
"I think they could see I was self-imploding," Clune said. "But I never clued in. I was like, 'What is he talking about? Let's talk about my contract.'"
Clune's view of someone who was an alcoholic was always the standard cliché: some homeless man on a park bench. He never saw himself in that way, never connected his own behavior with the disease.
"If I backtrack, there were probably tons of wake-up calls I should have listened to," Clune said.
The long climb up
After two years in the Stars' organization, Clune was dealt to the Los Angeles Kings. When he first chatted with Kings GM Dean Lombardi and assistant GM Ron Hextall, Clune expected the traditional "Glad to have you aboard" speech, but instead the two men warned Clune that there were lots of positives about his game but there were also a bunch of red flags.
The cautionary reception was another blow to Clune's already crumbling self-esteem, another excuse to feel sorry for himself, another excuse to continue his self-destructive behavior.
Although he had intentions of rededicating himself to hockey, to pursuing his dream of being an NHL player, his inability to curb his drinking and his use of other drugs was a powerful counterbalance to whatever remained of those dreams.
He recalls being so hungover or worn down from partying that he could barely stand to get ready for games in Manchester, where he played parts of five seasons.
Some of his teammates stopped talking to him.
He recalls netminder Jonathan Bernier, now the Kings' backup, looking at him with disgust.
"He just said, 'You're a piece of [expletive],'" Clune recalled.
And, really, what was the argument?
Hextall asked Clune whether he needed help, but Clune was too embarrassed to take the offer.
And then, in the face of all that, Clune got his chance, called up to the big leagues.
Maybe it wasn't the textbook epiphany or hitting the bottom, but Clune knew it was wrong, knew he wasn't ready physically and certainly wasn't ready for it mentally.
Needless to say, that call to his parents that followed was as difficult a moment as someone might face.
"I told them exactly what was going on. I knew I had to make a change. It's the most vulnerable I think I've ever felt," Clune said.
He went home and went into treatment first as an in-patient and then as a twice-a-week outpatient. He remains vigilant about his program of sobriety.
Clune is the oldest of three boys. Middle brother Matt is playing in the ECHL for the Ontario (Calif.) Reign and dreams of being a screenwriter.
The youngest Clune brother, Ben, is also an aspiring writer, with whom Matt is working on a series of projects, and is an outfielder playing college baseball at Sewanee of the Southern Athletic Association, not far from Nashville.
For as long as Matt can remember, his older brother has been his hero.
He admits, having visited Rich in California before that phone call home, that his brother wasn't making good decisions. And then, during Rich's rehabilitation, Matt had to come to terms with his own feelings, the idea that somehow he'd been thrust into the role of "older" brother vacated at least temporarily by Rich.
"I think you're kind of in denial at first," Matt Clune said from Bakersfield, Calif., during a weekend road trip. "We were afraid to know the truth about what he was going through because it scared us."
Rich acknowledges that, for a time, the natural order of things was disrupted for his family as he found his way back to sobriety.
"Matt, he was pretty heartbroken at first. I had to earn Matt's trust back again. I think he felt a little betrayed," Rich said.
For his part, Matt feels it was more a case of Rich having to earn back his place as the older brother he and Ben had always looked up to.
From a mother's perspective, this journey -- and can it be described as anything but? -- has given a family back a son and brother but, in doing so, has taken them all to a place that only those families that endure the most difficult of times get to.
She jokes that she doesn't want people to become ill while hearing her gush about her family and the bonds that have been strengthened and redefined as a result of this period, but the pride the entire family feels is obvious, palpable.
"I see it in my boys and it makes my heart sing," Anne Marie said. "We faced a lot together."
"We're as close as a family can get," Rich added. "I can look my family in the eye and I know they love me for who I am."
Clune returned to the Kings' organization for the 2010-11 season, and, although he dreamed of a return to the NHL, it appeared that moment might never happen.
After being put on waivers by the Kings after the lockout, Clune was picked up by the Nashville Predators.
It was Hextall who called and told Clune that he was going to get a chance to play in the NHL again. The former NHL netminder acknowledged that it was a bittersweet moment for him because he had come to see himself as a kind of mentor to Clune and Clune represents the kind of player the Kings like to have in their organization.
"He plays the game hard, and he plays for keeps all the time," Hextall told ESPN.com this week.
Although Hextall will not discuss the specifics of what happened during Clune's time with the Kings, it's clear he is intensely proud of what Clune has accomplished.
"He's worked really, really, really hard" on the mental and physical aspects of his game, Hextall said. "I couldn't be happier for him.
"This is a really good opportunity for him. And that's what I told him."
Clune was upfront with coach Barry Trotz about his past when he joined the Predators. The team has a history of working with players who have dealt with personal issues -- Jordin Tootoo and Brian McGrattan, to name just two -- and Trotz himself is familiar with these kinds of journeys. Trotz's father is a recovering alcoholic who has enjoyed decades of sobriety.
"My dad's gone through that, so I know how tough it is," Trotz told ESPN.com. "And my dad's my biggest hero because I know what he went through."
As for Clune's career, Trotz is challenging the rugged forward not to settle for being a fourth-line thumper.
"I think there's a lot more in his game," Trotz said. "He skates well enough to get around the ice. He seems to have a good sense of the game."
The coach points to Montreal's Brandon Prust, who has evolved into a valuable two-way forward who can play a rugged style and contribute on the penalty kill as well as play with skilled players, as a kind of model for Clune.
As if to prove Trotz's point, Clune's line started a crucial game last week against the Edmonton Oilers; the trio was effective throughout the night with Clune scoring a goal and fighting Edmonton tough guy Mike Brown en route to a 6-0 win. Clune's line started the next game, as well, a game in which Nashville earned a much-needed point against Minnesota in a shootout loss. And then there was the penalty shot goal this week against the team that drafted him, the Stars. His ice time and responsibilities continue to edge northward, and he ranks 21st in the league in hits.
Every day a beginning
Matt Clune had a chance to catch up with his brother during an early western road trip by the Predators. He sat down near the ice level for the pregame skate in Anaheim, watching for the first time in person as his older brother stepped onto the ice in an NHL jersey. Rich was the last player out of the Predators' locker room, and Matt marveled as he saw him skating with Shea Weber and Pekka Rinne, sharing the ice with Teemu Selanne and Saku Koivu.
"There're really no words to describe the feeling," Matt said. "It was one of the best moments of my life."
At the end of the warm-up, Rich grinned at his younger brother and tossed him a puck, then he later got an assist.
A couple of nights later, Matt Clune was again in attendance at Staples Center, where the Predators took on the Kings. This time, Matt's view of his brother was somewhat different, less in awe, the situation somehow less surreal.
"It was more like: This is my brother's job; he belongs here," Matt said.
A strong Christian, Matt believes his brother's journey and his ability to deal with his problems are a sign.
"For me, this is God's hand at work," Matt said.
It's been almost three years, and Clune feels comfortable enough in his own skin now that he's willing to share his story. Although his is the story of a man who nearly threw away a professional hockey career but got it back, he is hopeful that anyone reading this -- boy, girl, athlete or not, young, old -- will perhaps gain the courage to ask for help, courage it took Clune a long time to find.
The interesting thing is that Clune wasn't looking to make a change to save his career; he was looking to make a change to save his life, to become a human being again. But a byproduct of getting healthy has been that Clune has rediscovered his love for the game.
Even as he puts less pressure on himself to be someone or do something, he has found he is far more dedicated to the game.
"I'm just trying to stay in the moment and enjoy every moment," he said. "I never did that before.
"There's something inside of me no one can touch. I have that peace of mind now."
Three years ago, Nashville's Rich Clune's boozing and drug use pushed him to rock bottom, Scott Burnside writes. Which makes his recovery all the more remarkable.