Rookie defenseman Brandt Clarke, who is set to represent the Ontario Reign at the AHL All-Star Classic in San Jose over the next two days, had a more unconventional way of getting to know one of his Pacific Division teammates Saturday night.
Midway through the second period of a tight game against the Calgary Wranglers in Ontario at Toyota Arena, Clarke engaged in the first fight of his professional career. His opponent was fellow rookie Matt Coronato, Calgary’s leading scorer, who is also making his way north to San Jose to represent the Wranglers in the event.
The two got tangled up in front of Calgary’s net and amid shoving back and forth, agreed to drop the gloves. After exchanging blows Coronato toppled over Clarke, who left the ice briefly with a bloody nose but was able to return to serve the final seconds of his five-minute major from the penalty box.
“It was kind of…I don’t want to say something on my bucket list, but I was just like, the time is right and I’m feeling okay and I thought I’d do it,” Clarke said of his first bout. It’s not a hot take saying I was the decisive loser there, but I held my own, I did fine, no worse for wear.”
— Ontario Reign (@ontarioreign) February 4, 2024
The blueliner stuffed cotton up his nose to continue playing and had bruising around his left eye when he spoke after the game.
“This might swell up a little bit tomorrow but there’s no head or hand issues or anything like that,” Clarke said. Overall, I’m feeling fine and it’s out of the way. I wouldn’t say it’s going to be a common occurrence, but that guy was kind of running around and I think it was the right time and place to pull that off.”
As for how he’ll feel seeing Coronato in the Pacific locker room and teaming up for the league’s showcase over the next two days, Clarke didn’t think there would be any lingering hatred between the two. Coronato is also in his rookie season after spending his last two years in the NCAA at Harvard University alongside LA Kings forward Alex Laferriere. He was drafted just five picks after Clarke by Calgary at No. 13 overall in the 2021 NHL Draft.
“I was talking to him in the penalty box about it and he just said see you tomorrow,” Clarke said. “There’s no hard feelings, it’s just part of the game. It’s not going to be awkward or anything. I’m just going to be nice to him and he’s going to be nice to me and it’s going to be fine.”
In 30 games with the Wranglers, Coronato has 32 points on 12 goals and 20 assists. He’s also suited up for 15 NHL contests with the Flames, recording three points with a goal and two assists. It was also the first fighting major of the 21-year-old’s career.
There’s no question Clarke was deserving of the All-Star nod, as the talented defender was not only leading Ontario in scoring at the time of the announcement, but before a recall from the Kings brought him to the NHL roster a week prior, his point total was tied for third in the AHL and was tops among all defensemen in the league.
His success also led to him being named the AHL’s Rookie of the Month for December after posting 14 points in 12 games with two goals and 12 assists.
Clarke’s brother, Graeme, a forward in the New Jersey Devils organization was also selected to represent the North Division at the event. The family will be reunited in San Jose as the players’ parents are also making the trip from their home in Nepean, Ontario to Northern California.
“A lot of good players are going, it’s going to be fun,” Clarke said of the opportunity to participate in the festivities. “It was an honor when I got the word that I was going. It’s going to be a good family event too, my brother is in the event so that’s going to be awesome.”
After Saturday’s contest, which ended as a 3-1 loss for the Reign, Clarke said that while his parents usually don’t miss watching his games, they were in the air on their flight headed west while it was going on. He expected them to land in San Jose and become aware of his fight for the first time when they checked the box score.
“Maybe it’s good my mom missed me getting punched in the face,” Clarke joked. “My dad will be excited to watch, my mom won’t be so much but it’s okay, I feel fine.”
Beginning tonight in San Jose, Clarke will participate in both the 2024 AHL All-Star Skills Competition, which starts at 5 p.m. PST, and Monday’s AHL All-Star Challenge at 6 p.m. PST.
The Skills Competition will match up skaters from the Eastern Conference against the Western Conference, and Clarke is expected to partake in four events.
He’ll have center stage right away when the night begins as he’s slated to go head-to-head against his brother in the final leg of the Inglasco Puck Control Relay competition. The relay has three prior races, with the fourth and final matchup deciding which conference will take the early lead in the competition.
Later in Event 3, AHLTV Rapid Fire, Clarke will team up with Ethan Del Mastro of the Rockford IceHogs to try and beat goaltender Joel Blomqvist of the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins.
In Event 5, Sharks Ice Accuracy Shooting, Clarke will be one of four Western Conference players aiming to hit the most targets in the fewest attempts. Graeme will also be part of that event for the Eastern Conference.
Finally, the blueliner will line up for the fourth round of the Upper Deck Breakaway Relay alongside Coronato and three other attackers against Hershey Bears’ netminder Clay Stevenson. The last event of the night will have eight rounds, with each individual goal scored counting toward the overall team score.
Clarke’s high-end skill set should be well-aligned for the event, so fans tuning in can expect to at least see him try a few moves he might not be as comfortable with during a game setting. Reign assistant coach Chris Hajt, who has had the opportunity to work with Clarke and see his game up close this season, said he was excited for him to have the opportunity to show off over the next few days.
“He’s such a skilled player; he deserves it,” Hajt said. “He’s been outstanding for us all year and obviously up with the Kings played very well in his games that he played so the sky is the limit for the kid and we’re thrilled that he’s getting to go and show everyone how good he is.”
Monday’s All-Star Challenge will have Clarke competing with the Pacific Division in a 3-on-3 event that has a similar format to what was seen during the NHL All-Star event on Saturday. Teams representing the four league divisions will match up in a 3-on-3 round-robin tournament featuring six games of 10 minutes each. The two teams with the best records at the end of the round-robin will face off for the championship, a six-minute, 3-on-3 game.
Both days of the event in San Jose will air to a national television audience on NHL Network in the United States and TSN in Canada. AHLTV will also be offering a free video stream of both nights of the 2024 AHL All-Star Classic to fans worldwide.
We’ll have more coverage of Clarke here on LAKI in the coming days as I am on the ground at Tech CU Arena in San Jose, along with the Reign social media accounts.