Mike Krispanis, who coached Brandt Clarke for the U16 AAA Don Mills Flyers, took some time to reflect on the LA Kings prospect.
After playing at the U14 level in Ottawa, Brandt Clarke left his hometown to embark on the next step in his hockey career. At just 13, the future LA Kings prospect was about to join the Don Mills Flyers of the prestigious Greater Toronto Hockey League, which was arguably the most critical stage in his development as a player.
I recently had the privilege of speaking of former Flyers coach Mike Krispanis, who reflected on his time coaching Brandt Clarke from his first impressions of the LA Kings prospect to his development to his overall attitude.
After spending the previous two seasons in the Hockey Eastern Ontario U14 AA league, Clarke decided to take his game away from home in 2016. It was then when he joined the Don Mills Flyers, one of the most successful franchises in GTHL history. He first played for the U15 version of the Flyers before graduating to the club’s U16 club in 2018.
Upon joining the U16 squad, Clarke had prepared for a new level of hockey, hoping his new coaches would help him with his transition. One of Clarke’s new coaches was Mike Krispanis, who discussed the youngster’s beginning with the Flyers.
“The immediate impression I had of Brandt was a person who was mature beyond his years,” Krispanis told me. “A minor bantam (U14) player that seemed to have already figured out the correlation between hard work, dedication to his craft, and his ultimate goal of being a professional hockey player.”
As impressed as he was with Clarke’s game, it was what made the youngster tick as an individual that caught Krispanis’s attention.
“While his on-ice performance always spoke for itself, over his three years with the Flyers, his natural leadership capabilities became very apparent,” the coach noted. “By minor midget (U16), he had developed a voice in the locker room that was just as valuable as the full toolbox of hockey skills he was already showcasing.”
For many kids, being away from home for the first time can be a challenging ordeal. While getting used to new surroundings is normal for anyone, feeling homesick can play a major role in one’s transition to a new place. Fortunately for Brandt Clarke, this was not the case — at least not from his coach’s perspective.
“At the rink, Brandt didn’t show any signs of being homesick,” Krispanis recalled. “I’m sure being a teenager in a new city and being away from friends and family back home had an impact, but you would never know it when he was around the team. I think it speaks to his maturity that he truly understood that playing in Toronto was another milestone along the way to his ultimate goal.”
That wasn’t all, though.
“It also helped that Brandt became close with his new Flyer teammates very quickly and formed friendships that have stood the test of time beyond minor hockey, through the OHL Priority Selection, Hockey Canada involvement, and now on the NHL Draft stage,” Krispanis added. “In addition, his brother Graeme (now a New Jersey Devil) had also already gone through the process of moving to Toronto to play minor hockey in the GTHL. So, I think that definitely helped Brandt and his family in knowing what to expect and what challenges they may have to face.”
While his performance in the GTHL would pave the way for his eventual major-junior career, Brandt Clarke’s development was already ahead of schedule with the Flyers.
“Thinking about it now, the scary part is that the areas that I think he improved the most were already in the top-tier of the league, to begin with,” Krispanis beamed. “He found a way to further develop his strengths and take them to another level. His puck poise was excellent, so patient and confident with the puck on his stick. He learned to take calculated risks to make fantastic plays. He combined hockey IQ, vision, and stickhandling to essentially become a one-man breakout machine. Incoming forecheckers could never get a piece of him no matter how hard they tried.”
As impressive as this was, though, Clarke only got better with increased confidence.
“As his confidence in his own skill-set grew, he became a puck possession darling, often regrouping once or twice, maybe even three times, until picking the perfect time to snap a tape-to-tape breakout pass to a teammate or carry the puck seamlessly into the neutral zone by himself,” Krispanis explained. “Even a run-of-the-mill ‘glass-and-out’ play was purposeful and direct — see his assist on the OHL Cup overtime-winning goal. There aren’t exactly any reliable zone exit/entry stats in minor hockey, but if there were, Brandt would have been off the charts.”
A Born Leader
While he had the talent to take him to the next level, Brandt Clarke wasn’t content with just making himself better. Instead, the Ottawa native’s leadership not only made them better players but better people, as well. Heck, from a coach’s vantage point, this is beyond what they can ask for in one of their players. Mike Krispanis was no exception to this.
“Brandt was a hybrid of ‘leading by example’ and ‘vocal motivator,'” noted the former Flyers coach. “He was a player who showed up to the rink and helped set the tone of preparation and focus. He also always made sure he was doing his job on the ice. At the same time, when necessary, he developed the ability to vocally get everybody dialed in. Oftentimes during games, you would hear his voice on the bench reassuring those around him that everyone knew what they needed to do and were more than capable of doing it. You couldn’t help but get fired up by the genuine passion in his messages.”
With what they were seeing in Clarke’s prowess as a leader, the Flyers coaching staff could not continue without rewarding their star defenseman for his efforts.
“In minor midget (U16), the only year that the Flyers ever designated captains and alternates, Brandt was voted as one of the alternate captains by a fairly wide margin,” Krispanis reflected. “It was a natural fit. That leadership group created a very inclusionary space in the locker room, making sure everyone knew that they had a part to play.”
Advice for the Next Level
In 2018-19, Brandt Clarke was automatic for the Flyers.
In 73 games, the 6-foot-2 blueliner scored 35 goals and 73 assists for 113 points. This was en route to lead the Flyers to an OHL Cup victory, with the championship-winning goal assisted by, as Coach Krispanis mentioned, Mr. Clarke himself — with Shane Wright on a goal scored by current New York Rangers youngster Brennan Othmann.
But, all good things must come to an end. So, while the end of Clarke’s minor-midget career was unpleasant news for the Flyers, it was the start of something new for the young defenseman.
Taken fourth overall by the Barrie Colts in the 2019 OHL Draft, Clarke was poised for the next chapter in his career. First, though, the youngster received some pertinent advice before embarking on that next chapter.
“The messaging from head coach Marc Slawson, through the rest of the staff, and delivered to the team was consistent: hearing your name picked on OHL Priority Selection day is not the end of the journey, mission accomplished, or the end of the hard work,” Krispanis said. “It’s only one checkbox: the beginning of the next chapter. In fact, it’s going to take even more hard work and more discipline to continue to achieve your goals. For a player like Brandt, we tried to drive home the fact that with each new step along the way — OHL, then professional leagues — the talent pool gets more and more saturated. Every person in the locker room with you was likely a star player in minor hockey, so it’s going to take an even higher level of execution and maturity to impress coaches, general managers, and scouts.”
In 57 games for the Colts in 2019-20, Brandt shined as an OHL rookie, scoring six goals and adding 32 assists. Yet, while the season was suspended due to COVID-19, Clarke wasn’t content to sit around. More on that later, though.
As for Mike Krispanis, he couldn’t be prouder of Brandt Clarke’s progression, his passion, and the steps he took to become a Top 10 player at this past weekend’s NHL Draft. And you can bet that Krispanis, along with the LA Kings and their ever-loyal fanbase, are eager to see just what the 18-year-old can do at his first NHL training camp this fall.