Kings left wing Kyle Clifford may have an enforcer's reputation,… (Alan Diaz / Associated Press )
Hockey players always remember the key firsts: First goal. First assist. First fight?
"It was like probably when I was 12 years old," said Kings left wing Kyle Clifford.
"It was a guy named Steele from Florida. He didn't drop his gloves, but I fought him anyway. I don't know his first name. He was an American guy … so it was good."
Naturally, Clifford's fighting debut against young Mr. Steele isn't anywhere to be found on hockeyfights.com since he was, after all, only 12. But his vintage scraps against the heart of the Ontario Hockey League when he was a junior player and every tussle in the NHL have been duly recorded.
But whereas so many tough guys came and left the NHL and never got much better, that has not been the case with Clifford, taken by the Kings in the second round of the 2009 draft. What makes him intriguing to the Kings is his potential to bloom into a top six forward. In terms of upside, a good comparison might be Todd Bertuzzi in his prime, a player who could use his hands not just to fight, but also to score.
When Kings Coach Darryl Sutter was the general manager in Calgary, Clifford was on the Flames' draft radar in 2009.
"Character, courage, those things were always high on his list," Sutter said.
OK, like a Sutter then, right?
"Everybody said if his skating improved he'd be a good player," Sutter said. "I think he'll grow into that. Probably a lot of organizations need a player to spend the whole year in the American [Hockey] League."
But Clifford jumped over that traditional step and surprised many observers by making the Kings' roster last season. He turned 21 on Jan. 13 and turned more than a few heads with his Gordie Howe hat trick against Ottawa 10 days later, recording a goal, an assist and a fight.
(That won him a steakhouse bet with teammate and enforcer Kevin Westgarth.)
Clifford has four goals, 10 points and 85 penalty minutes in 55 games, and three of his goals have come in the last 13 games.
"The [puck] pursuit that Darryl has put in here probably fits him more — go, go, go," said Kings President and General Manager Dean Lombardi. "I think we're starting to see the learning curve go up.
"He would be able to take a punch in junior and just never quit. He'd kill a lot of guys at the end because he's just relentless. Now at this level, you've got to be a little more tactical. He worked on some of that this summer. He's got a lot of respect in this league at a very young age."
Clifford will look at his fight videos, not for reliving glory or relishing a take down but as a teaching tool.
"I'll look back and learn from things, from mistakes and see what I can do better," he said. "But as far as the fame part about it, it's not something I go look at and oh, I had this many."
"You find out when the good times are to fight. I learned that early in junior. One thing is to stick up for your teammates and another is creating energy for your team."
Clifford is aware that the path to a long and productive career in the NHL will require him to be more than a feared fighter. To that end, he has modeled his game after players such as Ottawa's Chris Neil, Boston's Milan Lucic and even Bertuzzi.
"You just look at them and see certain areas of their game and I think I can develop into a type of player like that," Clifford said. "Like Neiler, just hard-nosed, go to the net, go to the hard areas. Character guys."
And character guys learn at a very early age to stick up for their teammates.
"The first one is always the best," Clifford said of that fight at age 12. "That adrenaline. That thrill. It's like scoring your first goal or winning your first championships. It's something unique."