What would have happened had the Ontario Hockey League not been forced to cancel its season?
It’s a question Brandt Clarke has asked himself over and over again. A top-10 prospect in the upcoming NHL entry draft, this was supposed to be the biggest year of the 18-year-old’s hockey career. A year in which he showed scouts how much he had grown, how much his game had matured, and how ready he was for the next big challenge in the NHL.
Instead, with COVID-19 forcing the OHL to officially shut its doors on Tuesday, it’s been a year like no other for the Barrie Colts defenceman, who has spent almost as much time in quarantine as he has on the ice.
“I don’t want to lie: I expected it,” Clarke, who is in Dallas quarantining for the World Under-18 Hockey Championship, said of the OHL’s decision to forgo the season. “Some guys were holding out hope, but I knew back in March that it wasn’t going to happen. It’s devastating for some that never got to play anywhere.”
Unlike some of his peers, Clarke got to play this year. Just not where he expected.
While other major junior leagues in Canada have operated with limited schedules, Clarke, who spent the first four months of the season at home in Nepean, Ont., wondered where — and if — he was going to play this season.
It wasn’t until the end of December when an opportunity arose to play professionally in the Slovak Extraliga. Clarke, along with his brother Graeme, who is a prospect with the New Jersey Devils, quickly jumped at the chance, leaving for Slovakia on Christmas Day.
“There are some things that upset me about not playing in the OHL, but I’m not upset that I went to Slovakia,” Brandt said of playing for Nove Zamky, where he had six goals and 13 points in 26 games. “I think I did a lot of growing up. I had to do my own laundry, cook my own meals, things you wouldn’t do as an adult. I think I did pretty good for myself.”
On the ice, it was just as much of a learning experience.
In a league full of grown men who were 10-to-20 years older than him, Clarke got a glimpse of what life would be like in the NHL. At first, he struggled. Clarke got knocked off the puck with ease and had difficulty containing opponents who were bigger and stronger than him. But, eventually, he learned how to better use his body to spin off checks and improved his footwork into gaining positioning down low.
It’s the kind of development that should have improved his draft ranking.
Of course, considering how few NHL scouts are scouring the Slovakian hockey league, Clarke wonders how much his draft stock has suffered compared to others, such as Michigan Wolverines defenceman Owen Power or Sweden’s Simon Edvinsson, who spent the year playing in the NCAA or in higher leagues in Europe.
Even Dylan Guenther got more looks than Clarke did, considering the Edmonton Oil Kings winger has played a dozen games in the Western Hockey League this year.
“Could have I been No. 1?” asked Clarke, who led OHL rookie defencemen in points last year. “I’d like to think I would have pushed my way to the top of the draft board. But I don’t know.”
Neither do scouts.
North American Central Scouting’s Mark Seidel believes Clarke is the top-ranked player in the draft. But depending on the scout — NHL.com’s Mike Morreale has him at No. 3, TSN’s Bob McKenzie has him at No. 6 and Sportsnet’s Sam Cosentino has him at No. 7 — the opinions tend to vary.
After all, it’s been more than a year since anyone has really seen Clarke. He is still listed at 6-feet and 180 pounds on some websites, which was his height and weight as a rookie last year. He has since added two inches and 10 pounds to his still-growing body, as well as an all-around defensive game that many scouts are unaware of.
“He’s a fantastic hockey player. He’s an unbelievable talent,” said Barrie Colts GM Marty Williamson. “The under-18 championship is going to be very big for him.”
But what about those who don’t get to play at the under-18s? What about those who didn’t get loaned to Europe? If there is that much confusion regarding a top-end prospect like Clarke, what does that mean for someone like Barrie Colts forward Jacob Frasca, who hasn’t played hockey in more than a year?
“There’s a lot of what ifs,” said OHL commissioner David Branch. “What about those overage players who wanted to showcase their skills for a minor hockey opportunity or to get into a university program? What about those players who were draft-eligible, but not at the level that Brandt is? What abut those players who are drafted but not signed?
“There’s so many different layers.”
Branch hinted that there is the possibility of holding a showcase tournament with the WHL and QMJHL next month. But the experience of trying to plan anything during a pandemic tells him that the chances of actually pulling it off are slim. Twice, the league has been prepared to unveil a Return to Play plan. Both times, it was cancelled days before the announcement was made.
“It has put the players on a roller-coaster,” said Branch. “I don’t want to mislead the players and create a false sense of hope.”
As for Clarke, he’s not blaming anyone for what’s happened this year.
“Ontario is the biggest province, so I understand,” he said. “It crosses your mind, like, ‘Damn it sucks, why couldn’t they figure it out?’ But it wasn’t up to the league. I’m telling all my friends that there’s going to be a lot of draft steals.”
Maybe Clarke will be one of them.