Coach’s Corner: Introducing Clarke Saunders
For Clarke Saunders it was almost certain that he’d be coming back to his roots at North Vancouver Minor Hockey Association (NVMHA).
The now 23-year-old played with North Vancouver Minor from the age of five to 18. And now, hot off the tails of being the 2022-23 recipient of Rookie Coach of the Year, he’s entering his third season of coaching.
Recently, we were fortunate enough to chat with Clarke and hear more about his experience playing NVMHA as a kid and, eventually, how he began his coaching career.
Clarke’s playing career with NVMHA
Clarke’s story began similar to many others. From a young age, he grew up and was immersed in the sport of hockey. In fact, you can find pictures of him as a toddler, wearing diapers and hockey equipment.
“I’ve been around the sport almost my whole life,” Clarke tells North Vancouver Minor. “I was a big fan of the Canucks when I was younger. For any of the older readers, Dan Cloutier was my favourite goalie for the Vancouver Canucks and I would freak out whenever he made a save.”
His first ever game included another familiar rite of passage — he was so excited to get on the ice that he forgot to take his skate guards off. Fortunately, he quickly learned after that. His playing career with North Vancouver Minor would include playing or both the “C” program and the rep program, during which he made lifelong friends.
“When I first joined the rep program, I had a great tryout,” he says. “I made the A1 working group and then was double cut to A3, which was a learning experience for me. But it turns out that A3 team was the beast year of my life — I met lifelong friends and coaches that I’m still in contact with. And, funny enough, U13 A3 ended up being the first team that I coached with North Vancouver Minor.”
Rejoining North Vancouver Minor as a coach
Clarke’s first job was teaching skating at the West Vancouver Rec Centre. He was also involved in the centre’s hockey program, which is where he met North Vancouver Minor’s James Wall and Jon Thompson. After several months of working together, he was asked by Jon if he would be interested in coaching at NVMHA — and he happily agreed.
“For me, it had always been on my bucket list to be a part of the association that was so kind to me as a kid,” he explained. “So it was a no brainer, basically.”
Clarke’s first role was in 2021, where he was assistant coach to Jon Thompson of the U13 A3 team — the same team that he began playing rep hockey with. And in 2022, he stepped up as head coach of the U11 A2 team, taking on another challenge entirely.
“There were some learning curves at first but once we got into the swing of things, I was just really lucky to have the group that I did,” he stressed. “The group of kids and the group of parents and support around me was really, really essential in making sure that season went well.”
One of the biggest things he had to learn, when making the jump to head coach, was learning how to better work with the players and trying to balance being carefree or more serious. He also credited the team’s assistant coaches and team manager.
“My biggest shoutout has to be to three people,” Clarke says. “Jason English, Grant MacIntosh, and Erin Dermer.”
“Jason and Grant were elected to be assistant coaches. And to have this young guy step on to the bench as head coach, they were nothing but helpful. Jason’s energy was just incredible and Grant’s knowledge and overall love for the game was really infections to me and the kids. Jason had a joke that our bench had 300 years of combined experience and it really showed, because whenever there were gaps in my knowledge, they were there to help.”
“Erin was our manager, she basically kept us in check while travelling for work, so just an incredible person and incredible manager. And just all around, the team itself was made of such great families. Everyone was able to buy into my seasonal plan and just make sure that we were staying positive, even if we were on the losing end of games.”
Another challenge for Clarke was deciding the direction that the team would take and whether to focus more on developing individual player skills versus working on systems and team strategies. Ultimately, he prioritized the development of the players over winning. And despite some early season struggles, the plan paid off in spades.
“As the season progressed, and later in the season when we did more work on systems, it became apparent that investing that time into the development of players was really paying off because we were starting to beat teams that we were losing to earlier in the season,” he said happily.
His season with the U11 A2 team ended on a high note, finishing second in the Final Four — only by a goal differential margin of one.
Clarke added that while winning Rookie Coach of the Year was completely unexpected, it also hit close to home.
“At the beginning of the season, if you’d asked me if I’d be winning an award for my performance as a coach, I’d tell you that you’re crazy,” he laughed. “But this Rookie Coach of the Year Award is really special to me because 10 years ago, when I played on the U13 A3 team that I mentioned before, my coach that year also won Rookie Coach of the Year.”
What’s up next
So what’s up next for Clarke?
For the 2023-24 season, he’ll once again be coaching the U11 A2 team and is looking forward to another amazing year.
“This group is hilarious,” he says. “Lots of great kids.”
“The seasonal plan hasn’t changed a lot but I encourage my team to do extracurricular activities like attending skill sessions with NVMHA. I’m thinking about setting up a daily puck shooting quota for them. And just trying to rebuild the culture that we established last year and trying to keep that going forward with this team.”
Joining him this year as assistant coach is Xavier Norris — another individual returning to coach NVMHA after a lengthy playing career as a child.
“It’s his first time coaching but so far, he’s having an incredible year and he really embodies the same principles that I do,” Clarke adds. “We still have a ton to learn from these kids, and each other, but I’m looking forward to replicating the success that we had last year.”
Clarke also shared a few words of wisdom for North Vancouver Minor players.
“My advice to any player out there is to listen to anybody that can teach you something,” he explained. “One of my biggest regrets about my playing career is that I didn’t listen enough; I didn’t take in enough information.”
“And just getting to know people, right? If you’re at the rink and you see someone you know, say hi. For the kids especially, get to know the other parents. One of the best parts about our season last year is that a lot of the parents felt like a part of the team.”
Want to learn more about Clarke? Here’s some rapid fire to end things off.
Who’s your favourite NHL player of all time?
What was your favourite hockey stick of all time?
The white CCM RBZ Stage 2.
What number did you wear growing up and why?
Number 21, I thought it was cool and that was my number for the Windsor High School Team.
When it comes to North Vancouver Minor, blue or white jerseys?
That’s a tough one. I love how the white jerseys look with the blue shells, gloves and helmets. But I mean the blues are classics.