Clark leaves club hockey team to pursue firefighting career

By Sean Neumann

In a 17-goal performance against in-state rival Northern Illinois on Dec. 14, the Illini hockey team eventually stopped celebrating as the puck continued to reach the back of the net. But when Kyle Clark lined up a shot from the blue line and sent it flying over the left shoulder of the Huskies goaltender, the Illini bench erupted with cheers and the players on the ice rushed the junior with high-fives and pats on the helmet.

It was just the second goal in Clark’s brief career with Illinois, but the Illini knew it was also his last.

The 20-year-old junior left the Illini hockey team after deciding to transfer to Joliet Junior College this semester to study fire science. From there, Clark said he’s hoping to get into a cadet program near his home town of Minooka, Ill., and begin a career as a firefighter.

But for Clark, starting a new life as a prospective firefighter means hanging up his skates for good.

“It was a tough decision,” Clark said. “I love the team, and I love hanging out with the guys, but the hardest decision of all of this was having to leave hockey.”

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Clark had 26 points in 38 games with the Chicago Hitmen in the Great Lakes Junior Hockey League before joining Eastern Illinois in the 2011-12 season. The defenseman had 12 points in 15 games playing in the ACHA Division-II league with Eastern Illinois before deciding to transfer to Illinois after his freshman year.

Clark had four assists and two goals during his time with the Illini and was an integral part of the team’s defense, having previous collegiate and junior hockey experience.

“We’re definitely going to miss him,” head coach Nick Fabbrini said. “He’s a great guy and brings a lot to the team both on and off the ice.”

The junior defenseman said he focused on what he needed to do for his academic future and then addressed his teammates during a team meeting where he told them he would not be returning to Illinois this semester — something he said was the most difficult part of leaving.

But Clark’s departure from the Illini isn’t simply just a loss for the team on or off the ice. It’s also a grim reminder that each player in the Illinois locker room will one day be forced to walk away from the game they find so central to their lives.

“It was definitely a reality check,” Clark said. “It’s a wake up call that’s says, ‘This ends at some point.’ You’ve just got to enjoy it while you can. Everyone knows it’s coming, but when the day comes, you’re like, ‘Wow.’”

Fabbrini, who traded in his skates and sweater for a suit and a coaching job after the 2007-08 Illini hockey season, understands the weight of Clark’s decision to leave the game. 

“A lot of these guys are not going to be able to play hockey for a living,” Fabbrini said. “As important as hockey is in all of these guys’ lives, they’ve got real-world responsibilities and things they need to take care of.”

Although Clark knew the game on Dec. 14 would be his last, he said it wasn’t difficult for him to take the ice against Northern Illinois.

“I went out there knowing it was my last game, so I just wanted to have some fun,” Clark said. “I was having a blast out there and everyone knew so they were talking to me and hyping me up and everything. It was a great time out there. I loved it.”

Clark’s goal late in the final period of his career as an Illini wasn’t as important as simply being out on the ice one last time, according to the junior.

The defenseman thanked the Illini hockey program for his time with the team and said he plans to visit the Illini when he gets the opportunity.

“It’s definitely always going to have a spot with me,” Clark said of his time with the Illini. “It’s always going to be there with me.”

Illini captain Austin Bostock said it’s a huge loss for the team to head into the second half of the season without Clark in the locker room.

“He’s a great guy and a great teammate,” Bostock said. “He’s there whenever you need him and he’s also a great defenseman. It’s tough to see him go, but obviously he’s got to go his way and we wish him all the best.”

Fabbrini said losing a player midway through the season isn’t ideal for the team, but hopes a couple of D-III players who plan to transfer to the University will be able to fill in the gap left by Clark, such as newcomer Yoshi Shibata — a forward from Hamline University.

Clark informed Fabbrini that the decision to leave the team had nothing to do with the Illini hockey club or the University, but was simply a move he needed to make in order to prepare for life after college.

“He wants to be a fireman and I’m obviously not going to stand in the way of something like that,” Fabbrini said. “Things like that are a reminder that these guys have a lot more going on in their lives than just being at the rink here for a couple of hours a day.”

Sean can be reached at [email protected] and @Neumannthehuman.

Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article had an accompanying image which incorrectly stated that the player was Kyle Clark. The caption should have stated that the player was Mike Evans. The Daily Illini regrets the error.