Stickhandling through a tricky route to a professional hockey career in the time of COVID-19

Above: Nepean’s Graeme Clarke is focused on earning a contract with the New Jersey Devils by excelling in the AHL. (PHOTO: VAL WATTI)

For junior players dreaming of an NHL career, the route to the major leagues has always been filled with obstacles, but this year they’re facing off against the unforeseen consequences of the pandemic.

Nepean’s Graeme Clarke and Aylmer’s Hendrix Lapierre are stickhandling through an uncertain junior hockey season and figuring out ways to hit the ice and develop their skills.

Both players were eager to return to the game after last season was cut short by serious injuries and the pandemic.

This year, Clarke hoped the OHL would return so he could end his 67’s career on a high note, but the situation looked dire.

With the pandemic threatening to derail the entire season, he and his younger brother Brandt did something they had never considered before. The duo flew across the Atlantic to play for HC Nove Zamky in Slovakia.

Clarke says pre-pandemic he would have laughed at the idea.

“I probably wouldn't believe you, or I would just say you're ‘wack’ because that obviously doesn't make a lot of sense,” said the New Jersey Devils’ draft pick.

After the Devils told him to stay in Slovakia instead of attending training camp, he figured he’d be there until March or April.

But in these extraordinary times, things are rarely set in stone.

Just ask Lapierre, who plays for the Chicoutimi Saguenéens in the QMJHL.

The Washington Capitals selected him 22nd overall in the 2020 NHL Draft, but he didn’t expect to attend training camp earlier this month because of smaller rosters and a shortened schedule.

Then his phone rang, and days later he was sharing the ice with NHL legends Alex Ovechkin and Zdeno Chara, soaking the experience in like a sponge.

“I’ve been watching those guys on TV for quite some time now since I was a kid, so it was great seeing them in real life,” said Lapierre.

“I’m someone who wants to learn a lot, so everything those guys say I try to keep in my head and use for future practices or games.”

Clarke’s unexpected call came a few weeks later.

Just six games into his Slovak Extraliga career, the Devils wanted him back in North America to join the minor league Binghamton Devils of the AHL.

With the team playing in New Jersey this year, the right-winger will get to experience a professional atmosphere.

“I'm really excited for what's happening right now,” said Clarke about the pivot in plans. “I'm going to be around the NHL guys every day which is going to be a cool opportunity.”

Before gearing up for the season, which begins in February, he’s finishing a quarantine from his childhood home in Nepean.

The same goes for Lapierre, who’s quarantining in Aylmer after coming home from Washington.

Once he’s done, he’ll head to Chicoutimi to play in the QMJHL, which unlike the OHL resumed last week.

“I still have a lot of things to prove in junior,” said Lapierre.

He’s optimistic about the league’s “protected environments” plan but can’t say how long it’ll last. That’s just part of the junior hockey experience right now.

If things don’t work out, he’ll be back in Aylmer waiting for his next chance to get on the ice.

Never catching a break

This time last year, the two junior stars were on the road to recovery after suffering long-term injuries.

Clarke made it back from shoulder surgery that kept him out 46 games on February 25, 2020, and was excited to jump back into a league-dominating Ottawa 67s team. But seven games into his return, the coronavirus hit, and the season was no more.

By the time Lapierre could return from a career-threatening spinal injury that was initially thought to be a head injury, it was April, and the QMJHL season had already been cancelled.

This fall, he competed in eight games as the QMJHL started its 2020-21 season in a Quebec City bubble before the second wave of COVID-19 across the country brought things to a temporary halt.

The next time either of them had the chance to play was at Canada’s World Junior Selection Camp in November, where two players tested positive and everyone had to quarantine.

“It was for 14 days in a hotel room by myself, literally couldn't leave, they knocked on your door for the meals,” said Clarke.

Both players were cut in the end, and it was particularly difficult for Clarke who’s ineligible next year because of his age. He played well, scoring five points in four games. The time lost due to quarantine could’ve made the difference.

“I was really mad in the moment,” said Clarke, who turns 20 in April. “No one had me on projected rosters before the camp and I was so close to making the team.”

Despite failing to reach the goal he’d set for himself; he’s kept a long-term perspective.

“I hope to play hockey for the next 20 years, I'm not going to let that one cut affect me so just learn from the experience and move forward from it,” he said.

Lapierre’s focus has already shifted to making the team next year.

“I’m a really confident player and I’m confident in my passion for the game and my abilities,” said the 18-year-old. “I’ll arrive ready next year to show that I can be a part of the team.”

Despite all the setbacks, both have stayed positive and found ways to develop.

This season, Lapierre is determined to lead the Saguenéens and apply the skills he learnt at Capitals training camp, while Clarke is focused on earning a contract with the New Jersey Devils by excelling in the AHL.