Wed Oct 19 01:45pm EDT
Centre Michael Clarke seems to be following a familiar path for young Windsor Spitfires.
The 17-year-old London, Ont., native laid the groundwork for his early success with the Spits by playing Junior B last winter for his hometown London Nationals. It might have seemed like a step back for a second-round choice in the Ontario Hockey League priority selection draft, but Clarke made the most of it.
"I was disappointed to go down there but at the same time I got to play a lot more than a lot of rookies in the OHL did," says Clarke, who has eight goals and 12 points through 12 games for Windsor, along with the best plus/minus (+3) among the team's forwards. "A lot of the second-round picks who stuck in the OHL played fourth-line minutes. But I was Junior B playing against a lot of good teams and playing in key situations. I was able to round out my game and be more ready for this year."
The 5-foot-11, 184-pounder is tied for the team lead in goals with fellow 17-year-old Kerby Rychel, whom he played minor hockey against for several seasons. That's where he first caught the eye of Spitfires GM and vice-president and hockey dad Warren Rychel, who chose Clarke in 2010 with the late second-round pick he had intended to use to draft his son. (Kerby Rychel, first drafted by Barrie in the infamous Rychelgate, came to Windsor through a pair of trades.)
The elder Rychel notes that while Clarke is getting attention for much more than early glut of goals.
"He's more of a two-way guy," Warren Rychel says. "He's got pretty good positioning, he's tough to deal with the faceoff circle and pays attention to deal, that's his strength right now.
"We've been in a lot of tight games so far and Boogie [coach Bob Boughner] has been using him in key situations, That's what's caught the attention of scouts."
Rychel notes Jesse Blacker, Eric Wellwood and Garrett Wilson each played at that level as 16-year-olds after being selected out of midget hockey by the Spitifres. Blacker became a Toronto Maple Leafs second-round pick, won an OHL title with Owen Sound and is now in the AHL. Wellwood made his NHL debut last season with the Philadephia Flyers. Wilson played only briefly in Windsor, but captained that Owen Sound championship team and is now in the Florida Panthers organization.
Rychel notes Clarke, who had a brief callup to Windsor last season, handled the move to a lower-tier league very well.
"The biggest thing is, he never complained once. He went down and worked his ass off and really put his nose to the grindstone. He had a really good year there. What he's been doing so far this year, this is a product exactly of him doing what he was told to do and the coaches in London deserves a lot of credit too. A lot of kids, they get upset at getting sent down.
"The worst thing for a young guy is sitting around," Rychel adds. We have two kids like that this year, [6-foot-6 right wing] Hunter Smith and [centre] Sam Studnicka. We're hoping for the same for them."
Clarke seems grounded about his quick offensive start. He did have the thrill of scoring a hat trick Oct. 7 in his first visit as an opponent to London's John Labatt Centre, where he grew up cheering for the Knights, including his cousin, four-year defenceman Matt Clarke. Obsessing over his stats is ob.
"Th coaches have been really been stressing to play defence first," he says. "Keep the game simple and play hard."
The 5 Questions:
1. In your mind, what would scouts say is the biggest area of your game you'll need to improve by the time you're on the cusp of turning pro?
"I definitely want to work on my speed and strength. You can never be fast enough for this game ... I definitely want to work on shot. I definitely want to make that better. The more shots you take, the more chances you generate for your team."
2.Whom in the NHL do you look at and say, "That's someone I need to be playing like?" or, "I see things he does that I can add to my game?"
"I definitely look at [New Jersey Devils centre] Zach Parise as a player I compare myself to. He does everything; he's a leader, he's a good skater, he can shoot the puck, he's good defensively, he sets up teammates. He's a guy I would like to mould myself after. He's kind out of the spotlight in New Jersey, but I really notice him."
3. Outside of family, who has had the most impact on you in hockey'
" 'Outside of family?' So I can't say my cousin?." (BTN: Of course you can.) "Well, my cousin, Matt Clarke, he never got drafted in the OHL but he made the London Knights as a walk-on when he was 17. He's just an example of hard work. He had nothing given to him, he just worked for it all. He was assistant captain and played two years of pro [with Utah in the ECHL and briefly with the AHL's Lake Erie Monsters] and he is just a really inspirational example of how hard work can pay off for you. He's at [the University of] Western [Ontario] right now finishing his degree in engineering."
4. Hockey players have to keep very strict diets. What is something you cannot eat or drink too often but you sneak some anyway?
"Definitely my guilty pleasure would be chocolate. You can't have it on game days or too often but after a long weekend, it's always good to have that. You really have to limit the sweets. I'd say my favourite would be a Caramilk bar."
5. If there was no hockey, what sport do you think you would play?
"I was a pretty good soccer player growing up before hockey took over. If I had a choice, it'd be baseball. It looks like a lot of fun, great game, great time. I never played it, but it's something I'd like to try one day."
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet (photo: OHL Images).