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Mark Masters

SPORTSCENTRE Reporter

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When top prospect Brandt Clarke does interviews with National Hockey League teams the questions are often similar and expected. That's why the session with the New York Islanders stood out. 

"They run you through a test and you sit on Zoom for like two hours and they have, like, a sheet of paper on the screen and you just answer math questions and [different] stuff," the Barrie Colts defenceman said. "I asked around and was like, 'Were they trolling me, or is that actually what they do?'"

He found out that older brother Graeme, a third-round pick of the New Jersey Devils in 2019, experienced the same thing a couple years ago, as did some of his friends this year. 

"I guess there's something there [in the questions] that they realize your personality traits but, yeah, that was definitely strange and I wasn't too sure how it aligned with hockey, but you just got to get through it."

On the ice, Clarke seems to have all the right answers. He helped Team Canada win gold at the world under-18 championship in May, finishing with seven points in seven games. With the Ontario Hockey League unable to hold a season due to the pandemic, Clarke played in Slovakia's top professional league, where he posted 15 points in 26 games with Nove Zamky. 

The 18-year-old Ottawa native is ranked seventh by NHL Central Scouting on their final list of North American skaters. Clarke came in No. 6 on TSN Hockey insider Bob McKenzie's mid-season list, which is based on a sampling of scouts. 

Clarke spoke to TSN about his experience overseas, admiring Erik Karlsson as a Senators fan growing up, and why he doesn't mind getting into it with guys verbally on the ice. The following is an edited transcript of the interview. 

What will you remember most about the experience playing in Slovakia? 

"Me and my brother went over there originally, but he was only there for three weeks. He got the call back to play in the American Hockey League so then it was just kind of me living on my own halfway across the world. It was a different experience, but one I definitely think was worthwhile. I was really fortunate that, even in a year where not much was going on, I still got to have a pretty good scenario."

How do you think you held up against men in a professional league? 

"It was definitely an adjustment, especially since I went over in late December and they were already 20, 25 games into their season. They were in mid-season form and I was playing professional hockey for the first time, so it was definitely an adjustment the first couple of games. I had to get my feet under me and start thinking the game at that speed. Some guys were pushing me off the puck easier than I would've liked. After the first couple games, I kind of got my feet under me and I was making more plays. I was more calm with the puck. I was holding onto the puck longer and making safer plays and not just throwing it away quickly. I felt like once I got comfortable I started to play my game. I started to dominate a little bit and it was a big confidence boost for me knowing that I am playing against these guys and I can out-skill them and, if I have better body position, I can win corner battles."

 

What was the culture shock like off the ice? 

"Yeah, it was a culture shock. Having to cook my own meals, do my own grocery shopping. I've been pretty fortunate that my parents have kind of spotted me in those departments, but I had to do that. I made it work so that was part of growing up, I guess. In terms of the dressing room, we had a lot of great guys. A lot of them were from age 25 to 32. They were really welcoming of me and 80 per cent of them spoke English too, so that was a nice surprise. They welcomed me with open arms and they wanted me to do my thing. They were really supportive. It was a great organization."

 

You were named a tournament all-star at the world under-18 championship in Texas en route to winning gold with Team Canada. What did you take from that experience? 

"We had a pretty star-studded team, but some of the guys hadn't played for 14 months or something like that, so we were worried at the start. Like, was rust going to be a problem? Are we going to have to ease our way into this tournament? Are we going to drop a couple games early? But then we beat Sweden 12-1, so that worry was right out the window and then we kept rolling from there. There was a different guy who stepped up every night. We all did our job and production-wise there were a couple different players every night and that's what you need. That's why other teams couldn't hone in on us. We had a great group and I made a lot of friends and definitely some memories that will last me a lifetime."

 

Where do you keep the gold medal? 

"It's in my room right now. It's hanging in my room. It's at the forefront. You see it right away when you walk in."

 

This season you switched from the P92 mid-curve blade to the P28 toe curve. What sparked the change?

"The skills trainer I work with always preached that that's a curve you should use and that's a curve that gives you more opportunity and lets you play further away from your body. You have your hands off your body more, which gives you more room to go to your forehand or go to your backhand. I feel like it fits my game really well. If I'm walking the blueline, it's kind of sitting in the toe already and I can either sling it back to one of my forwards who are wanting a pass or, if the lane is there, I can sling it to the net. I just feel like the puck is always in a shooting-ready spot, but it's also not difficult at all to shimmy and make a pass. It suits my game and definitely is the curve I will rock with from here on out." 

 

Why do you use blade tape versus traditional hockey tape?

"A lot of people ask me that. A lot of guys on my team give it to me sometimes. It's kind of unorthodox, but I like it. I've used it since I was a kid. My dad gave it to me and my brother when I was younger. A lot of people had it when they were in novice and atom, like ages seven to 10, and then they made the switch and I just didn't make the switch. I guess I missed that trend. It's just something I'm used to now. I had a couple practices last summer when I went back to tape and I just didn't feel the puck as much. I take a couple chirps from the boys sometimes for it, but it's worthwhile, because it benefits me."

 

Your older brother went through the draft process not long ago. What's the best advice Graeme has given you? 

"It's been nice to follow his path. He had to learn on the fly and now he gets to tell me a bunch of advice. He says, 'Be respectful, be yourself and show the personality qualities that you have in these interviews.’ With the tournaments or in Slovakia, he tells me, 'Don’t shy away from your game.' He said, 'Clearly, what you've been doing has been working and people like the way you play. People like the way you move out there. If you're feeling down on yourself just remember that the way that you do things is what got you this far and don't take criticism and just keep strutting along. You're going to carve your own path and it’s going to go really well for you.' I always take his advice. It means a lot to me."

 

Our director of scouting, Craig Button, has you going to New Jersey fourth overall in his latest mock draft. What would it be like to play with your brother in the NHL?

"That'd be cool. All NHL teams are cool, but if me and Graeme could be together for a really long time and make our paths together in the NHL, that would be awesome." 

 

What was your favourite moment growing up in Ottawa as a Senators fan?

"I'll go with 2017 when Karlsson was dominating and they had [Mark] Stone and [Mike] Hoffman and they made the Eastern Conference final and Game 7 went to overtime. I was watching that game with my head right in front of the screen. That was really tense and I was really upset when they didn't come out on top that night. But that run was crazy and they were putting on a show every single night. Karlsson was my favourite player growing up and seeing him doing the things he does at the playoff level, as you can see in the playoffs this year, playoffs is a different game, but he was still the best player in the world and separating himself and making something happen every time he was on the ice, so that was pretty remarkable to see."

 

What was it like getting the chance to skate with Karlsson last summer? 

"That was crazy. Being on the ice last summer with guys like Karlsson, Thomas Chabot and Claude Giroux, I was like, 'Holy crap! I really got to focus in here.' It’s summer skates and we're doing scrimmages and they're going 75 per cent and not going all out, but I'm going all out. I can't let one of these guys burn me. I know how talented these guys are and if I take the foot off the gas for one second I'm going to get dangled, so I was all in. I was 100 per cent focused."

 

I understand you like to talk on the ice. How much is trash talking part of your game?

"In terms of talking, it's more with my own teammates. I like communicating. I like, before draws, telling guys where to go and saying, 'I'll be here, if you get the puck there then maybe I'll cut backdoor and you can look for me if that option is there.' In terms of trash talking, if a guy gives me a shot in front of the net, you know, I don't mind getting in front of his face and stuff like that. If he's going at me then sometimes I'll go back at him. I'm like that. I'm not going to say I'm the best trash talker in the world. I'm not trash talking every, single shift, but I don't shy away from going back at guys."

 

During an interview on Showbound: The Podcast earlier this year you spoke about getting into it with Dallas Stars first rounder Thomas Harley and some other guys during an overtime game against Mississauga. And then you actually called your shot and told them you were going to score. Is that the favourite chirp from your young career?

"It's got to be that one. I always think back to that. These three guys, they were all NHL-drafted players, and it’s overtime and our two other guys, who were on with us, already went to the bench and it was just me barking at all three of these guys and telling them that I was going to score next shift and send them home and, 'Have a good bus ride home.' And I did score. So, I even surprised myself. I don't surprise myself too much, but the fact it happened on the very next shift after I called it was definitely pretty cool."

 

What got into you that night?

"These guys were whacking me and I don't know. It was a big rivalry. Barrie-Mississauga, you know, the one-hour rivalry and we play each other pretty often in the season, so we're pretty familiar with each other and, in the heat of the moment, I was just like, 'I'm going to score this shift and you're all going to catch dashes.' And that's exactly what happened. It was pretty funny."

 

You seem to have a swagger to your game. You pulled off the lacrosse move with the Don Mills Flyers in minor hockey. We've seen that move done a bit more of late all around the hockey world, but maybe not by defencemen. What inspired that?

"It's a thing that's blowing up these days. It started a couple years ago and you see guys pulling it off more and more. Graeme's really good at it. He gets like one or two a season, which is pretty remarkable. In terms of me, a defenceman isn't behind the net with time and space too often, but I pulled it off once with Don Mills and I actually tried it once in Barrie last year, too. It's cool if it works out. It's actually kind of an effective way, if there's no passing options, to get a shot on net from a place where you usually wouldn't be able to get a shot on net. It's not the first option you should think of when you're in the offensive zone, but once in a blue moon, if that's the right play, just try and use your skill and be creative and hopefully it works out and you don't stick the goalie in the face." 

 

What's the focus for you this off-season? 

"When I was in the Slovak league there were a lot of bigger guys, who were stronger than me ... so I want to build my upper-body strength. I want to be filled out. I'm hoping to be north of 200 pounds next season. I'm closer to 190 now. I want to be north of 200 pounds and being able to push guys off the puck. 

"And another thing is my first-step explosiveness. I feel like once I get to my top speed, once I get up skating, I'm pretty fluid, pretty shifty and a pretty good skater. But if me and another guy are at a standstill, I'm not as fast out of the gates as I want to be so that's kind of what I'm working on. That will help me in situations like a two-on-two and there's a guy who chips the puck around me, as a d-man you got to pivot and go get it in the corner. If I can get to the corner even quicker, you know, that allows me to use my creativeness, have my head up and make a play and not just have to whack it away."

 

What makes Tony Greco, who you work with, a good trainer?

"His energy. The atmosphere he creates in the gym. He makes you want to be there and makes you want to put in the work. He's done so much for me. I'm so thankful for him. We have a group where it's me, my brother, Claude Giroux, Jack Quinn, a Buffalo Sabres pick last year, and it's a fun group. Some people are like, 'Ah, I have to go to the gym today. It's a drag.' But Tony makes the atmosphere into, 'Wow, I get to go to the gym today. This is awesome! I'm going to have fun today.' I'm excited when that morning comes and I get to go to the gym, because he makes it a good time and everyone wants to put in the work. It's just a fun atmosphere."