With older brother by his side, Colts’ Clarke set for Friday’s NHL Draft

"My whole life he's been huge for me and I wouldn't be where I am without him"

The 2021 NHL Draft will be held in a remote format this weekend from the NHL Network studios in New Jersey, but Brandt Clarke is still making sure he’s going to be in style when his name is called.

To that end, the Barrie Colts’ top prospect has already gone out and purchased a new suit.

“I needed one anyways, so it kind of worked out both ways,” said the 18-year-old, who several NHL pundits expect will be one of the first names called in Friday night’s first round.

As for picking out a new suit, Clarke could have turned to his older brother for advice. Graeme was selected in the third round (80th overall) in the 2019 NHL Draft by the New Jersey Devils.

But he didn’t.

“I didn’t take too much advice from him,” Clarke said laughing out loud. “I want to top what he got, for sure. I didn’t take any advice from him, but (mine) will be better.”

While the friendly sibling rivalry may extend to who will look sharper on draft day, the younger Clarke wants Graeme right by his side for his special moment.

The two have aspired to play in the NHL since they were young kids playing on the family driveway. Clarke is proud of how well Graeme played with the Devils’ AHL affiliate in Binghamton this past season and he makes it clear just how much his brother has done for him.

“I wouldn’t be where I am if it wasn’t for Graeme,” the six-foot-one, 181-pound defenceman said. “Even going back to when we were really young kids, he would always bring me out to skates or games with his friends when he was older than me. That made me have to keep up. I told myself I didn’t want to be the young kid that just was kind of slowing the game down. I really had to work hard to keep up with these guys’ speed.”

New Jersey holds the fourth overall pick in this year’s draft and Clarke admits he’s thought about having the opportunity to play with the same organization as his brother.

“My whole life he’s been huge for me and I wouldn’t be where I am without him,” he continued. “I couldn’t ask for much more from my big brother. He’s been great for me.

“You know what, I’ve also been talking to New Jersey and if I end up there and we get to play with each other for the next 10 or 15 years that’d be awesome.”

Clarke has leaned on his older brother, arriving a couple of years later into the OHL after the Ottawa 67’s selected Graeme.

It also helped to have a brother who has gone through all the pressures one has to deal with when it comes to an NHL draft.

“It’s kind of nice to be able to follow his path,” Clarke said. “He kind of had to figure out everything as he went, so he gets to be guiding me all the way. It’s been nice to have him by my side.

“He tells me what to do talk about in these interviews with NHL teams and to be truthful, so it’s real nice to have Graeme by my side this whole way. It’s definitely been very helpful for me.”

The COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc on the world. The OHL was forced to cancel last season, and all this coming in Clarke’s draft year.

With lockdowns effectively shutting down any playing option in North America, the Nepean native headed over to Europe with his brother in December to play in Slovakia with HC Nove Zamky, Imre Valasek.

“It wasn’t what I was expecting I was going to do this year. I wasn’t imagining I’d be in Europe,” Clarke said. “That wasn’t option A, that wasn’t what I was hoping for, but it’s kind of how the cards fell. Coming around December, stuff kept getting pushed back, COVID cases weren’t getting too much better. I think we just took the gamble that the OHL wouldn’t happen and we were right at the end.

Clarke knew getting into game action during his draft year was “crucial.” He ended up having fun on a “good team” and the fact that a lot of the guys spoke English made things a lot easier.

Most importantly, he got the chance to continue his development.

“Playing against older guys wasn’t easy,” said Clarke, who impressed with six goals and 13 points in 26 games. “The first couple of games were hard. They were already halfway through the year and I was just dropping in after, I don’t want to say nothing for nine months, but those game reps you really can’t replicate too much and they’re already in mid-season form.

“It was a little bit difficult the first couple of games to get my feet under me.

Once he did, he felt he got his game back and was confident out there.

“I was making good plays, being responsible defensively,” Clarke said. “Yeah, I think my overall game grew leaps and bounds over there. It was really good for me and I’m really proud of how I did and happy I got the opportunity.”

The growth continued from his strong development two years ago as a rookie with the Colts. Clark says he’s grown as a player, gotten stronger, faster, has a better shot, and is simply a better player.

“Even after the tournament (helping Canada’s U-18 national team win gold at worlds), I’ve had a big summer so far,” he said. “I’ve been in the gym, been on the ice a lot. Every day I want to get better and that’s how I’ve been my whole life.”

He’s thought a lot about the draft, after all, it’s hard not with it being such an important event in a young hockey player’s life.

Clarke is expected to go in the first 10 picks and has been ranked in the top five by several pundits. While he’s talked with several teams, he has no idea how the draft will go and which team will be calling his name.

All that matters to the young blueliner is that one does, and he can continue working to make his NHL dreams come true.

I don’t have any set team in my heart or anything like that, or a set team that likes me the most, it’s all been pretty standard,” he said. “I’m just really curious to see how it all plays out.

“I’m hoping to go as high as I can, but any NHL team would be an honour to be a part of.”

Clarke will be surrounded by family and friends on his big day and he wouldn’t have it any other way.

“They’re ecstatic,” he said of his family. “They were emotional when Graeme got drafted by New Jersey, it was a big day for our family. It was kind of a culmination of those practices early in the morning an hour away.

“They were worth it. It’s going to be a special day for my whole family.”

This day has been a long way coming for Clarke. Now it’s down to just hours, he can’t wait.

“It’s becoming more and more real. It’s finally sinking in,” he said. I’m really excited. It’s going to be lots of fun, but (nervous) no. It’s almost like there’s been so much stuff. . . It’s going to feel weird when the actual day comes when all this stuff pays off and becomes the culmination of it.

“It’s been a weird draft year for sure, but I’m kind of looking forward to seeing where I’m going to land.”

What makes the day even more special for Clarke is that he’ll have plenty of friends, former teammates, and Colts teammates who will also be drafted this weekend.

Barrie centre Jacob Frasca finished 120th overall on the NHL Central Scouting’s Final Draft Rankings. Colts defenceman Connor Punnett is No. 148 on the list, while forward Ethan Cardwell is No. 159.

Innisfil native and Mississauga Steelheads forward James Hardie was ranked 154th.

“I talked to those guys (Frasca, Punnett and Cardwell). It’s going to be a cool day for them,” Clarke said.  

The NHL draft begins with the first round on Friday at 8 p.m. and then wrapping with rounds two through seven on Saturday.

images: Terry Wilson/OHL Images