WATERTOWN — Brent Clarke was truly in his element Monday morning while directing practice on the first day of Watertown Wolves’ training camp.
Starting his coaching career as the Wolves’ first head coach six years ago, Clarke has returned to the franchise in that capacity as well as general manager. Clarke feels right at home with the organization and city as he guided the Wolves to the then Federal Hockey League title in the 2014-15 season, the first for both.
“Perfect, the first day of training camp is awesome,” the 34-year-old said. “It’s been a long wait and finally we’re here.”
The Wolves were the first team from the now Federal Prospects Hockey League to begin training camp.
“I think we’re the first team to hit the ice,” Clarke said. “And absolutely, I enjoy it. “We’re just trying to get everybody in sync and work a little on systems so we look kind of organized for the inter-squad scrimmage (Monday night).”
With the league usually into its second month of play by now, the tentative starting date for the league has been pushed back to Jan. 15, the FPHL announced Nov. 19, because of concerns about the coronavirus pandemic.
The Wolves’ organization decided not to postpone their training camp, which included 24 players.
“It’s good, it’s good to see some of these guys and what they’re like after only talking to them on the phone,” Clarke said.
Clarke previously guided the Elmira Enforcers, the Wolves’ chief rival, the past two seasons.
“It was amazing, I wish we had this facility back then,” Clarke said of winning the FHL title. “Back then it was freezing and we had a small (dressing) room. Now they have a state-of-the-art facility and dressing room as well.”
Clarke served as Elmira’s head coach in their first season in the league in 2018-19, guiding the Enforcers to the league final, and the team led the Eastern Division in points (96) and was riding a 10-game winning streak when the league canceled the season March 16 because of the coronavirus.
“I love it here,” said Clarke, a native of Bolton, Ontario, near Toronto. “I enjoyed my time in Elmira, I can’t say anything bad about it, but this is just a better situation for me, family wise. It’s a good setup here.”
Previously, Clarke served as a player-coach for the Danville Dashers in 2015-16 and was also a player-coach for part of the Watertown Privateers’ final season in the FHL in 2013-14.
“The biggest compliment I can give him is we hated playing against his teams, because they were always really hard to play against, had really good skill and were really good teams,” returning forward Lane King said of Clarke. “So it’s nice to have him on our side for a change.”
Clarke sees the team’s goal as nothing short of winning a league championship.
“I just like seeing the guys get better and I like to win,” he said.
Having held unofficial practices in Watertown during the week since early November, Clarke is encouraged by the Wolves’ potential level talent this season.
“It seems like we’re really deep as a group,” Clarke said. “A lot of size, a lot of toughness and a lot of skill. It’s a good combination, for sure.”
Several returning players, including forwards King, Dominik Bogdziul, Tyler Bullard, Dallas Desjarlais, Michael Desjarlais, Tanner Hildebrandt, and defensemen Bryce Litke and Nikolas Kalpouzos, as well as newcomers such as Fred Hein, acquired in a trade with Danville, took part in Monday’s practice.
“The goaltending looks good, the (defense) looked better than I thought,” Clarke said. “Our offense will come, we’re still missing some of our top dogs like (Deric) Boudreau and (Ryan) Marker.”
With training camp continuing through Friday, the team also held a scrimmage on Monday night at the arena.
“It’s valuable to see what’s going on here and obviously the season’s still a bit away,” Clarke said. “But we’re trying to pick our team now and just relax a little bit, and pick it up again in January.”
“It’s great to be here, it’s been a long time coming obviously with the pandemic and everything,” King said. “But it’s nice to be back with the guys and to start working towards a championship. We just have to make the best of everything.”
Clarke and the players are just trying to make the best of the pandemic situation.
“I think it was a good idea,” Clarke said of the league’s latest decision. “I know that everyone wants to play hockey now, but I agree with it. If we went in December, something could have come up and we could have been shut down. I’d just rather take a little step back, start in January and not have to look back.”
Veteran goalie Nick Niedert, who played for the Wolves in their first season in the league, is attending training camp.
“It’s an emotional roller coaster, it’s a lot of hurry up and wait — nobody really had any idea what was going to happen when all this transpired and we lost part of the year,” Niedert said.
Social distancing guidelines are being followed by the team at the Watertown arena as well as off the ice.
“There’s certain guidelines that we have to take, especially with being the first team going,” Niedert said.
Niedert has played 15 seasons of pro hockey, mostly in the FPHL, and has played at times in the American Hockey League, ECHL and Southern Professional Hockey League.
“It’s tough, it was a longer offseason and everyone’s ready to get at it,” said Niedert, 38, an Iowa native. “It was tough to get ice (time) in Connecticut during the summer, but you make do with what you can.”
Goalies Austin Washkurak, who attended SUNY Canton, and Thierry Messervier and Anthony Pupplo, all rookies, are also in camp.
TEAM SCRIMMAGES ON TAP
Team scrimmages, held between Blue and Gray teams, continue this week. Scrimmages will be at 2:45 p.m. today through Thursday, with the final scrimmage being held at 10 a.m. Friday before the team breaks camp. Though these scrimmages will be closed to the public, each one can be viewed live on YouTube.