The Ontario Hockey League, one of the three major junior leagues in Canada, and his team Barrie Colts had to stop the 2020/2021 season due to the COVID pandemic situation in mid-March last year and with the new season still not started, Clarke and his agent were looking for other possibilities to play for the forward.
With options limited in North America, Europe gave him a glimmer of hope as almost all professional leagues started the season by October. Brandt Clarke had the goal of playing with his elder brother Graeme, who was in the same situation since the AHL’s season start got postponed.
Eventually, both brothers found a new destination in Slovakia, where the GM of HC Nove Zamky, Imre Valasek, offered them two import spots on the team and found accommodation straightaway so they could start playing in December.
For Brandt Clarke, it was a unique opportunity. After just one major junior league season he got the opportunity to play in a professional, adults’ league for the first time.
After a difficult start he amassed 5 goals and 10 assists in 26 games including eight points in his last five games.
IIHF.com sat down with 18-year-old prospect from Ottawa and talked with him about his situation, the upcoming 2021 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship in Texas and his thoughts about the NHL draft. If called to the roster, Clarke will soon return to North America to prepare for the U18 Worlds.
You have spent more than two months in Slovakia. Was it in your plans?
No, obviously it wasn’t originally my plan. I thought I will be with the Barrie Colts this season, my OHL team, but that all fell through. Then I looked up for places like Sweden, Germany, but that also didn’t really work out. When the GM of Nove Zamky let my agent know that there is a spot in the team for me and my brother, we just jumped for the opportunity. Immediately we packed our bags and flew over to Slovakia in the same week. We missed to play together, and we just wanted to play hockey in general because it’s been long time since we had played any games. We were excited not only because we got an opportunity to play together but also to play a real hockey.
Did you know anything about Slovakia before you came there?
I didn’t know about this country too much. But I am happy that I made this decision because it’s been fun so far. Everyone’s been very welcoming to me, it’s been great. But I didn’t really know what to expect when I came over here.
How did you even end up in Slovak team HC Nove Zamky?
My agent looked up for a place to play. He knew the OHL will have obstacles to play due to COVID situation. We knew they wanted to start, but we didn’t know whether it was going to happen. So, he looked up all different places we could go. Imre Valasek let us know that there are two import spots in Nove Zamky and I am really glad that I made this choice because it’s great time over here.
You said you were looking up for the league in Sweden or Germany. Why did you choose the Slovak Extraliga?
I know there were bunch of the teams. They just knew what kind of player I am. I chose Slovakia because Nove Zamky gave me and my brother an opportunity to play. Now I could say that it was the selling point because every team that wanted us didn’t know what kind of accommodation we would get or some places didn’t guarantee us import spots. When Nove Zamky let us know that they set the apartments up for us and had two import spots open, me and my brother signed the papers straightaway.
Wasn’t it strange for you to come to play hockey overseas in this part of the year?
Yeah, absolutely. I think there were like 25 games played already when we came here, so it was like mid-season form and we didn’t play a single game for almost nine months. That’s why it was big adjustment for us. We’ve been thrown to deep end quickly. But now I can feel more comfortable, I can feel I would do a lot more good plays and my performance also has increased. Yeah, it was a rocky adjustment, but once I got comfortable, I felt I could dominate.
This is your first contact with senior hockey. Has it been as you expected it?
Yeah, I’d said so. I knew there will be lot stronger and faster players. It’s not easy to knock guys out of the puck, because every player here is very smart. They can make plays in top speed too and there is lot of skill in the league. It’s not easy to turn guys down and it’s hard to get good body position against 30-year-old men. So, it’s quite a few steps up from the OHL, where you just push guys of the puck, because they are not that strong. It was a big adjustment for me, but overall, I think it’s been just beneficial for my development.
You said that the adapting for professional hockey was difficult from the start. Can you explain what the hardest thing was for you?
The competition. The first time I came here, guys were a lot bigger and the first games I got knocked down very easily because I didn’t expect it. It wasn’t good luck for me, I didn’t feel too confident the way I was. Eventually, it’s just the way to learn to get a better body position or outthink them sometimes. If I do want to play at a high level like in the NHL one day, it’s good development that I can play against older men at my age.
How was Slovakia as a country for you?
Well, it’s COVID pandemic, so we cannot go to see many places. Unfortunately, we are in this situation, but I would love to do more sightseeing or trave.ling around Slovakia. Pretty much the only places where I go are the rinks, hotels and grocery stores. We don’t really see too many people. What I’ve seen is that all people have been good to me. I am really grateful for that.
You became 18 recently. Were you able to celebrate this birthday somehow?
Not really. We had about five guys at the hotel and the owner gave me a big cake, so I just shared it with them. We hung out only in our kitchen and that was it. Despite that it was nice, we played poker and stuff like that. It was still fun. Sure, it wasn’t like big party, but it was still enjoyable.
Do you miss your parents?
I do. I talk to them almost every night. They are still supporting me and try to watch as many games as possible, because they can’t get all of them streamed. They’ve been very supportive back home and I couldn’t ask much more from them.
You came to Slovakia with your brother Graeme. But in mid-January he went back to join his AHL team. Don’t you feel a little lonely right now?
I wasn’t sure how to react when he left. I thought it would be hard because he was my cook too. But I figured it out on my own right now. And there are still other guys who live in the hotel and speak English, which makes it easier for me. Originally when Greame left, I was upset. But he left for the great opportunity, getting to start his AHL career and I am hoping he will play in the NHL one day. To be honest I didn’t want him to leave but I understand the circumstances. And he just signed with New Jersey two weeks earlier, which is great, and I am happy for him. But it was unfortunate that our time to play together was that short.
You are expected to be one of the top draft pics. How does it feel?
It’s great. I’m glad that I came all the way to Slovakia. People in NHL clubs are really up to what I’m doing and keep an eye on me. That’s a good feeling. It’s also good to hear that they like my progress and how I play when I talk to them during Zoom meetings. That makes me feel really good and hopefully I can stay on the good side and get the highest pick possible.
But there are constantly high expectations on you every game. Isn’t it hard to deal with it?
I don’t know. Even going back to the OHL draft, they always considered me as highly talented prospect. I understood I can’t focus on outside stuff and just have to play my game. If we are winning the games, that usually means I play very well so that’s all I can focus on. I wouldn’t say I get too nervous by the attention that I get.
Were there any scouts to come over to Slovakia to look at you so far?
Yeah, the guy from Detroit Red Wings have been here and a scout from the Tampa Bay Lighting too. It’s been cool because they know the game really well. I get feedback from them how I’m doing and what they think I should fix and that’s awesome. I love taking that criticism, which is helping me to add adjustments to my game. It’s always nice to have these meetings especially recently.
Do you prefer any NHL team to draft you?
No, no, I wouldn’t say there are any preferences. I mean, it would be cool if I go to Ottawa, because it’s my hometown, but I would be happy anywhere. It’s the NHL, they all are good organizations so wherever I end up, I will be happy.
Do you think you are ready to play in the NHL next season?
I think so. I still feel like I’m growing. I will try to put some muscles this summer and I feel that these pro games here in Slovakia are holding my body well. So I think, if I can develop and get these adjustments as quickly as I have got them here, I can play in the NHL next season. We´ll just see what the teams will says, whoever selects me. If they want me to play in the OHL in another season, I will do it. But if I do get the opportunity to play in the NHL next season it would be awesome, I´ll be out for it.
There is another opportunity to show up your skills in the upcoming 2021 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship in April. Do you expect to play there?
I have been asking my agent and he talked to the coach whether I would have a spot on the team. I hope I will be there and if it will happen, I will be really excited for that. Especially getting back with all my friends, because I know many guys who could be on that team. And we are Canada so we will have a strong line-up. It is always fun to join that highly talented group of guys.