Blake Clarke's parents will have an odyssey next season when they set out from their home in St. Louis to North Bay, Ont., to see their oldest son play. Even with the chance of weather delays, it's nothing compared to how far the rookie left wing's game has come in the past 12 months, including his first major junior season with the Brampton Battalion.
Major junior hockey will sell itself in North Bay. The fans in the city which has gone 11 winters without an OHL team might not yet appreciate that Clarke is closing in on the rookie-year point totals that Matt Duchene and Cody Hodgson each produced as 16-year-olds in Brampton, where defensive responsibility is next to godliness. Granted, loyal Battalion fans who are losing their beloveds would be right to say any rookie would suffer in comparison to those two stars. Nevertheless, to see Clarke in action is to probably be oblivious that he had some setbacks during his draft season. He leads 1996-born OHL rookies with 45 points and is third among all rookies behind Erie's Connor McDavid and Sarnia's Nikolay Goldobin.
It is a far cry from the situation the Missouri-born Clarke, whose father is from Toronto, fought through during his draft season. Like a lot of upwardly mobile U.S. players weighing major junior vs. the NCAA, he went to the USHL with the Fargo Force. Ice time was scarce and he left for the St. Louis Blues under-18 team. Now Clarke is on the first line in Brampton.
"The coach who recruited me [Jason Herter] left for a job at [the University of] Minnesota-Duluth," Clarke says, not with any bitterness. "They were kind of already committed to me. The new coach had a different philosophy and it ended up being a bad situation for both of us. When I look at where I am today, it's crazy how much a year changes things. So I thought it was the best decision to leave. I was in and out of the lineup, playing five and six minutes a night. It wasn't a healthy environment for a 15-year-old. You have to play and you have to get better. So I ended up in U18 and that was a bit better.
"I kind of lucked out with Brampton. It was kind of a perfect place to be."
Hodgson had 23 goals and 46 points in 64 games as a 16-year-old in 2006-07. Duchene followed with 30 and 50 in 64 games in '07-08. It's risky to extrapolate from Clarke having 18 goals and 45 points in 57 games, but he has top-end skill as both a finisher and as a passer. It is fair to say the Battalion got a steal when coach/director of hockey operations Stan Butler selected him 15th overall in last spring's OHL priority selection draft. He was at a USA Hockey camp the first and only time that Butler scouted him.
"My agent is really close with Stan," Clarke says. "That was the only time they saw me play.
"I guess I impressed them enough."
It's not for nothing that Clarke's hometown, Chesterfield, Mo., shares its name with a Canadian synonym for couch. His parents, Drs. Susan Adams and Charles Clarke, are endodonists who met as students at the University of Toronto before settling in the Midwest.
"I think I view myself more as an American because that's how I grew up, but I definitely embrace the Canadian side of me," Blake Clarke says. "I have no problem saying I'm one or the other. It's nice at world junior time because one of my countries is usually going to win. Even at the Olympics if they chirp me about the U.S., I can say, 'I'm Canadian, too.' "
Clarke's parents — his mother is a professor at Saint Louis University who was born in Serbia and grew up in Australia before moving to Toronto during her high school years — trade off monthly visits to check in on their oldest son. Connecting through Chicago to get from St. Louis to Toronto is enough of a travel headache. It's a small sacrifice for the opportunity Clarke has earned with the Battalion.
"He's a very gifted offensive player and the one thing we've taught him this year is how to play in both ends," Battalion assistant coach Jason Ward says. "I've seen a huge improvement in his game on the defensive side, but with a guy like him, he shows tremendous abilities offensively. We've helped in those abilities and he's flourished.
"It's all about confidence at a young age," Ward adds. "The kids who have success early in their careers, it's just because they get confidence. Once he had it, we had confidence in him. From there he's earned power-play time and has kept earning it."
Clarke, who has played with 19-year-old right wing Matt MacLeod for much of the season, plays down being third in rookie scoring. He notes that is a byproduct of getting an atypical amount of ice time for a rookie.
"They had a bit of a need for a skilled forward and that ended up working out to be the perfect fit," he says. "I couldn't really ask for much more than what I've received this season ... I do get to play more, I do get the power-play time, I do see the other teams' top players. It's going to help me with going into next season because I'll have experience with going in to play the other teams' best players every night."
The way Clarke framed his early success as being in service of next season is telling. He's aware that he needs to add strength to his listed 6-foot-1, 190-pound frame to reach his potential as a power winger. That is something the people up in North Bay have to look forward to next season.
"I want to get stronger and faster — that is the cliché answer, but as a young guy in the league, sometimes I find I'm not winning all the battles in the corners or I am not outmuscling defenders in front of the net," Clarke says. "It will just add another dimension and make me that much harder to stop coming into the next season."
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet. Please address any questions, comments or concerns to firstname.lastname@example.org.