Imre Valášek, Brandt Clarke’s coach from Slovakia, discussed the LA Kings prospect and how he adapted to the professional ranks last season.
It would be an understatement to suggest that the COVID-19 pandemic threw the hockey world into disarray. No leagues and players immune. In fact, the Ontario Hockey League was among those hit the hardest as their entire 2020-21 campaign was canceled. For the OHL’s players, they were forced to find new, albeit temporary, teams. Barrie Colts defenseman, and new LA Kings prospect, Brandt Clarke, was no exception to this.
After an impressive rookie season in Barrie, where he scored six goals and 32 assists in 57 games, the proverbial brakes screeched on Brandt Clarke’s season. But, after the necessary self-isolation period and with the OHL’s 2020-21 season scrapped, the Ottawa native had to look elsewhere for hockey solace, if you will. Thankfully, he found it across the Atlantic — specifically for HC Nové Zámky of the Slovak Extraliga.
I recently had the pleasure of speaking with HC Nové Zámky CEO, Imre Valášek, who was a fan of Clarke’s right from the start.
“We knew that a young talented hockey player with a great future was coming, and we were looking forward to the arrival of Brandt and, of course, his older brother Graeme,” Valášek said. “[Brandt’s] a nice guy, so the impressions were great. He was getting better every day, and if he hadn’t gone to the U18 World Championships, it would have been a big boost for us in the playoffs.”
Like most North American players, the adjustment to the European game can be a daunting one. While transitioning to the professional ranks is a significant adjustment in itself, the bigger ice surface can also take some — nay, plenty of — getting used to. Heck, add not playing hockey for nearly a full year to the mix, and you have an unenviable situation. This was just the scenario for Clarke upon his arrival to Slovakia. To his credit, though, the 18-year-old battled through.
“From the beginning, it was not easy for him,” Valášek admitted. “He was in a new country and did not play a competitive [game] for almost nine months.”
As previously mentioned, though, Brandt wasn’t alone on his voyage to Slovakia. He was joined by his brother Graeme, who was drafted by the New Jersey Devils in 2019. Brandt was hoping for a reliable support system from his brother, and that’s exactly what he got.
“It was great for Brandt to come here with his older brother Graeme, who helped him a lot in the beginning,” Valášek observed. “His performances gradually grew, and after a few [games], he became a leader and fully showed his incredible qualities.”
In a short time, the bigger ice surface became a non-issue for the Kings prospect.
“He coped with the size of the ice surface relatively quickly because he is an excellent skater, Valášek added. “He became a leader, not by age but by performance on the ice.”
While he provided great support for his younger brother, Graeme played only six games for HC Nové Zámky before returning to North America to play in the AHL. As for Brandt, he soldiered on. In addition to establishing himself as a leader, the 18-year-old earned his keep offensively, scoring six goals and adding seven assists in 26 games for HC Nové Zámky to go in hand with a plus-6 rating. But, according to the club’s CEO, there was another area where Clarke celebrated significant improvement.
“It was funny to watch Brandt learn to cook,” Valášek said, laughing. “But, by the end of the season, he was
already a good cooker.”
Nevertheless, the communication between Clarke and his coaches was second-to-none, as it was with the club’s CEO.
“Me and Brandt? Excellent communication,” emphasized Valášek. “We stayed in one hotel, so we met constantly. We changed coaches during the season, and Brandt had the opportunity to work with two coaches. Communication with them was easy because the coaches spoke English.”
While he may not be part of the club’s coaching staff, Valášek nonetheless has a close relationship with his team’s players, knowing what happens off the ice as well as what goes on during games. Valášek’s observations of Clarke in both capacities have him admiring the youngster as a person, much less as a player.
“Brandt is non-conflicting and very friendly,” beamed Valášek. “He got along well with the coaching staff and teammates.”
While the blueliner certainly enjoyed his time in Slovakia, he will most likely be returning to North America for the 2021-22 season. He remains eligible to return to the OHL, but there is always the strong possibility that Clarke earns himself a spot on the Kings’ opening-night roster.
While Clarke’s departure is bittersweet for Valášek, he and his coaching staff cannot help but be filled with pride knowing that they played a part — a crucial one, at that — in Clarke’s development. Valášek, however, does have some important advice for the youngster, stressing what he needs to get to the next level.
“Hard work, hard work, and once again, hard work,” stated the HC Nové Zámky CEO. “He is very talented and has talent from God. Now, it only needs to be developed, and I believe that it will soon become not only a part of the Kings but also a fun part of the Kings. He has the potential to become a leader of the team. He is excellent on the defensive side, but what is important is very often supporting the attack, and this is an essential feature of
modern hockey in today’s hockey, which Brandt is.”
Additionally, Imre Valášek is now a big fan of Brandt Clarke’s — so much so that we should expect the 39-year-old to be at STAPLES Center when the Kings’ 2021 first-rounder begins his NHL career.
“I will watch his performances closely and keep my fingers crossed,” Valášek noted. “I promised him when he left that when he got to the NHL, I would come and see his [game] in person. And I believe it will be soon.”
For all of us, the COVID-19 pandemic meant adapting to an unpleasant situation. For some, though, the unusual scenario marked new opportunities — otherwise unattainable, even. For Brandt Clarke, it paved the way for a chance to play professionally while exploring a new part of the world. The transition may not have been easy for the young blueliner, but he adapted very well. Now, thanks to the support of his older brother, Graeme, and especially the guidance of Imre Valášek, Brandt Clarke now has an unusual advantage over many North American prospects. Heck, it may even give him a leg up at Kings training camp this coming fall.
Upon being drafted last month, Clarke was being compared to Kings’ star defenseman Drew Doughty. Of course, while that is a high compliment for any player, the 18-year-old admitted that he’d rather not be compared to Doughty, with all due respect to the 2016 Norris Trophy winner.
A lack of professional experience may arguably be the biggest deficiency to a prospect’s game. However, that is not the case for Brandt Clarke, and thanks to that, we may be seeing the youngster don the silver-and-black much sooner than later.