Knights' Clarke follows dream

RYAN PYETTE -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 8:36 AM ET

As a little kid growing up in London, Matt Clarke always marvelled at the slick hockey skills of then-Knights Max Spiridonov and Rico Fata.

But the 17-year-old doesn't have to go back to the team's eggplant-and-teal days at the Ice House to find out what former Knights' skate marks he must follow to be successful on the frozen pond.

Like fellow Londoner and current Calgary Flames farmhand Brandon Prust of last year's Memorial Cup champs, Clarke is an undrafted free agent who cracked the roster on hard work and a burning desire to prove the scouts wrong. Not one OHL team deemed the London Junior Knights grad worthy of a pick in the draft.

"You want to show you can play with these guys," the six-foot, 185-pounder said. "It's not easy at the start, especially in training camp, because no one owes you anything. You have to make it on your own. I was invited to camp and I had to make some tough decisions because I had started getting some offers from schools and you have to make a choice between the OHL and (U.S. college hockey) right there."

In the end, he admitted his dreams won the day.

"When you're from London and there's an opportunity to play for this team, you go for it," he said. "That's the way I looked at it. I wasn't drafted but the Hunters were giving me a chance and I wanted to take it."

So far, the free-agent signing has looked good on the Knights. Strong teams are not built on draft picks alone.

Clarke, who has seen the ice a lot with fellow free agent Kris Belan, has four goals and six points, but it's the little signals of confidence that end up meaning more than the stats.

For instance, it was obvious from their line-juggling and special-teams shuffling during the Knights' 9-5 win in Oshawa on Sunday that head coach Dale Hunter and assistant Jeff Perry were trying to create more ice time for Clarke.

"It's a great feeling because I'm basically on the fourth line still trying to prove myself," Clarke said. "You have to learn quick and there's sometimes setbacks, but it's great to get out there and contribute however you can. It's what every player wants."

Clarke has an ally in impressive Knights rookie defenceman Scott Aarssen, with whom he played in the Junior Knights system and in high school at St. Thomas Aquinas, where they won a city championship in 2004.

The two were in the the Western Junior B Hockey League last year but not as teammates. Clarke was in Strathroy playing for coach Russ Morningstar and Aarssen was in St. Thomas with Dan Rose. They're reunited in the Knights dressing room this season.

"We have a lot of firepower and we're playing good, solid hockey right now," having won 10 of the last 11 games, Clarke said. "Every guy in the dressing room would tell you that they want to get things back to where they were last year and have another shot at it."

With Strathroy's season ending in February and Clarke living at home, he got a close look at Knights' run to the OHL title and the Memorial Cup.

"I went to a couple of games in the Memorial Cup. I went to a Rimouski game because I wanted to see what Sidney Crosby was all about," he said. "There was a great feeling in the city, and as a Londoner, you want to help get that feeling back."

KNIGHTWATCH

Tomorrow: Knights vs. Windsor, 7:30 p.m. at the John Labatt Centre

Sunday: Knights vs. Sarnia, 2 p.m.


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