In hockey, tough guys are an archetype. They have traits and a persona all to themselves.
Matt Clackson, a rookie forward on the Phantoms, is living that character on the ice. Off the ice, however, is another story. When he left Western Michigan University after 3 years to turn pro, he had a 3.96 grade-point average. He might throw punches for a living, but Clackson is a bright guy.
Just ask his roommates, Andreas Nodl and Jonathon Kalinski, who are currently with the Flyers.
"He is a very smart guy," Nodl said. "You don't realize when you look up his fights and all, but he is a smart guy. You realize it when you talk to him - he is knowledgeable about everything."
"Being a fighter, you wouldn't expect him to be smart in school - or even go to school," Kalinski said. "Fighters can be whatever. It's just a job, it's what he does. It doesn't define him."
For Clackson, 23, who grew up for the most part in Pittsburgh, physical play on the ice has been a staple his whole life. Since he was a kid, his dad, Kim Clackson - one of the most notorious brawlers of the late 1970s and early '80s - has given him tips and tricks to get ahead.
"My dad has honestly had the biggest impact on my game," Clackson said. "Since he was a physical-type player, that is one thing he was really able to help me with."
Since Riley Cote and Josh Gratton have been mainstays with the Flyers, Clackson has slid into the fighter role for the Phantoms. In 21 games this season, Clackson has proven his mettle with 12 fights and 90 penalty minutes. He is third in the AHL in penalty minutes, and tops among rookies. He has scored one goal and has one assist.
There are, however, many facets to making your living as a character guy in professional hockey. Defense, discipline, energy and knowing "when" are all part of the position.
"Knowing your role and why you are there is key," Cote said. "Staying positive, leading by example, and showing up every night are what make a difference.
"You may only get 3, 4, or 5 minutes a night and you have to be a positive influence or else you won't make it," Cote said.
So far, Clackson has been that positive player on the Phantoms.
"He knows how to energize the team," Phantoms coach John Paddock said. "He is a pretty smart guy. It is interesting, since I played against his dad. He has his dad's character and drive.
"He wants it so bad that I won't be surprised if he can carve a niché somewhere as a character guy in the NHL."
Tonight, you can see Clackson and the Phantoms square off with the Springfield Falcons on "Tribute to Tough Guys Night" at the Wachovia Center at 7:05. Former Flyers ruffians Dave Schultz and Bob Kelly will be on hand for a "ceremonial glove drop." In addition, former Flyers tough guy Dave Brown will be in attendance, along with former Phantom Frank Bialowas.
Living with Nodl and Kalinski has been an eye opener for Clackson.
"Just seeing how close [the NHL] is makes you want to work that much harder," Clackson said. "There is a life after hockey. That is why I will finish up my degree in the summer [he is 12 credits short]. I am trying to play now. This is my opportunity."
For now, Clackson continues to impress off the ice, as well. Cote said that being a good teammate is one of the most important things in order to get to the next level.
"I played against him in juniors, and he is an absolute [pain] on the ice. But off the ice, he is one of the best teammates I have ever had," Nodl said.
"He knows his role and he is a hard worker. He will get here." *