Former Pro Hockey Player Now Living Out NLL Dreams


Emerson Clark had a tumultuous first NLL game but scored against the Philadephia Wings.

Emerson Clark has grown accustomed to the adrenaline that comes with exiting the tunnel alongside his teammates. The roar of the crowd as the game draws near. The pregame jitters. The words of encouragement from his brothers in battle.

But last week was different. For the first time in nine years, he didn’t have skates laced tight around his feet. There was no ice to glide on as he emerged. He was a lacrosse player again.

“It was a little emotional, strapping the pads on again,” Clark said.

Clark, a defenseman for the Las Vegas Desert Dogs, has returned to the sport of lacrosse after a seven-year professional hockey career split between the American Hockey League and the ECHL. On Friday, he made his National Lacrosse League debut against the Philadelphia Wings, recording his first professional goal in the process. It was his first organized lacrosse action since 2013, his last year of junior lacrosse with the Whitby Warriors.

“Since I’ve retired, I definitely missed it,” Clark said. “Especially with my retirement from hockey. I just missed the guys on the team, the family atmosphere and the fans. Just the excitement of getting back and playing in front of the Vegas fans. They are insane.”

Clark played both lacrosse and hockey from the time he was 4 up into his early 20s, even after reaching the highest level of Canadian junior hockey in the Ontario Hockey League. A Whitby, Ontario, native, he’d spend his winters suiting up 15 minutes from his hometown for the Oshawa Generals and then would return to the Warriors in the summers. With Whitby, he won two Minto Cups.

“Usually, you pick a sport then,” Clark said. “You don’t like to mess around with injuries in the summer, but my ownership [in Oshawa] was very good to me and very encouraging for me to play both sports.”

When his junior career ended in 2013, he was finally forced to choose. Clark was selected by the Toronto Rock in the fourth round of the NLL Draft but instead opted to join the Toledo Walleye of the ECHL.

“That was a dream come true of playing in the NLL,” Clark said of being drafted. “But hockey had a little more opportunity.”

Hockey boasts professional infrastructure that lacrosse is working toward matching, but that doesn’t mean the life of a minor league player is stable. Thanks to AHL call-ups, Clark played for 10 cities over the course of seven years, making stops in Toledo, Greenville, Tulsa, Chicago, Utica, Jacksonville, San Jose, St. John’s, Allen and Milwaukee. He even got the opportunity to suit up for a couple exhibition games with the Toronto Maple Leafs.

“It’s busy,” Clark said. “Because I wasn’t drafted into the NHL, in the summers, you talk to your agent and you sign one-year contracts. You come home in the summers after playing for a team and loving a team, I’d come and talk to my agent and my family and see what the best move was going forward. It was a lot of movement, different cities. I met incredible people in all these different cities that I played.”

He played his final year with the Jacksonville Icemen of the ECHL in the 2019-20 season, recording his fifth 20-point season as a pro while tying his career best for assists. An opportunity emerged to keep things going for a few years longer in Germany, but the COVID-19 pandemic thwarted that. The break gave him an opportunity to assess the state of his career and what his next move should be now married with three kids.

“Obviously, it gets tough on your body,” Clark said. “And then I got married, started having a family, and it wasn’t just me to think about. I had to think about the best interests for them. I kind of came down to the decision that Florida was going to be my last year, having my daughter born there.”

Lacrosse wasn’t on the mind when Clark retired from hockey, but that changed when he got a call from an old friend, Panther City Lacrosse Club defensive coordinator Steve Toll. He signed with Panther City on October 29, 2021, but life was hectic at home, and Clark told Panther City he didn’t think he’d be able to join the team.

A year later, another longtime family friend came calling in Shawn Williams, the Desert Dogs’ general manager and head coach. Williams coached and taught Clark and his siblings in high school. He wondered if Clark would be interested in joining the expansion squad he was putting together.

“I had the whole year to kind of watch last season,” Williams said. “You’re just literally trying to put a puzzle together. Obviously, guys that you’ve previously coached or local guys, they all pop into your head. … You try to leave no stone unturned, and he was one of those stones that turned up.”

This time, Clark jumped at the opportunity.

“He’s a tremendous athlete,” Williams said. “He exudes this kind of confidence and athleticism. It’s hard not to want to give him a chance.”

On Friday, Clark cracked the lineup in Las Vegas’ third game of the season, and he quickly found his way opnto the scorer’s sheet for the wrong reason. He took a cross checking penalty in the first quarter, then sat for four minutes in the second with compounding holding the stick and unsportsmanlike conduct calls.

“I came out of the box, and I was like, ‘I need to do something,’” Clark said. “I played offense in junior, I’m comfortable playing offense, so I stayed out there. I got the ball, rolled up high and took the opportunity, shot and scored. I was excited and relieved at the same time.”

Now, Clark finds himself in a gray area, not quite a rookie in the locker room but not quite a veteran either. There’s a lot to learn tactically, but he brings years of experience, including time as a captain, as well as an understanding of what it takes to succeed as a professional athlete.

“His presence is very veteran-esque,” Williams said. “The guys look at him and feel like he’s a veteran. But coming to play and learning systems and stuff, that’s where he’s had that learning curve. But he’s a total professional, so he picks stuff up quickly.”

That doesn’t mean he’s fully immune from rookie treatment.

“It’s a little tough now being older, being 30 and being a rookie,” Clark said. “But I am so down for every rookie opportunity. I love it.”


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