William Douglas has been writing The Color of Hockey blog for the past eight years. Douglas joined NHL.com in March 2019 and writes about people of color in the game. Today, he profiles Syracuse University freshman forward Rayla Clemons.
For Rayla Clemons, getting to hockey practice and games these days is as easy as rolling out of bed.
The 19-year-old freshman forward at Syracuse University has about an eight-minute walk from her campus apartment to Tennity Ice Pavilion, where her team practices and plays. It’s a breeze compared with the eight-hour, nearly 600-mile round-trip drive Clemons and her father made from their suburban Detroit home to Pittsburgh each Sunday so she could practice with her girls’ team.
“Sometimes I miss it because I used to carpool with one of my teammates from Indiana and we grew a pretty good bond,” Clemons said. “But other than that, I definitely prefer to be right next to the rink.”
It shows. Clemons scored five points (two goals, three assists) in her first six games for Syracuse.
She scored her first goal on her first shot on her first shift 1:07 into Syracuse’s season-opener against fifth-ranked Colgate University on Nov. 20. Her second goal came 14 minutes later in Syracuse’s 3-2 overtime loss to Colgate. Clemons is tied for fourth in scoring for Syracuse, and her 0.83 points per game ranks 12th among all NCAA Division I freshmen.
College Hockey America, the conference Syracuse plays in, named Clemons its Rookie of the Month for November.
“It feels really good,” Clemons said of the honor. “I wasn’t even looking at goals and how many games we were playing. I was just happy to even to play the games because, with COVID going on, I wasn’t even sure we’d be able to play that semester.”
Syracuse coach Paul Flanagan said Clemons has “set the bar high right off the bat” with her early performance.
“It wasn’t like she was just standing by the net and banged in the rebound,” Flanagan said of Clemons’ first goal. “She blew down the wing and went in and she was just there. She used her speed to score both goals. Anybody on our team that does that, that’s great, much less a freshman on her first shift and her second goal in the first period. That’s a pretty tough act to follow.”
Flanagan said Syracuse knew it was getting an elite skater when it recruited Clemons from the Pittsburgh Penguins Elite Under-19 team. But he quickly learned he had more than a speedster in the 5-foot-2 freshman.
“What I didn’t know — I shouldn’t say (I was) pleasantly surprised, but where I’m really pleased is that combination of her using her speed and thinking the game,” he said. “She can really shift it from second to third and hopefully she’ll get to where she shifts it to fourth gear. She has that ability and that combination of being able to think the game while you’re moving your feet. That, to me, usually projects to success at our level.”
Flanagan said Clemons also has hockey sense beyond that of most freshmen.
“She makes good little plays, those little subtle plays that you can’t teach,” he said. “She just kind of gets it — the quick little give-and-go, or sometimes it’s just getting to an area where you anticipate your teammate is going to put the puck. She’s ahead of the curve in that respect.”
Clemons’ speed and skill has helped her score 418 points (179 goals, 239 assists) since playing Under-14 hockey.
In February 2019, NHL.com identified Clemons during Black History Month as part of an up-and-coming generation of Black players who could have an impact on the game in years to come. That group also included Los Angeles Kings forward prospect Quinton Byfield, the No. 2 pick in the 2020 NHL Draft; Nebraska-Omaha sophomore goalie Isaiah Saville, chosen by the Vegas Golden Knights in the fifth round (No. 135) of the 2019 NHL Draft; Boston College sophomore defenseman Marshall Warren, selected by the Minnesota Wild in the sixth round (No. 166) of the 2019 draft; and University of Wisconsin sophomore defenseman Chayla Edwards, a former Penguins Elite teammate of Clemons.
Clemons said the long commute to Penguins Elite practices and games was part of her drive to play college hockey and reach the highest levels in the game.
She played for Detroit’s Little Caesars Under-14 and Under-16 girls team from 2015-18. When Clemons joined the Penguins Elite program in 2018, she skated during the week with the Little Caesars’ AAA Under-18 Midget Majors boys team coached by former NHL forward Brian Rolston, who won the Stanley Cup with the New Jersey Devils in 1995.
Cleamons initially was nervous about practicing with boys, who were larger and stronger, but said she got over it by using her speed and ability to make quick decisions on the ice.
The nerves returned when she stepped onto the ice for the first time with her much larger Syracuse teammates.
“I definitely got a little intimidated just by seeing my teammates because I’m thinking a lot of the other teams are also going to look like them,” she said. “But once I got out of the mindset of being smaller, I think I adjusted pretty well.”
Clemons said she’s working in the weight room to get stronger and improve her endurance. Flanagan said she’s also working on the ice to improve her shot.
Her goal at Syracuse is to develop into a player worthy of consideration for the U.S. Women’s Olympic Team at some point. She’s no stranger to USA Hockey, having participated in its development camps in 2016, 2017 and 2019.
“I definitely think after playing a few college games and being there for a few months I have some things to work on,” she said. “But I’m committed to putting in that work to get to where I want to be.”
Photos courtesy of Syracuse University Athletics