The Toronto hockey faithful have never gone easy on the staff and players that make up the Maple Leafs, but first-year staff and former Toronto Marlies captain Rich Clune isn’t one to step away from a challenge.
The professional relationship he had with the Maple Leafs organization was not one that either side wanted to end.
“I never really knew I would jump right back into hockey,” Clune, who played seven seasons with the Marlies, said in an interview with the Toronto Observer. “Through meetings with different people in the organization, both sides expressed an interest in wanting to work together, and it evolved from there.”
The 35 year old played in 139 regular-season NHL games with the Nashville Predators, Los Angeles Kings and his hometown Leafs, and 593 regular-season AHL games with the Marlies, Milwaukee Admirals, Manchester Monarchs and Iowa Stars. He notched 22 points in the NHL and 151 in the AHL.
Clune’s role on the ice was to first and foremost to get under the opposing team’s skin, racking up 327 penalty minutes in the NHL, and fire his side up. The latter half of that task has in part remained through retirement, but the former enforcer is seeing more responsibility as a member of the team staff.
“I’m overseeing [prospects’] progress, and in addition to [Canadian hockey icon] Haley [Wickenheiser], [I’m] their main point of contact within the organization,” the Toronto native said. “Tracking them – helping them with everything off-ice, on-ice – that was the big thing that drew me towards the job.”
The full-circle moment for Clune came when he checked in with the Leafs’ fifth-round draft pick from 2021, Ty Voit of the Sarnia Sting – the same team he played three seasons with during his junior hockey days.
“They still have the weights that we lifted 20 years ago,” he mused. “It’s really nostalgic.”
Clune’s attention to detail in the weight room isn’t the only reason the Leafs were adamant in keeping him around post-retirement, however.
Maple Leafs Assistant General Manager of Minor League Operations Ryan Hardy has been with the team since June 2021, but in that short time it was difficult to miss Clune’s displays of leadership.
“[Clune] is celebrated by all those who played and worked with him for the professionalism he exhibited day in and day out, the contagious energy that extended from the gym to the ice and the compassion he demonstrated for his teammates and all members of this club,” said Hardy in the organization’s press release in August. “We’re thrilled to have him join the player development staff and to continue delivering his invaluable support and guidance.”
As much as he battled on the ice, Clune’s true test came off-ice – a long bout with depression and addiction.
While some things stayed the same in Clune’s return to Sarnia, where his problems with addiction began, it reminded him of how much things have changed from a cultural standpoint.
“The way we were brought up, it was life or death every day,” said Clune. “On a human level, things are evolving. … There’s more tools and there are more support systems and people that are qualified to help.”
Clune has been sober for 12 years now and isn’t shy about discussing his past struggles.
“Taking my own experience and being able to give back what I’ve learned along the way is my way of making daily amends for how I conducted myself in the past and doing things for people that I never had done for me as a younger junior player,” said Clune. “The biggest thing is showing that I care.”
It is a level of care that has not gone unnoticed by Clune’s fiancée Isabel Ungar, the two of whom got engaged in October.
“He really cares about the prospects that he’s working with, he’s very invested in their success,” said Ungar. “Even their little daily successes make him really happy.”
Toronto-based addiction counsellor Scott Barter is not the biggest hockey fan, but he is a fan of the impact Clune could have on prospects facing the same struggles he did.
“Every team should have a Rich Clune,” Barter said on a podcast with the Toronto Observer. “The players know that he’s been through what they’ve been through, he knows the demands of their job. And if he has that ability to build the trust with that team, players can go chat with him.”
With the experience he brings on and off the ice, Clune is an invaluable piece to not only the Leafs’ player development staff, but – through his approachable and caring nature – to progressing the league’s culture.