By Gary Hawkins
Kennebec Journal / Morning Sentinel
When Augusta native Joe Clark hasn’t coached hockey, he’s done the next best thing and written about it. These days, he’s back coaching hockey with the Pensacola Ice Pilots of the ECHL.
Clark’s dual careers of hockey coach and sportswriter have intertwined since his days as an assistant to former University of Maine coach Shawn Walsh. He’s pursued his hockey passion in Norway, Denmark and Odessa, Texas, where he made national news in a Sports Illustrated feature on the Odessa Jackalopes.
Clark, 45, has made journalism stops twice at the Kennebec Journal, as well as the Lewiston Sun and most recently at the Omaha World Herald. But he’s never quite shaken the coaching bug, and when his friend George Dupont asked Clark last fall if he had any interest in an assistant coaching job with the Ice Pilots, Clark laced up his skates.
Well, it wasn’t quite that quick. He and his wife Stephanie and their two children had built a life in Omaha where Clark was night sports editor and the beat writer for the region’s American Hockey League affiliate.
Although he missed coaching, Clark was hesitant since going to Florida would mean leaving his family behind for a few months.
His wife, an assistant basketball coach with the University of Nebraska women, brought him around.
“She said ‘I married a hockey coach,’ ” said Clark, who got his start in the game as a goaltender for Cony High School.
Clark went to Pensacola as Dupont’s assistant, but his friend’s heart wasn’t in the job. Within two weeks, and after an 0-7 start, Dupont was gone and Clark was head coach. It was then he realized the job in front of him.
“I’d been out of hockey four years,” Clark said. “I was just rusty. I knew it was critical to make huge changes in our locker room.”
The Ice Pilots, the Double A affiliate of the New York Islanders, had no chemistry. They still languish at the bottom of the ECHL standings, but Clark has worked hard to improve the atmosphere.
“Joe was one of those guys who was easy to talk to,” said former UMaine forward Jack Capuano, who spent six seasons as senior vice president of hockey operations with the Pee Dee Pride and eight seasons overall with the ECHL organization.
“He’s a great communicator and a great teacher of the game.”
Capuano and Clark are two thirds of a UMaine connection with the Islanders organization. Capuano played at Maine in the late ’80s when Clark was an assistant coach and today is an assistant coach for the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, the Islanders AHL affiliate.
The other third of the connection is former UMaine goalie Garth Snow, the general manager of the Islanders.
The three talk on a weekly basis and are all good friends. Clark said he is fairly sure he’ll be asked back next season, and by that time hopes to move his family to Florida. He’s only seen them once since the season began, for a few days around Christmas.
“Steph and the kids are coming down the last week of the season,” Clark said. “My kids (Sydney, 7, and Tanner, 5) are going to see what dad does for a living for the first time.”
Sports writing for now, and perhaps permanently, is on hold for Clark. He’d rather deal with the challenge and occasional insecurity of coaching a hockey team.
“I tried to convince myself that having a regular job was the best thing for my family,” he said. “Actually it wasn’t … I wasn’t happy.”