Brandt Clarke could only wait so long. The top-rated 2021 NHL draft prospect is the best CHL player available in this year's crop, but because the OHL has yet to return to action, the talented Barrie Colts defenseman has been plying his trade in Slovakia for the past month.
Suiting up for Nove Zamky in Slovakia's best pro league gave Clarke the chance to get into game action, expand his horizons and play on the same team as his older brother Graeme Clarke, a New Jersey Devils prospect from the Ottawa 67's.
"We jumped on the opportunity because we've never played together," Brandt said. "We thought it would be a fun experience and it's been good over here, I'm really glad I made that decision."
Graeme left Slovakia recently, as he was given the chance to play for the AHL's Binghamton Devils - who will actually be based out of New Jersey's NHL facilities for the 2021 campaign.
Brandt is very excited for his brother, though it did leave the 17-year-old with a bit of a conundrum: all the way back in Slovakia, he had to cook for himself for the first time in his life. Luckily, Graeme is a good big brother, as he wrote out two pages of instructions for Brandt, outlining how to cook and prepare the meals he usually made in their European apartment, right down to how long the chicken needed to be in the pan before it gets flipped. So how's it going?
"It's coming along OK," Clarke said. "I wouldn't call myself anywhere close to good yet, but it's coming along."
Of course, the reason Nove Zamky was interested in Clarke is that he can really cook on the ice. A gifted puckmover and skater, the blueliner played on the same juggernaut Don Mills under-16 squad as Shane Wright, Brennan Othmann and Roman Schmidt. Clarke put up a bonkers 113 points in 73 games that year while playing in the Toronto-based GTHL, the most competitive minor hockey circuit in the world.
That campaign led to the Colts taking Clarke fourth overall in the 2019 OHL draft and the kid rewarded Barrie right away, leading the team in blueline scoring as a rookie with 38 points in 57 games.
After an earlier attempt to play in Sweden was scuttled over his contract status, Clarke headed over to Slovakia, where his work on the ice has been an eye-opener for the Extraliga squad.
"He was born a hockey player - his skills and hockey sense are on a different level," said Nove Zamky GM Imre Valasek. "That's the difference between him and our players; his ceiling and his natural skills. When I go to watch the game, I'm happy to watch him play. It's very nice."
And the experience of playing against men has been a great one for Clarke, who ordinarily wouldn't have such an opportunity back in North America.
"You have these 6-foot-6, 240-pound forwards coming down on you with the puck or battling you in the corner - it's not like I'm going to come out of that battle with the puck," Clarke said. "So I almost have to outsmart guys if I want to win that board battle."
Nove Zamky hasn't scored much this season, but the upshot for Clarke is that he believes his defensive game has come a long way as a result. And not only is he benefitting from playing in Slovakia, but his GM believes that having the elite teen on the squad has been good for them.
"It's not just about one club, it's good for all of Slovakian hockey because we can see what a good prospect looks like," Valasek said. "We can see what we can improve and what we must do to be better. For me, it was very nice to bring in younger players who might be future NHLers. Graeme and Brandt showed us how hockey is in Canada and what we can improve here."
Nove Zamky has a couple other imports on the team who live in the same apartment building as Clarke and they give him rides to the rink, but the youngster has also seen some fellow Canadians on the ice. Liptovsky Mikulas, another team, has five OHLers on their roster right now, including NHL draft picks Ty Tullio (EDM) and Allan McShane (MTL).
"It was pretty cool seeing some familiar faces," Clarke said. "They're the only guys I knew; with everyone else over here I'm going in blind - I don't even know who the top players are here."
Based on his trajectory as a prospect, fans might end up knowing Clarke as a top player in the NHL in the near future.