If his original timetable had held up, Jimmy Clark would be in Wisconsin right now, making a temporary home in Packers country. The Edina native was all set for a second season of junior hockey in Green Bay, until the day his phone rang in late July.
Gophers coach Bob Motzko told him that forward Logan Cooley had just signed an NHL contract. Though Clark didn't expect to join the Gophers roster until 2024-25, the team needed him immediately. With just a couple of weeks before practices began, Clark hastily shifted gears, moving across town instead of across the border.
"I was a little skeptical at first," Clark recalled. "I didn't know how much playing time I'd get. But I trusted [Motzko], and I don't regret it one bit."
Motzko could say the same. He trusted that Clark was ready for the main stage, and the freshman has rewarded him by adapting seamlessly to college hockey.
Last Sunday, Clark provided the winning goal in overtime as the No. 7 Gophers handed Michigan State its first Big Ten loss of the season. He's played a strong supporting role throughout the fall, anchoring the fourth line with his consistent, savvy play at center.
Heading into this weekend's series at 18th-ranked Penn State, Clark has four goals, most among the Gophers' six rookies. A detail-oriented, two-way player, he is +6 — tied for the second-best mark on the team — and is winning 57% of his faceoffs, best among the Gophers' centermen.
Based on his performance in Green Bay last season, Motzko believed Clark could handle his late addition to the roster and give the Gophers quality fourth-line minutes. Though he was a bit surprised at how well Clark played at the start of the season, nothing about the freshman surprises him now.
"He's just steady," Motzko said. "That's how he practices and plays. And he's smart, with great hockey sense. There's not a thing he's not going to be able to do."
Clark played three seasons at Edina, helping the Hornets to the Class 2A state consolation championship in 2022. Last season in Green Bay, he finished with 19 goals and 28 assists. Motzko said Clark made big strides as the season moved along, becoming a high-impact player in the second half.
During a busy summer, Clark was picked by the Wild in the seventh round of the NHL draft, then attended the team's development camp. When he got the call from Motzko, he heard arguments in favor of making the immediate leap to college hockey, and arguments for playing another year in Green Bay.
He knew that going to the Gophers would require him to step up to a faster-paced game against bigger opponents. But with several friends and former teammates on the roster to help him adapt, he accepted the challenge.
"I had confidence in myself that I could play this type of game," Clark said. "Whatever role they put me in, I feel like I can do that: going out there with the energy line, getting something going, getting the puck in deep, just making plays. I've been playing for a while, and I know my style and my strengths."
Motzko said Clark has the perfect combination of work ethic and talent. He pushes himself in practice and stays focused in games, augmenting his steadiness with flashes of brilliance. Last Sunday, Motzko put Clark on the ice during the three-on-three overtime period, and he got loose in front of the Michigan State net for the winning goal.
For now, the coach likes what Clark brings to the fourth line. But Clark scored two goals as a fill-in on the third line at Michigan when Aaron Huglen was injured, and Motzko envisions finding more minutes for him, including on special teams.
Every day, Motzko said, Clark does something that impresses him. And since Clark is only 19, the coach anticipates there is much more to come from a player who took a leap of faith onto the fast track.
"Coach told me I would never regret it," Clark said. "I'm having a great time. I'm loving it."