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'HUNGRY TO GET GOING'

NHL Draft prospect Brandt Clarke turned the disappointment of being cut from Canada's World Junior squad into one of the best years of his career

by RYAN DITTRICK @ryandittrick / CalgaryFlames.com

Motivation comes in many forms.

Disappointment, anger and sadness can all be a strong sources of it in this game. The insatiable hunger to prove 'em all wrong - a me-against-the-world-type mindset that has fueled winners for eons.

So, when one of life's little speedbumps took a bite out of Brandt Clarke, he got right back to work and turned a bad-news day into a big-time achievement.

"I've had a life where I've had a lot of things go my way," Clarke said of being cut from Team Canada's World Junior roster last winter. "I've been on good teams - teams where I've been very well supported.

"So, this happens and you're like, 'Wow, everyone's been pushing for me, everyone's been rooting for me, and I'm not living up to that. I mean, I have expectations of myself - I expected to make that team. And I thought, 'OK, I'm not impressing people as much as I should be.'

"In a way, I did take offence to that.

"I was pretty upset that I didn't make that team and wasn't considered one of the top-20 players in Canada."

With the OHL season on hold, international events were some of the only opportunities for a ravenous host of NHL draft hopefuls to turn heads at the scouting bureaus.

That's why it stung so much when Clarke's dream getaway officially hit the skids. Suddenly, the most important season of his hockey career was on life support, with no apparent way out.

And that, he was unwilling to accept.

"I was really hungry to get going," said Clarke, who's ranked seventh among North American skaters by NHL Central Scouting. "I was training the whole summer and I didn't get any weeks off or anything. Right when the OHL season was cancelled, I got right back in the gym, got on the ice as soon as I could.

"So, we started making calls to teams in Sweden, Finland, Germany, but it didn't work out."

However, soon the stars aligned in the most perfect way possible.

 

 

Brandt's older brother, Graeme - a third-round pick of the New Jersey Devils in 2019 - was also vying for a spot on that Canadian roster, but suffered a similar fate in his hunt for a roster spot.

That set the stage for a Clarke Family first - a reunion, of sorts, halfway around the world, as both brothers were offered a spot with Nové Zámky of the Slovak Extraliga.

Never before had the two brothers played together.

But, in this - a season like no other - the divine timing seemed oddly appropriate.

"It's definitely something we'll be telling our families about in the future," said Clarke, adding the family affair ended sooner than expected.

Graeme was recalled back to North America and reported to the Devils' AHL affiliate in Binghamton for the rest of the season, leaving 17-year-old Brandt to navigate life in a new world by himself.

And yet, that might have been the best thing for him.

"I wasn't really sure how I was personally going to react to that, but I think I did pretty well for myself," Clarke said. "I didn't let it affect my on-ice play.

"When he was there with me, he was always telling me, 'OK, we're going to go to bed now,' and we'd turn off our phones. He was waking me up in the morning, too. I didn't have that anymore, so I had to (become) more independent. But I think I did a pretty good job of that living on my own - the professional hockey feeling.

"In that sense, I think I did a lot of growing up while I was over there."

His evolution between the boards was equally massive, with 13 points (6G, 7A) in 26 games, in a league where many of the players are 10, even 15 years older. While Clarke is primarily known for his offence, the 6-foot-2, 185-lb., right-shot blueliner took big strides in his defensive game as well - a must for a team that rarely blew the doors off its opponents.

"If you look into the numbers, we were the second-lowest budget team in the league," Clarke said. "So, we weren't the highest-powered team - we didn't have a lot of offence and had to win games 2-1, 3-2. It was always low scoring and we were always in a fight.

"Every shift, it was like, 'OK, if you make a mistake and it's in the back of your net, we don't have the firepower to come back and catch up.' So, everything matters. You have to get the puck out when the opportunity is there. You can't mess up that pass. If you're defending a 2-on-1, you're relied on here - you have to shut them down. The team's counting on you.

"Overall, I think being able to play against guys that are 30, 31 years old, battling in front of the net … preventing them from getting to rebounds, winning corner battles, getting better body position to spin off guys in the corners - stuff like that, that kept the puck moving north and not letting the other team create cycles, really helped develop my overall game."

 

 

Clarke returned to North America in the spring to compete in the World Under-18s - a tournament that, for the first time all year, saw him lining up against players in the same draft class.

He was absolutely phenomenal, scoring twice and adding five helpers, while playing huge minutes in seven games en route to a gold medal.

More than anything, he wowed the masses with his world-class elusiveness and straight-line skating ability. He showed why he's an absolute magician on the breakout, fooling forecheckers with an unbelievable set of hands, combined with his elite-level hockey sense.

Of anyone in the draft, no one does it better.

"I feel like I'm really poised with the puck," Clarke said. "I always have my head up, always know where my teammates are. Even before the puck comes to me, I know what's going on on (the other) side of the ice.

"I'll be like, 'OK, if I can get a shot off quick, a guy's going to the net, maybe we can get a rebound.' Or, it's like, 'OK, I kind of have time here. Let me hold onto it, let me walk the blueline, let me swivel my hips, maybe create some space for my guys on the half wall that have more of a lane to shoot.' Just stuff like that.

"Sometimes you have to go D-to-D to your partner - that's the only safety-valve play that you have. Sometimes you have to go down the wall. I feel comfortable doing that if that's there. One in every five times, you can make a cool play, or you can walk the blueline, or you can get a shot through or throw one down low for a quick one-timer from one of the forwards - I feel I can do that pretty well, too.

"That's what it starts with - being able to recognize the ice, recognizing where the opposition is, and being able to pick my spots."

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