Prospect of Interest: Why a lost OHL season made Brandt Clarke even better

Brandt Clarke during his time with the Barrie Colts. (Photo by Terry Wilson/OHL Images)

If the 2021 NHL Draft wasn't shaping up to be odd enough, just wait until we see an all-defensive top three leading off the class on July 23, without a franchise centre in sight.

There's a fair shot that peculiar sight could be reality, with the likes of Owen Power, Simon Edvinsson and Luke Hughes looking likely to hear their names called early. But among this year's notably elite crop of blue-line prospects, one stands out among the rest — Brandt Clarke. The only one in the top-tier bunch with that coveted right-hand shot, the rangy Ottawa native backs it up with top-drawer hands, veteran poise with the puck, and the ability to map out constellations of on-ice possibilities before they ever come to fruition.

But it just comes naturally to him, he says, and always has.

“It's just something that I've always kind of been able to do, you know," he said of his sixth-sense awareness, while speaking to the media in early July. "Even before the puck comes to me, I'll know what's going on on this side of the ice because I'll be [thinking], ‘OK, if I can get a shot off quick, a guy's going to the net, maybe I can get a rebound.’ Or it's like, ‘OK, I kind of have time here. Let me hold on to it. Let me walk the blue line. Let me make kind of swivel my hips, maybe create some space for my guys on the half-wall to have more of a lane to shoot.’

"Sometimes you just have to go D-to-D to your partner, like that's the only safety-valve play you’ve got. Or you have to go down the wall. [But] you know, I feel comfortable doing that if that’s there, the one in every five times that you can make a cool play, or you can walk the blue line, or you can get a shot through, or you can kind of throw one down low for a quick one-timer from one of the forwards. I feel like I can do that pretty well, too."

With Clarke tabbed to hear his name called early on July 23, the hockey world tends to agree. Here's everything you need to know about the 18-year-old, as his draft day nears:

Team: HC Nove Zamky
Position: Defence
Shoots: Right
Hometown: Ottawa, Ontario
Age: 18 (Feb. 9, 2003)
Height: 6-foot-22
Weight: 190 pounds

“He’s got that fire in him”

Even at six-foot-two, 190 pounds, there’s a certain boyishness about Clarke — even now, after the young defender just finished putting in time playing against grown men on the other side of the Atlantic. But for those who've seen Clarke's mettle tested, who've seen what burns underneath the surface, they know the cover doesn't match the content. Clarke's longtime trainer Tony Greco has been the one doing most of that testing, pushing Clarke for the past three years out of his Kanata, Ont., facility. And he's seen that discrepancy firsthand.

“He just doesn’t like failure, and I think people don’t really know that about Brandt, because when you see him, he’s kind of like a boy-next-door kid,” says Greco. “But he’s got the fire in him.”

He's got a group around him who continue to stoke that fire, too, as Clarke trains alongside a collection of players that includes his brother Graeme (a 2019 third-round pick of the New Jersey Devils’), Jack Quinn (last year’s eighth-overall pick, by the Buffalo Sabres), Toronto Maple Leafs defender Ben Hutton, and Philadelphia Flyers captain Claude Giroux. Clarke's progress alongside those fellow pros has been immense, says Greco, the reason for that abundantly clear.

“He lives and breathes the dream,” Greco says. “That’s the difference. Where some guys it’s like, let’s say they’re doing their post-strength conditioning and maybe they don’t jump over the hurdle properly, they won’t do it again. Brandt will do it 10 times over, to instil that perfection in his brain. … That’s the competitive edge about him. That’s the key. He just tells you that he wants it, and then he’ll do whatever it takes to accomplish it. That’s the way he is.”

It’s the type of unending drive a coach can’t teach, he says, the type of limitless engine that can’t be installed. You just have to have it. And Clarke does.

“He doesn’t believe in failure, and I love that about him,” Greco says. “Like, if this guy comes into the gym and let’s say he can’t do a hex bar squat, he’ll go home and he’ll perfect it for the next week, and then he’ll come and crush it again. That’s the kind of guy he is.” That proclivity to attain perfection extends out of the gym and to the ice, too, he says. Greco noticed it especially after Clarke helped lift Canada to a gold medal at the 2021 U-18 world junior championship — in his performance, and in the post-medal-clinching celebration, too.

“Look at when they won [with] Team Canada — he’s got the flag, it’s like he was the leader of the pack even though he wasn’t really the captain. The flag is around him, he’s bringing players with him, he’s in front with the picture.

“He just wants to show people that, ‘You know what, I was born to play this game, and I work the hardest on perfecting this game.’”

Brotherly love

The Clarke brothers’ connection goes well beyond off-season training partners. The two have been joined at the hip since their earliest days falling in love with the game, taking their journey towards big-league dreams side by side, and pushing each other each step of the way. In 2021, as the COVID-19 pandemic pushed the sports world’s plans askew, while upending and altering family life across the board, so too did the Clarkes’ situation change.

It started with the pandemic shutting down the OHL season — where Brandt had been playing for the Barrie Colts, Graeme for the Ottawa 67’s — and ended with the duo making the decision to head to Europe together and test their talent against established pros. They got a shot with Slovakian club HC Nove Zamky, offering them their first chance to suit up in the same jersey. And while the younger Clarke learned plenty about life off the ice from their time spent abroad, he’s learned just as much from his brother about what life will soon be like on the ice, he said recently.

“He's kind of done all the things that I already want to do. So it's kind of nice that I get to follow his path,” Brandt said of his brother Graeme. “He had to kind of learn the ropes by himself. But I got to just follow him and he gets to help me every step of the way. So it's been it's been really nice.”

That lifeline’s been particularly useful as Brandt heads into the maelstrom of the NHL Draft.

“He just tells me, you know, just be truthful with how you speak, speak from the heart. You know, when you're having these kind of interviews, interviews with NHL clubs, just to be truthful, say what you mean. … You want to put yourself on a pedestal, but you want to be respectful at the same time. It's just stuff like that.

“He’s been a great help for me and I couldn't ask for much more from my big brother.”

Given where Brandt looks likely to be picked — most project him to land somewhere in the top five, and Sportsnet’s Sam Cosentino tabbed him to go as high as No. 2 in a recent mock draft — and where Graeme's organization, the Devils, are set to pick (No. 4), there’s a fair shot the Clarke brothers could some day be suiting up in the same jersey once agin.

“It's kind of cool to have that connection with my brother,” he said. “And yeah, if I got to play with him for the next 10, 15 years, that would be a dream come true.”

Every play matters

The reason Clarke ended up in Slovakia went beyond the pandemic alone. It was a process that started at home, a journey that was spurred by Clarke being spurned.

“You know, around November, I didn't make the world junior camp, which I was kind of frustrated about,” he said. “But I was really hungry to get going. I was training the whole summer. I didn't take any weeks off or anything — right when the OHL season was canceled, I got in the gym, got on the ice as soon as I could. So by that time, you know, when I didn't make that [team], when I didn't get that call, we started making calls to teams in Sweden, Finland, Germany.”

He was determined to end up somewhere, anywhere, to prove he could cut it at the next level. Like Greco’s seen time and time again, that inner fire began burning brighter the moment he was tested.

“You're like, ‘Oh, wow, everyone's been pushing for me. Everyone's been rooting for me. And I'm not living up to that,’” he says. “I have expectations of myself. I expected to make that [team]. I'm like, ‘Wow, I'm not impressing people as much as I thought I should be’. So, yeah, in a way, I did take offence to that. I was pretty upset that I didn’t make that team, that I wasn't considered one of the top U-20 players in Canada. So, yeah, I did use that as motivation.”

The initial European targets didn’t pan out as planned, but he eventually found his shot when HC Nove Zamky offered both Clarke brothers spots. And while Graeme had to leave the team just six games in, Brandt played out 26 tilts with the club, notching 15 points in that span.

But despite the production, it wasn’t his offensive game that grew the most out in Slovakia — it was Brandt's play in his own end, he said, shaped by the situation he and his Slovakian club found themselves in.

“We didn't have a lot of offence. We had to win games like 2-1, 3-2. It was always low scoring and we were always in the fight. We had a really young team that always wanted to prove that we could hang with these guys that are like 30 and really established in this league,” he said. “I think my overall game was polished up pretty nicely over there because every shift you're like, ‘OK, if you make a mistake, it’s in the back of your net, and we don't really have the firepower to just come back and catch up.’ So everything matters.

“You know, you've got to get the puck out when the opportunity is there. You can't mess up that pass. You can't let the other team intercept your pass. If this is on a two-on-one, like, you’re relied on here. You got to shut them down. The team’s counting on you. And I really took that and it really taught me, like, every play matters. Every shift matters.”

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