For many Kingston hockey fans Chris Clifford’s goal in January 1986 is the standalone moment from 45-plus years of OHL hockey in the Limestone City. I share that view, followed closely by another game involving the Toronto Marlboros, the 1975 epic playoff series where Mark Napier scored a goal that still hasn’t gone in, or the 1990 playoff game in Belleville that went four extra periods before the Bulls ended it.
On the night they raised Clifford’s number-29 banner at the Leon’s Centre it’s easy to remember the ‘good old days’ of the Kingston Canadians era, until we remind you that chapter for the franchise ended with 28 consecutive losses in 1988. All that was forgotten on Friday night with the focus on Clifford and the Frontenacs wearing Kingston Canadians uniforms for the first time in over three decades. Kudos to the Fronts for a perfectly executed, emotional pre-game ceremony. It hit all the right notes and Clifford, as you would expect, was gracious, humble and genuinely touched by the honour. The home side rose to the occasion playing inspired hockey in their new red-blue-and-white jersey’s rolling over the Peterborough Petes 7-2.
On that cold January night in 1986, 1,200 fans were at the Memorial Centre to see the Canadians and Toronto Marlboros when Clifford made history with a huge assist from Mike Maurice. He became the first goaltender in the Canadian Hockey League to score a goal into an empty Toronto net. I was calling the game on the radio with Jim Gilchrist and had ducked out with about 2 minutes remaining to head back downtown to the TV station to prepare the sports for the 11 o’clock news. I heard the roar from the parking lot and found myself two-minutes and 100-yards away from witnessing hockey history. The next morning, Jim Tatti, the popular co-host of Global TV’s Sportsline show was on the phone wanting the video. The game wasn’t televised, CKWS-TV wasn’t there shooting the game and the only video that existed was the in-house video from the Canadians. It wasn’t great footage, but we shipped it to Toronto on a Voyageur bus where it aired on Global TV and ultimately on TV stations across North America. That Saturday the OHL Game of the Week was aired from Belleville and Clifford made an appearance on the broadcast where of course the video of his historic one-handed, backhand goal was played.
In my 30-years broadcasting OHL hockey, I had the opportunity to meet and interview hundreds of players. A handful stood out as people you knew would be successful wherever life took them. Clifford was among them. Thoughtful, articulate, insightful, and reflective, interviewing Chris was never a string of typical hockey cliches. He’s always had that appealing, humble, ‘aw-shucks’ demeanour that is rare among elite athletes. Clifford had a brief stint in the NHL with Chicago, didn’t allow a goal in two relief appearances (and stopped the legendary Gilbert Perreault on a breakaway). Chicago had two other future Hall of Fame goalie prospects; Eddie Belfour and Dominik Hasek (who would be traded to Buffalo) and Clifford spent seven seasons riding the buses in the minors for Chicago and Pittsburgh. He chipped away at university correspondence courses before quitting pro hockey to return home to Kingston and ultimately earned his law degree at Queen’s. Today, Clifford and Ted Bergeron run one of the most successful personal injury law practices in Southern Ontario and they generously volunteer and support many local charities giving back to our community in a significant way. For Clifford, the historic goal is just a footnote in a long list of successes. In life there may be ‘no parade at the end’, but occasionally along the journey one of the really good guys is properly recognized and a banner is raised in his honour. No one is more deserving or appreciative than Kingston’s number 29.
Mark Potter is the Past President of the Original Hockey Hall of Fame and a longtime sports broadcaster. He broadcast Kingston Canadians hockey through the 1980’s.