GRAND RAPIDS — There is no question that team defense has carried the Grand Rapids High School boys hockey team to the No. 2 seed in the Section 7AA Boys Hockey Tournament which starts Tuesday.
Anchoring that defense for the Thunderhawks is senior goaltender Carter Clafton who has played superbly this season in leading Grand Rapids to a 17-7-1 record and a seven-game winning streak entering Tuesday’s Section 7AA quarterfinal contest against Anoka (6-18-1), a team the Thunderhawks did not play during the regular season.
“Carter is the backbone of our team right now,” said Grand Rapids coach Wade Chiodo. “He is playing excellent hockey; he’s locked in and he’s tracking the pucks well and competing well. He’s athletic, he’s staying square, all the things that you want in a goaltender.”
Carter is in his third season as a member of the Grand Rapids varsity team and he is in his second season as a starter. He has a stellar 1.63 goals against average and a .934 save percentage this season which ranks him among the top goalies in the state. He said he is happy with the way his senior season has gone.
“I think everything is starting to click a little bit more this year and I am having a little more success than in past years,” Clafton said. “It is exciting.”
Clafton – the son of Paul and Tracy Clafton – said his family is hockey-oriented and that he started playing hockey when he was very young. He said he has always wanted to be a goaltender and he started playing that position in Squirts.
“In the beginning I think (goaltending) was just a gear but eventually I figured out I was pretty good at it and I excelled at it so I always wanted to keep doing it,” Clafton explained.
Clafton said he is a good skater for a goaltender which allows him to play on his feet more than some other goaltenders. He added that he feels he also reads the game well.
“I just try to read it and see what is happening before it actually does,” Clafton explained.
Clafton is a captain on the Thunderhawks and Chiodo said the goalie is a leader within his group.
“That leadership role is very important to him and it’s fun to watch him grow,” said the coach. “I have obviously only coached him one year but from the beginning of the season to the end of the season he has grown a lot, as a person and a hockey player.
“You know what, he deserves it, he deserves all the credit because he is an excellent goalie, he’s a top-end goalie and I am happy he is having a ton of success and he will continue to have success.”
Chiodo describes Clafton as coachable and quiet, and he said he has done everything the coaching staff has asked him to do this season.
“He didn’t say much right away when I started coaching but as time goes on he has talked a little bit more and he’s opened up,” Chiodo said. “He is a top-notch kid character-wise off the ice.”
Clafton agrees that defense has been key to the Thunderhawks’ success this year. He said the team does a good job of keeping opposing players to the outside and out of the slot area in front of the net.
“We play really tough in the defensive zone; we play as hard as we can,” Clafton said. “We play from the defensive zone out; we are not an offensive team and that’s how our defense is so good right now.”
Clafton doesn’t even try to tone down the fact that the goal for the Thunderhawks is to play in the state tournament.
“Playing in the state tournament is one of my biggest dreams so that’s what I want to do,” he said. “I think we just need to keep playing like we are, playing good defense and the goals will come if you play good defense. So just keeping the puck out of the net I think is what’s best for us.”
Clafton said the Thunderhawks are “a super close team” and that it shows on the ice.
“We all play for each other on the ice,” he explained.
Clafton also excels in the classroom as he carries a 3.96 grade point average. He said academics are more important than athletics for student-athletes.
“You have to be smart person and you have to grow as a human first instead of as a hockey player,” Clafton said.
Clafton said he plans on playing Junior hockey following graduation with an ultimate goal of playing Division I college hockey. He has been drafted by the Cedar Rapids Rough Riders in the United States Hockey League and he plans on playing there next year.
“I just want to keep playing hockey as long as I can,” Clafton said. “I need to get bigger, stronger, faster, and develop my mental game. I have to be a lot sharper mentally, ready every game, ready every practice and just improve myself.”