Clarke Saunders knew the 2019-20 season was a vital one for his hockey career.
Coming off of an admittedly disappointing season, Saunders moved to a new team in a new league in a new country. He didn't know a lot about Poland's top hockey league when coach Nik Zupancic convinced him to sign a pro deal in Oswiecim. But he knew he would play a lot of games and get a chance to re-establish his pro career.
It turned out better than Saunders could have imagined.
The 6-foot-2 netminder posted a .932 save percentage, a 2.09 goals-against average in 36 games, leading Oswiecim to a second-place regular-season finish.
Saunders was recently named the league's most valuable player and top goaltender.
"Individually, I had a really good year, but our team was really good," Saunders said. "We had a lot of really good imports. Our 'D' core was by far the best in the league. I don't think anyone was even close. We were well coached. I really enjoyed our coach this year. He's a really detailed guy.
"When things are going well, it's pretty easy, and things were going pretty well all year. There were no hard times. It was a really enjoyable season, to be honest."
Saunders posted a .955 save percentage during the first round of the playoffs, leading Oswiecim into the semifinals. But the season was called off due to the coronavirus outbreak before the semis.
"I think we were in a really good spot," Saunders said. "We finished second in the regular season. We were kind of pushing for first. (Regular-season champion) Tychy has way more money and they have a few really good Polish national players. They won their first series pretty easy. We were playing pretty well. We were the underdogs, but we were starting to peak at the right time. It's one thing to get beat and shake hands and say, 'Congrats.' But it's kind of sad when you don't get the opportunity and you have to go home and wonder what could have been."
Saunders is currently in Jesenice, Slovenia, where he spent the previous two seasons. Saunders said he's able to do a lot of running and hiking.
"I'm staying in decent shape for an old goalie," the 30-year-old said.
Path to Poland
Saunders transferred to UND in 2012 after his previous school, Alabama Huntsville, announced that it was cutting its hockey program. Although Huntsville reversed that decision, Saunders still came to UND and became the starter in his first season.
During his two years at UND, Saunders played 38 games. He was part of the 2013-14 team that reached the NCAA Frozen Four in Philadelphia.
After turning pro in 2014, Saunders spent three seasons with the Colorado Eagles in the ECHL before heading to Slovenia for two years. This was his first year in Poland.
Saunders plans on going back to Oswiecim next season.
"I was really happy with this season," Saunders said. "I'm not sure what's going to happen with the coronavirus, but I'm excited to start the season again."