Achilles Injury Doesn’t Dim Remarkable Season for McClendon
Achilles Injury Doesn’t Dim Remarkable Season for McClendon
Adam Lindner | Communications & Marketing Associate
Thunderbirds goaltender Frankie McClendon was stretching.
He had just arrived at the Winston-Salem Fairgrounds Annex for an April 13 playoff contest against the Port Huron Prowlers. The top-seeded Thunderbirds held a 1-0 series lead following a 5-4 road victory the previous evening, and now hoped to close out the best-of-three semi-final set at their home rink. With a win, Carolina would advance to the Federal Hockey League’s Commissioner’s Cup Finals in only the team’s second season of existence.
McClendon never got the chance to take the ice.
“I went outside to see people at the tailgate, and not like 20 minutes later, I walked back into the rink and I started juggling and doing all my stretches and stuff. I went to jump, and as soon as I landed, when I tried to sprint, I heard the pop.
“I don’t think my body was warm enough yet.”
The 25-year-old goalie didn’t have a history of traumatic injuries. Up until this point, the most serious ailment he had experienced was a high-ankle sprain that kept him off the ice for two months.
He instantly knew this was different.
“As soon as it happened, I grabbed my right leg, and I didn’t want to look down as I way laying on my back, but I just saw my foot hanging and limp,” he said. “Luckily, we had the area blocked so no fans could see what had happened, but my instant reaction was, like, ‘Oh, I broke my ankle.’
“But our head coach came, and he held my leg up and he ran his finger along the line of where your Achilles is supposed to be, and once I saw him shake his head and talk to Karolina (the team’s athletic trainer), like, ‘We have to go to the hospital right away,’ I kind of knew it was my Achilles and I kind of knew it was bad,” McClendon continued. “It felt like I got shot, basically, or stabbed right there — just fire going up my leg.”
Speaking roughly five weeks after the injury, McClendon appears sanguine. Besides some obvious giveaways (his walking boot and crutches), one wouldn’t think he’d just fully torn his right Achilles tendon.
“The doctors told me at the E.R., after looking at the X-rays and feeling it, they were like, ‘Yeah, you fully tore your Achilles.’ I was in shock, but I got all my tears out that day,” McClendon recounted. “I wasn’t nervous for the surgery at all. I was just ready for it to get done.
“I don’t wish that upon anybody, feeling what I felt. I was upset that it happened and I was upset that, basically it had just ended my season, and I don’t get to be on the ice with the guys anymore.”
The surgery came three days later, with the operation going according to plan. For now, the Oakland, California native is in the beginning stages of rehab and is attempting to take everything on a daily basis.
“The doctor said everything looked good. Everything’s just tight right now, so I have to stay true to all the rehab and not try to rush things, because if you rush things you’re going to potentially harm yourself,” McClendon said. “I’m taking everything slow and listening to the doctors because they have those jobs; they know what they’re doing.”
McClendon said he can’t begin skating again until September, but can begin to bear some weight on his right leg beginning in early June. He expects to be walking normally again by early July.
Although his playing season ended abruptly, the unfortunate injury didn’t dampen McClendon’s remembrance of a dream season — one in which the Thunderbirds went on to win the FHL’s Commissioner’s Cup over the Elmira Enforcers, three games to one.
McClendon said the championship victory was something he’ll never forget.
“I have to say my first pro win is up there, when I was in New Hampshire. But winning a championship, that’s the top right there, what we just did,” he said, describing his favorite career memory.
In 11 appearances, the netminder recorded a 9-1 record to go along with a 2.61 goals against average (GAA) and a .910 save percentage in 2018-19. Except for a 3-2 loss on April 5 at Danville, McClendon would’ve had a perfect 10-0 record.
“I lost one game. I tried to have a perfect season, but sometimes things just don’t work out. But, you know, I say winning a championship is pretty much up there,” McClendon continued.
As a whole, the Thunderbirds dominated the FHL ranks in 2018-19, finishing the regular season with a 48-6-1-3 record and 149 points. The second-place Enforcers finished with 99.
Impressively, Carolina boasted a plus-150 goal differential mark, as well. Elmira was the only other squad in the six-team league to possess a positive goal differential, finishing at a plus-51.
Beyond individual accolades and team success, the goaltender said one of the most gratifying parts of winning the championship was bringing a hockey title back to the people of Winston-Salem for the first time in 30 years.
“The fans meant everything to us. Our fans were true fans, and I thank them for that,” he said. “I love the fans here. They’re great, they’re super respectful and they always had our backs.”
McClendon cited a game played on Breast Cancer Awareness Night versus Elmira as a turning point in the fans’ relationship with the team.
Losing 1-0, the Thunderbirds tied the game with mere minutes remaining in regulation. Then, with only seconds left before a prospective overtime period, McClendon’s roommate Peter Cicmanec scored to give the T-Birds the game-deciding tally in dramatic fashion.
“We won the game, and the fans erupted — I couldn’t even hear myself screaming on the ice. That proved to us that the fans love us here. They want us to stay here,” McClendon recalled. “I think that’s why a few of us players got emotional about the season ending. I have to say it meant a lot to see those fans happy.”
The T-Birds’ dream season and championship victory encapsulated an innumerable amount of years of dedication for those involved, including McClendon. The goalie said hockey is “everything” to him, having taken him all over the world.
Originally from the Bay Area, McClendon began skating at age six and joined an organized team at age 10. Originally a defenseman, McClendon became a goalie by age 12 and fell in love with the position. He left home at 18 for Junior A hockey in Ontario, Canada. From there, he would play in New Zealand, New Hampshire, Michigan, and now Winston-Salem.
“I love the travel. Honestly, I think with hockey, being able to travel at 20, 21 years old, it gives you a certain outlook on life and everything — you get to see different things when you’re growing up. Honestly, I’ve loved everywhere I’ve been to. I have great friends I’ve gotten to know just by playing in certain places,” he said.
As for the Triad, McClendon is fond of the region. He just isn’t a fan of the summer humidity.
“I love the area. The fans are awesome. The only thing I don’t like right now is the humidity in the summertime, because we don’t have that in California. It’s just straight heat for us,” McClendon explained. “That’s something I really don’t like but to me, it’s North Carolina, so I can’t get away from it. I just have to deal with it. But I love going downtown, I love exploring, I love hiking, so yeah, Winston’s pretty cool to me.”
McClendon will be staying in Winston-Salem over the summer while he rehabs, but hopes to return home to northern California at some point to visit family. He’ll be helping out around the Thunderbirds’ corporate office a little bit, as well, while he bides time until he’s allowed back on the ice.
When No. 35 does return to the Annex ice for the T-Birds next season, members of the Flock may notice something different about his appearance.
While many hockey goalies customize their masks, McClendon has worn plain-colored masks in the past. This summer, however, McClendon intends to attain a customized mask, complete with a personalized painted design.
“I get really superstitious about painting my masks because it’s kind of like the kiss of death. You get your mask painted in the summertime or for the next season, and you can get traded or released, so I’ve always stayed simple with an all-white colored mask, or all-black colored mask,” McClendon explained. “But this year, I’m getting my mask painted, and it’s going to be a lot of surprises. It’s not going to be anything team-wise, it’s going to be something very personal — a lot of friendships, a tribute to somebody that I want to meet as a person; he was a goaltender as well.
“He played in the NHL, and he was kind of the reason why I chose to be a goalie, so it’s going to be an American-Canadian theme, but the Canadian side is going to be a little bit of a tribute to him.”
For now, McClendon will work on rehabbing his Achilles in hopes of being ready for the start of the FHL season in October.
Once he finally returns, he’ll have a title to defend with a new goalie mask to boot.