Now that his shoulder is a self-professed 100 per cent, North Bay Battalion forward Blake Clarke is ready to press it firmly to the grindstone — the first step in forging what he hopes will be a successful NHL career that starts with a first-round selection in the 2014 NHL Draft.
“That was the one thing that I wanted to make sure that when I came back that I was going to be afraid of doing things like going into the corners,” Clarke said. “I think that’s one of the things that hindered me when I first was playing with the injury. I mean, it’s natural to not want to do things that are going to hurt, like getting bumped in the corners or taking big hits.
“That was an issue then, but I feel 100 per cent now.”
Clarke injured his left rotator cuff during the All-American Prospects Game in Pittsburgh on Sept. 25th of this year. He tried to play through the pain, participating in five more games before deciding to shut things down for treatment.
“I played with a little bit and thought it was just one of those little naggy things that with time would go away,” he said. “Instead, it just got steadily worse.
“I took some time off, got the treatment I needed, and I’m back now. I think it was about a month — maybe five or six weeks off — but it was definitely the right thing to do.”
Clarke was able to keep up his cardio and stay in relatively good shape during his month off. The game shape isn’t what’s eluding him, it’s the game sense.
“I was able to work out and skate towards the end, so I got a few weeks of skating in. But I’d say the hardest was the timing of the play. I mean, I think tonight will be my fourth or fifth game back and I just still feel a little bit behind,” he said. “I think one of the strengths of my game is my vision — some passes I’d normally make, I’m not right now, but I think that will come as time goes on.”
In 14 games so far this season, Clarke has been limited to one goal and one assist. It’s a far cry from his impressive rookie campaign, where he was amongst the Battalion’s leading scorers with 19 goals and 51 points in 68 games. Since returning to the lineup on Nov. 15th, Clarke has been held pointless in six games, but he explained he feels things may be ready to pick up.
“No, statistically, it’s not the start that I wanted. Obviously as an offensive player you want to score goals and you want to get assists,” he said. “The first eight games I played before the injury, maybe I wasn’t playing the game the way I needed to. But since I’ve returned, I’m pretty happy with the way I’ve been playing.
“Maybe a couple of bounces go the other way and I’d have a few more points here and there. In the past few games, I haven’t been worried about it — the process is there and the game will come together.”
And while luck plays a part of it, Clarke added that he took the opportunity provided by his injury to diagnose other ailing parts of his game.
“At this point it’s getting the bounces, but the thing I made sure to look at was video with coaches while I was hurt, looking at video from this year and last to see why I was successful,” he said. “A lot of it is just getting to the front of the net. Just using my touch because I found that I scored a lot of my goals — probably 75 per cent — from within 10 feet around the net.
“It’s just getting back to the dirty areas and using my skill effectively.”
Despite the slow — and injury-filled — start of this campaign, the cream of the NHL’s scouting crop certainly seems to like what it sees. Clarke has been ranked as an A-level skater by NHL Central Scouting in its November rankings — amounting to a projected first-round grade — and ISS Hockey ranked him 26th overall.
“I’m happy to see that people think highly of me, but I don’t think that’s the upper limit of where I can go,” Clarke explained. “I think, if I can put everything together, that I can be a high-end player, but it’s nice to think that I’m still in their mind after missing so many games to injury.”
Missing half a season so far during his draft-eligible year hasn’t put any added pressure on the 6’1, 200-pound left winger. Clarke said he’s not thinking about the draft while he’s on the ice.
“I don’t feel pressure from the draft. I just feel pressure that every game I want to go out and make a difference,” he said. “It was the same last year and it’ll be the same next year — every game I want to be the best player on the ice.
“Every game I want to go out and score goals. I don’t think the draft is anything that you think about when you’re skating around.”
But that doesn’t mean he hasn’t talked to a few people who have been through the process before.
“I’ve talked to a few guys who have been through the draft — Nick Paul’s given me a lot of good advice,” he said. “The coaching staff has too — both assistant coaches were drafted and coach [Ryan] Oulahen played in the AHL. They’ve given me good advice and they’re helpful.”
The prevailing words of wisdom? “Just don’t change what you’re doing, basically,” he said “There’s a reason why certain people think highly of you. You just have to keep focusing on your strengths and using those.”
However, Clarke said he recognizes he needs to improve certain aspects of his game, a feat made easier with his fully-recovered shoulder.
“I think one thing, especially these past few games, I haven’t been as physical as I’d like to be,” he said. “I’m a fairly big player and I’d like to add a little more of a physical element to my game.
The Missouri-born forward has played at various times with the Chicago Mission, St. Louis Jr. Blues (MWEHL), Shattuck-St. Mary’s (US high school), and Fargo Force Jr. A (USHL). He was drawn to the OHL from a development standpoint, but the fact that he had family in the area (Clarke’s parents, though living in the U.S., are both from the Toronto area).
“It was just a decision I made with my family and my agency to come up to Brampton. They thought it was the best place for me to develop,” he said. “My agency has a good relationship with Stan [Butler] and Stan’s a great coach — he’s put a lot of top forwards in the OHL over the years.”
“[Having family there] made it easier. It’s nice to go home and have people that you've known for a while — they’ve got your back. I thought it was a good transition, hockey-wise. The first few games are always tough for a rookie in a new league, but I thought I adjusted well and I figured out my place in the league pretty quickly.”
Clarke and his Battalion teammates had some major adjustments this season. The Battalion set up a new base in North Bay, ON — a city that had been without OHL hockey since 2002 when the team, then known as the Centennials, was sold to US investors and moved to Saginaw to become the Spirit.
“It’s been a lot different. Obviously, it’s a lot colder in North Bay,” he said. “It’s a nice town; it’s bigger than I thought it would be.
“The fan support has been great — we get three or four thousand people every game, which is different from the thousand or so we’d get in Brampton if we were lucky. It’s been definitely different, but in a positive way.”
Needless to say, the local fans and the team have embraced each other.
“Everyone’s been great. We’re very involved in the community and I think our PR team people do a great job with that. We’re out meeting kids, making appearances, doing charity work,” he said.
And while those arms may be open, they’re not always patting the Battalion on the back, but it’s attention that Clarke said he and the team appreciate.
“People recognize you. I could go anywhere in Brampton and no one would know who I was — I was just another 16-year-old kid,” he said. “[In North Bay], they see the jackets, they see the logo, they know who you are. If you had a bad game, they’re going to let you know about it.
“But at the same time if you played well, they’ll let you know too — it goes both ways.”
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