With the 2021 WHL Prospects Draft delayed from May until December, Clarke Caswell had to wait an additional seven months to find out where he would begin his WHL career.
While he admits to being a little frustrated at the delay, he used it to his advantage during that summer and to begin the 2021-22 season.
“That summer I grew quite a bit,” he said. “I got better as a player and I think this past year was better than previous years, so I think it helped me out quite a bit.”
Limited to just five games in 2020-21 due to minor hockey shutdowns country-wide, Caswell hit the ground running with the Brandon U18 Wheat Kings last season, recording a staggering 51 points (23-28-51) in his first 20 games leading up to draft day.
While he had an idea of the area he may get drafted on December 9, he said he tried not to focus too much on rankings heading into the big day.
“I had kind of an idea, but I try to stay out of that ranking stuff,” he said. “I was just excited to see whoever drafted me to grow with them, and I was really happy to get drafted by Swift Current.”
Caswell was in a math class when he was selected sixth overall by the Broncos, and admits he had a hard time focusing for the remainder of the class until he could celebrate with his friends afterwards.
Originally slated to make his WHL debut just a few weeks later, Caswell had to wait until January 21 to suit up for the first time when the Broncos had a number of games delayed.
When the day finally arrived, Caswell was excited, but nervous.
“The morning of [his original debut date] we heard that news come down,” he said. “When I got back for the game against Calgary, it was a great experience. Just to get that first taste of how the next few years are going to be. I was pretty nervous leading up to the game, but once I got my first shift under me I think I settled down and was able to play my game.”
Caswell nearly found the back of the net that night, but was robbed by Brayden Peters on a centring pass from Mathew Ward off the rush. He was able to find the scoresheet the next night however, recording an assist in a 3-1 win over the Lethbridge Hurricanes.
Three weeks later Caswell was able to dress for a WHL game in his hometown for the first time, joining the Broncos for their final visit to Westoba Place against the Wheat Kings.
Growing up going to Wheat Kings games, it was a special moment for Caswell.
“It was really cool, I had a bunch of family and friends there,” he said. “That was a pretty cool experience. Being familiar with some of the players on Brandon and being able to play against them was really cool.”
Caswell’s torrid scoring pace with the U18 Wheat Kings continued after the WHL Prospects Draft; just one time during his 38 games in the regular season was he held without a point, finishing the year with 88 points (35-53-88). The next-highest scoring 2006-born player had 42 points.
Wrapping up the regular season as the top seed in the Manitoba U18 League, the Wheat Kings swept their opening two playoff rounds, setting up a showdown with the number two ranked Winnipeg Wild for the league championship.
After jumping out to a 2-0 series lead in the best of five, the Wheat Kings weren’t able to close out the series, eventually dropping three straight to see the Wild complete the comeback and win the title.
“We were pretty confident heading into the final,” Caswell said. “The way they came back, their goalie was playing great. It was a tough way to go out. We had a pretty good crowd in the final game so it was pretty tough to lose, but it was a good experience.”
Caswell recorded 17 points (9-8-17) in 11 playoff games, including two goals and assist in the final game, a 6-3 loss.
Knowing the rigors of a 68-game WHL season are fast approaching, Caswell is putting in the work to ensure he’s prepared for the jump to the major junior level.
“I’ve been going to the gym quite a bit this summer,” he said. “I’ve been skating too, but I’m really focusing on the off-ice stuff. I know I need to get faster and stronger to match the players in the WHL.”
He’ll soon get a chance to showcase all that work he’s putting in as Caswell was one of 100 players invited to Hockey Canada’s U17 Development Camp, set for July 10-14 in Calgary.
The World U17 Hockey Challenge takes place November 5 to 12 in British Columbia, and Caswell says he’s determined to make one of the three teams that Canada sends.
“I’m definitely looking forward to getting some experience and getting to know the group,” he said. “I’m looking forward to seeing where I stand compared to all the other players, but definitely trying to make the jump into the top 60. That’s the goal right now.”
Despite that invite, a phenomenal season at the U18 level and an impressive three-game audition with the Broncos, Caswell says he’s not putting many hard expectations on his rookie season in Swift Current.
“I think I’ll just try and play my game,” he said. “With the confidence I’ve gained, we’ll see where that takes me, but I think it’s going to be a good season. There’s a lot of younger players there so it’s easy to relate with them. Everyone was very welcoming, the players, the coaching staff, they really made it easy to get into the games and join the team.”