His name is likely to be called early on when the 2021 NHL Entry Draft happens later this month.
With the 2020-21 Ontario Hockey League season cancelled due to COVID-19, the season wasn’t a total wash for Barrie Colts defenceman Brandt Clarke.
With the possibility of an OHL season dwindling, the six-foot-two, 185-pound blue-liner found himself playing HC Nove Zamky in Slovakia’s professional league and Clarke made good use of the early chance to play pro hockey.
Playing pro hockey overseas was an opportunity that allowed the 18-year-old to improve his game.
Known as a skilled player offensively, Clarke said his game grew on the defensive side of the puck while playing against men in Slovakia’s pro league.
“We didn’t have a lot of offence, so we had to win games 2-1 or 3-2. It was always low-scoring,” Clarke said. “We had a younger team that always wanted to prove that we could hang with these guys that are really established in the league. My overall game was polished up pretty nicely over there because every shift, if you make a mistake and it ends up in the back of your net, we don’t really have the firepower to just come back and catch up. Everything matters. When you have the opportunity to get the puck out, you can’t mess up that pass. You can’t let the other team intercept your pass.
“It taught me that every play matters, every shift matters at both ends of the ice,” Clarke added. “You can’t make stupid plays because it’s going to end up in the back of your net.”
Clarke said the decision to head to Slovakia to play came not long after Hockey Canada announced the roster of players who would participate in its World Junior Hockey Championship selection camp in the fall of 2020.
“Around November, I didn’t make the (Canadian) world junior camp, which I was kind of frustrated about, but I was hungry to get going,” Clarke said of how the opportunity in Slovakia happened. “When I didn’t get that call, we started making calls to teams (in other countries), but all didn’t work out. Then my brother got back from that camp and wasn’t too happy that he got cut. He was fired up and wanted to go play. The Slovakian team offered me and Graeme spots, so we jumped at the opportunity.”
The younger Clarke added that the opportunity for the two brothers to play together helped their parents support the idea of the brothers going overseas.
Graeme would eventually shift back to North America to play in the American Hockey League shortly after they had moved to Slovakia.
“That time that I spent with him there was very memorable,” Brandt said. “It was unfortunate that he had to leave after only three weeks, but it made the adjustment period a lot easier for me.”
“I wasn’t sure exactly how I was going to react (to Graeme moving back to North America),” Brandt added. “I recovered well. I don’t think I let it affect my on-ice play. He was doing stuff like saying ‘okay, we’re going to go to bed now, let’s shut off our phones.’ He was waking me up in the morning and I didn’t have that anymore. I had to be more independent, but I think I didn’t a pretty good job (adjusting) to living on your own and the professional hockey feeling. I did do a lot of growing up while I was over there.”
Clarke said his older brother, who played in the OHL with the Ottawa 67’s and is currently in the New Jersey Devils system after being picked by the club in the third round of the 2019 draft, “has been a great help for me and I couldn’t ask for more from my big brother.”
“It’s nice that I kind of get to follow his path,” Clarke said. “He had to learn the ropes by himself, and I get to follow him, and he gets to help me every step of the way. It’s been really nice. He tells me ‘Be truthful with how you speak and speak from the heart’ when you’re having (media) interviews or interviews with NHL clubs.”
Brandt finished the season with five goals and 15 points in 26 games in Slovakia before coming home to play with the Canadian entry in the World Under-18 Hockey Championship in Frisco and Plano, Texas.
With Team Canada, a team that feature some of the top Canadian prospect eligible for the draft, he scored twice and added five assists in seven games en route to a gold medal.
“We had a really strong team, but our coaches made sure that we didn’t let our egos get too big,” Clarke said. “We didn’t focus on the fact that for some of these guys, this was their only showing. They obviously want to have good showings and play well and try to go higher up on the draft board, but we had to focus.”
“It was cool,” Clarke added about playing in the event. “You hear about these top-rated guys from other countries, but you don’t really see them. Being able to line up against these guys and see what they’re made of was fun. It was challenging.”
The 2021 NHL Draft opens on July 23 with round one. Rounds two through seven are set for the following day.