This wasn't the draft year Brandt Clarke expected, but it might have been exactly what the 18-year-old needed.
Clarke was one of the many Ontario Hockey League players that saw their season cancelled in 2019-20. On top of that, the entire 2020-21 season was also officially cancelled on April 20, 2021, despite the league's efforts to reach a Return to Play agreement with the province's government.
But Clarke, a 6'2" right shot defenceman from Ottawa, still found a way to play 26 professional games.
"Around November I didn't make the World Junior Camp, which I was frustrated about, but I was really hungry to get going," said Clarke, whose older brother Graeme - selected in the third round of the 2019 NHL Draft by New Jersey - was also ultimately cut from Canada's World Junior roster.
"He got back and he wasn't too happy he got cut. He wanted to prove himself and he wanted to go play," said Clarke. "This Slovakia team offered me and Graeme spots. We jumped at the opportunity."
The fact both boys would be heading overseas together made it a slightly easier sell for their parents. Just three weeks into their season with HC Nove Zamsky though, the younger Clarke found himself in Slovakia alone.
Graeme - who like his brother, expected to play in the OHL in 2020-21 - was sent to New Jersey's AHL affiliate, the Binghamton Devils.
"I wasn't really sure how I was going to personally react to that. I think I did pretty solid for myself," said Clarke. "He was telling me 'we're going to bed now, let's turn our phones off.' He was waking me up in the morning. I didn't have that anymore. I had to be more independent.
"It's the professional hockey feeling. In a sense, I think I did a lot of growing up while I was over there."
In his 26 games in Slovakia's top tier league, Clarke had five goals and 15 points. His team was young and didn't have the offensive firepower of other teams in the league, which helped an offensively gifted defenceman - like Clarke - round out his game in the defensive zone.
"Overall, just being able to have guys that are 30, 31-years-old battling with me in front of the net and me finding ways (to succeed): tie their sticks up, not letting them get rebounds - winning corner battles, getting better body position to spin off guys in the corner," said Clarke.
"I really took that and it really taught me that every play matters, every shift matters, both ends of the ice."
The offensive side of the game has always come naturally to him. In his shortened rookie season with the Barrie Colts of the OHL in 2019-20, Clarke had 38 points in 57 games. He led all rookies in assists with 32 and was named to the league's first All-Rookie team.
During that season, he attempted the lacrosse-style goal, though he was unsuccessful on that occasion. He pulled it off in minor hockey with the Don Mills Flyers.
While plays like that are an extreme example, it's just a glimpse into the repertoire that the seventh-ranked North American skater has.
"Before the puck comes to me, I know what's going on the other side of the ice," said Clarke. "I make sure to master those 10-foot passes. Sometimes that's your only play.
"One in every five times you can make a cool play, or you can walk the blue line, get a shot through, or throw one down low for a quick one-timer from one of the forwards, I feel like I can do that pretty well too. It starts with being able to understand where openings are and always communicating."
His offensive game was on full display during Canada's gold medal win at the 2021 World Under-18 Championship in Frisco, TX in late April.
In seven games, Clarke had seven points and was named a tournament all-star. Two of his points came in the final two games of the tournament, including an assist in a semi-final win over Sweden and another helper in the final - on the eventual game-winner, no less - in a 5-3 win over Russia.
Clarke felt Canada's group came together quickly and embraced the opportunity to not only play for gold, but also play against the top-ranked players in their age group from around the world.
"You hear about these guys, the top-rated guys from other countries, you don't really see them," said Clarke. "Being able to line up against these guys and see what they're made of, it was fun. It was challenging. These are the best players in the world at my age group and, I guess, the age group underneath as well."
Considering the league he planned to play in wasn't an option, Clarke made the most of the 2020-21 campaign.
Now, his focus is on training and waiting for the 2021 NHL Draft, which will be held virtually for the second straight year on July 23 and 24.
"I'm proud of what I've accomplished but there is still a long way to go," said Clarke. "I'm still not where I want to be. I'm not a perfect hockey player and that motivates me to get better every single day."