In his latest 32 Thoughts column, Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman wrote the following:
One undrafted free agent to watch: Port Coquitlam, BC’s Clay Stevenson, who plays goal at NCAA Dartmouth. Stevenson has a .925 save percentage (third in the ECAC) for the Big Green, who are 5-13-2 in conference play. He’s facing 33 shots per night. Their final regular-season game is Saturday, and NHL teams are making pitches.
Then, Rick Dhaliwal of Donnie and Dhali – The Team linked Stevenson to the Canucks, confirming they’re one of the NHL teams interested in acquiring Stevenson when his NCAA season ends in the near future.
Stevenson also has the option of finishing his degree at Dartmouth, which would mean he’d stay at the school for an additional two years.
But who is Clay Stevenson?
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Well, first of all, he’s not from Port Coquitlam.
A middle child between two sisters, Stevenson was born in Chilliwack B.C. and grew up in Alberta and British Columbia after his parents split up when he was a toddler.
At 16, Stevenson finally made the decision to move in with his mom, who was living in Chilliwack at the time, as the Lower Mainland offered more opportunities and access to better coaching to pursue his hockey ambitions.
Where Stevenson really took off as a player was with the Coquitlam Express of the BCHL.
After putting up somewhat average numbers through his first two seasons with the Express in which he wasn’t the team’s bonafide starter, some internal competition drove Stevenson to take his game to new heights.
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“You could really get that sense of maturity with Clay,” recalled Jacob Lazare, who worked with the Express as Director of Communications from 2018-2020. “Clay was with the Express the year before his breakout year — and he was good — but he kind of struggled at times. I think the big thing was clearly going into 18-19 he was sort of expected to be the guy, and then the Express went out and traded for Kolby Matthews. When they traded for him, it kind of forced Clay to really compete for that starting spot and they ended up splitting time. I think having that internal competition forced Clay to mature a little bit and to work hard and that was part of the whole culture change under Jason [Fortier] — not allowing guys to just come in and assume that they’re better than the team or that something’s been given to them, and I think that was really beneficial for Clay.”
“Even when he was a 20 year old in 19-20 — Jack Watson would have started on almost any other team in the BCHL, and he was backing up Clay for most of that season. It just forced Clay to keep getting better, and I think you saw that in Clay’s maturity throughout the year.”
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The most common word you hear when talking to people about Stevenson is maturity.
Stevenson faced a situation right before his breakout season that nobody — especially a 20-year-old kid — should have to face in their personal life.
Clay’s mother, Holly Stevenson — a paramedic — committed suicide just ten days before the Express’ first regular-season game.
Stevenson knew his mom had been having a difficult year, struggling with her mental health, but he never expected the news his younger sister Brie delivered when she showed up at the front door of his billet family’s home in Coquitlam.
Finding out about his mother’s death hit him hard, but Stevenson was determined to get back out on the ice, holding the belief that it’s what his mother would have wanted.
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“Clay is the ultimate team guy,” said current Coquitlam Express captain Ryan Tattle, who was a rookie on the 19-20 Express team that Stevenson backstopped. “I think it was the day of his mom’s funeral. We had a game and our team went to the funeral. And you know, he obviously spoke at the funeral, it was a very emotional day. We played that night, we ended up losing 6-1 or whatever it was — the game didn’t really matter. But Clay came to that game and didn’t play, but he was still there with us. That gesture right there just speaks to who he is as a person.”
Stevenson missed just one preseason game and attended the Express’ regular-season opener, again watching his teammates from the stands.
Showing the kind of mental fortitude you flat-out wouldn’t expect to see from a 20-year-old, Stevenson told head coach Jason Fortier he was good to go by September 10th.
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Stevenson said he was nervous about how he would get through that first game knowing he would never see his mom smiling up in the stands again or receive one of her texts after a good performance.
“After the first period, I knew I had to be clear and present, and knowing what I had to do out there,” Stevenson told the Tri-City News.
In his first game back, with plenty of emotions on his mind, Stevenson posted a shutout, which would serve as a launching point for the exceptional breakout season he was about to have.
“He took the time he needed away from the team,” added Lazare. “When he came back, obviously everyone was concerned about him — they wanted the best for him. But when he came back to the team, it was when he was ready to help the team win. He didn’t demand sympathy in return or want special treatment — he was all in for the team. And I think that is the most impressive form of internal strength and maturity that you could really have as a player in a team sport. The fact that he exemplified it so perfectly at age 20 is pretty spectacular.”
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In that 2019-20 season, Stevenson posted a .936 save percentage and was a no-brainer for Express team MVP. He was also runner-up for BCHL league MVP, losing out to Kent Johnson, who put up 101 points in 52 games that season and was selected fifth overall by the Columbus Blue Jackets in the 2021 NHL Entry Draft.
Because of a tricky NCAA rule that the Express and the BCHL weren’t granted a workaround for, Stevenson was forced to watch from the sidelines during the Express’ subsequent playoff run, which was unfortunately brought to a screeching halt due to the coronavirus pandemic in March of 2020.
But he was still at every game, cheering on his teammates and offering words of encouragement every step of the way.
“Just from a leadership standpoint, he taught me so much on how to be a leader,” added Tattle, who was named Express captain this season. “I came in so blind about what junior hockey would be like, and I don’t know if he knows how much he actually taught me and a lot of the other rookies so I’m super grateful to have had him as a teammate and a friend.”
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This season with Dartmouth, the now 22-year-old Stevenson has posted a .925 save percentage and a 2.60 GAA. Like many teams, the Canucks are interested in bringing Stevenson into the fold. Whichever NHL team lands him is going to be adding a great goaltending prospect and an even better and emotionally mature individual to their organization.