Toronto Maple Leafs forward David Clarkson looks on while playing against the Ottawa Senators during second period NHL pre-season hockey action in Toronto on Tuesday, Sept. 24, 2013. After serving a 10-game suspension, Clarkson is ready to make his Maple Leafs debut against Columbus on Friday night. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
David Clarkson took it on faith that the Maple Leafs could win without him.
Still, the waiting was the hardest part.
That wait is almost over as Clarkson has served his 10-game suspension and will make his debut Friday night at the Columbus Blue Jackets. It's fair to say he has been looking forward to this day for a long time.
"It's like Christmas: You used to open up the box there'd be a chocolate and then another chocolate," Clarkson said jokingly. "I got a box at home, I get my daughter to open it. No, but I've been definitely checking off the dates and getting ready to go."
Clarkson earned an automatic ban from the NHL for leaving the bench to enter an altercation in the pre-season when Toronto played the Buffalo Sabres. The veteran right-winger didn't express much in the way of remorse for coming to the aid of Phil Kessel when he was matched up against tough guy John Scott, but regretted how the punishment affected the team.
"I think you try to take something from it," he said. "No one's perfect and when you do things or things happen bad, you try and make a positive from it."
The biggest positive is the Leafs' 7-3-0 record without Clarkson, who acknowledged getting a different perspective on games from sitting up in the press box.
"The boys have been winning, which makes it easier," he told reporters this week. "I got to watch a bit of hockey. But I've watched enough, and I'm ready to get back at it."
Clarkson recalled a suspension from his junior-hockey days as prior experience but called this time sitting out the toughest thing he has had to endure in his career. Teammates made it easier with text messages and phone calls of support, but that was little consolation for missing the Leafs' first game at the Montreal Canadiens and the home opener against the Ottawa Senators.
All Clarkson could do was serve as a measure of moral support and a practice player. As the Leafs lost Nikolai Kulemin and James van Riemsdyk to injuries, they cycled through minor-league call-ups and Clarkson—who forfeited US $269,230.80 during the suspension—became the fill-in for line rushes.
Not anymore. While the Leafs are unsure if winger Joffrey Lupul (foot) or call-up Josh Leivo will be in the lineup at Columbus, Clarkson is ready to go.
"Obviously it's been a while that we have been waiting for him," coach Randy Carlyle said. "We see him every day, and we're just looking at him to come in and add a piece to our puzzle."
Clarkson expected a lot of himself after signing a $36.75-million, seven-year contract with the team he grew up rooting for. He conceded he'll be "fired up" to play his first meaningful game in a Leafs uniform, but the 29-year-old knows he won't be able to do everything the first time he steps on the ice.
"We think that he can make a contribution, but we don't want to put too much pressure on him," Carlyle said. "He hasn't played in a while. We just want him to do the simple things, be David Clarkson and make the simple, strong play."
Clarkson figures being himself means going to the front of the net, scoring and bringing a physical presence—no different from his time with the New Jersey Devils. He learned a lot from deep playoff runs with the Devils, like how teams can win without playing pretty.
That has been the Leafs so far. But Clarkson has felt great camaraderie within the team since training camp.
"It's a great locker-room. There's no cliques, everyone's on the same page," he said. "We've got something special here."
Finally, Clarkson gets to be a part of it.