From The Duluth News Tribune:
Sturgeon Lake native makes NHL debut
BYKevin Pates Duluth News Tribune
March 29, 2008
Clay Wilson of Sturgeon Lake made his debut with the Columbus Blue Jackets on Wednesday, filling in for injured defensemen called up
Wilson was having an all-star season for Columbus' American Hockey League affiliate in Syracuse, N.Y., when he was called up for Tuesday's debut.
Wilson makes his points
The defenseman had a goal and an assist in Wednesday's win over Chicago. "I closed my eyes and the puck went in," Wilson told the News Tribune.
Catching coach's praise
"He has quickness. He's very smart moving forward with the puck " which is not very common in the [NHL]. He seems to be able [to make plays at top speed]. When you see good players come up and play well, it brings enthusiasm to the group," Columbus coach Ken Hitchcock said on the team's Web site.
Wilson, who graduated from Carlton High School in 2001, played Division I hockey at Michigan Tech. After his senior season, he played for the Muskegon (Mich.) Fury of the UHL. He signed an unrestricted free agent contract with Anaheim in 2006, and was later traded to Syrucuse.
While in the Anaheim system, Wilson dabbled at playing forward.
Clay Wilson was bombarded with about 30 phone calls Thursday and about the same number of text messages.
Everyone he knew, it seemed, was calling with congratulations for making it to the big time " the NHL roster of the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Wilson, 24, a 2001 Carlton High School graduate, was called to Columbus, Ohio, on an emergency basis, with two of the team's defensemen injured. He moved up from the American Hockey League affiliate in Syracuse, N.Y., where he was having an all-star season.
He debuted in the NHL in a Tuesday loss at Nashville, had his first points (a goal and an assist) in a Wednesday home win over Chicago and was due to play Friday at home against Nashville.
"To get so many calls just lets you know how many people are rooting for you and want you to succeed,'' Wilson said Thursday from Columbus. "When you're in professional sports you have to be patient, wait for your break and then do the best you can to make an impression.
"It's unbelievable. I came up here not expecting too much, just trying to keep it simple on defense. Luckily, [Thursday] things were going well. Z [forward Nikolai Zherdev] made a nice pass to me in the slot. I closed my eyes and the puck went in. It's just a great feeling. It's something you wait to do your whole life."
Columbus coach Ken Hitchcock told the team's Web site after Wednesday's win: "He's coming out of the American League with some confidence, which is nice to see. There are some things he does that would help a team in the National Hockey League. He has quickness. He's very smart moving forward with the puck " which is not very common in the [NHL]. He seems to be able [to make plays at top speed]. When you see good players come up and play well, it brings enthusiasm to the group."
The road to Columbus has had a few twists and turns for Wilson, who claims Sturgeon Lake as his hometown (population 347). Curt and Cindy, his parents, who are from Sturgeon Lake, lived for a time near Fairbanks, Alaska, before coming back home 10 years ago.
Clay attended Moose Lake High School as a sophomore and played hockey for Moose Lake-Willow River, then played for Cloquet-Esko-Carlton the next two years. He made the 2001 News Tribune All-Area first team and is believed to be the first athlete in Carlton High School history to earn a full NCAA Division I scholarship when he signed with Michigan Tech.
"I remember talking with Clay after his senior year [in high school] and saying, 'If you continue to progress like you have, you'll make it to the NHL some day," said CEC coach Dave Esse. "He's one of the nicest people you'll meet and one of the hardest workers."
Wilson played 148 games with Michigan Tech from 2001-05, two years under coach Mike Sertich, and was named the team's top defenseman twice. After his senior year he went directly to Muskegon (Mich.) of the United Hockey League and helped the Fury win the 2005 playoff title. He also started 2005-06 there and now owns a home in Muskegon.
"I didn't have any expectations when I left Michigan Tech, but winning that championship got me re-energized," Wilson said.
Wilson signed an NHL unrestricted free agent contract with Anaheim in 2006 and at the end of last season, with Portland in the American Hockey League, was told his best chance to make the Mighty Ducks roster would be at left wing. So last summer, for the first time in his life, he prepared to be a forward and played in one Anaheim exhibition last fall and 14 games with Portland.
Then he was traded to Columbus and was back on defense with Syracuse.
"Overall, I don't think that experiment hurt me at all. It helped me to better understand the game," Wilson said.
He's played in 53 games with Syracuse this season with nine goals and 27 assists for 36 points in 53 games, and was named to the American Hockey League All-Star Game.
With Columbus defenseman Ole-Kristian Tollefsen out indefinitely with a cracked neck vertebra and defenseman Kris Russell sidelined by a strained groin, Wilson received the emergency call to play.
"He's worked so hard for this and was certainly hoping that if not this year, then next year he'd get his chance," said Cindy Wilson, an administrative employee in the District 91 office at Barnum High School. "It's always been his dream to wear an NHL jersey, so this week has been a dream come true."
Cindy and Curt Wilson, who owns an auto repair shop, planned to see the Blue Jackets in person Sunday in Chicago, but with just five games left in the regular season, they made a switch and were to be in Columbus on Friday.