Monday

Wendel Clark

Every so often a player comes along who simply captures the hearts of every fan in the city. He may not be the most talented, but he wears his heart, and the Blue and White Maple Leaf, on his sleeve. His worth is immeasurable yet greater than any statistics. A perfect example would be Toronto's #17 - Wendel Clark.

Wendel Clark was drafted 1st overall by the Maple Leafs in 1985. He was chosen over skillful winger Craig Simpson, who, along with defense prospect Craig Redmond, reportedly would have refused to play for the circus-like Leafs and their ring leader Harold Ballard if they were selected by them.

Clark, a simple farm boy arrived in Toronto and almost immediately took the big city and the league by storm. He was a very successful defenseman in junior hockey, but like teammate Gary Leeman was converted to a winger at the NHL level with great success. The Leafs were desperate for any help on left wing they could find, and despite having only played approximately 20 games on the side in junior, coach Dan Maloney moved Wendel up.

Described by King Clancy called the best Leafs rookie in 50 years, Wendel wasted no time to establish himself in the NHL. Very quickly he made it known that he was a tough and abrasive customer. His gung ho attitude was shown not only in the dressing room but on the ice. His spirit and enthusiasm fired up his team and the old Maple Leaf gardens on many nights. But he was not a natural winger and struggled to learn his position, although not many observers noticed that. His shortcomings were lost in the excitement of his intimidating physical style and his frequent fisticuff activities. Wendel Clark was nothing short of a superhero, taking on any and all of hockey's villains while attempting will the good guys to victory.

Clark's arrival ushered in new era of hope for the Maple Leafs and their loyal, long suffering fans. He represented a little bit of every one of them, regardless of age. Modern Leaf fans had not seen reckless abandon and the desire to succeed since the hustling Tiger Williams left town in the early 1980s as part of Harold Ballard's reign of error. Clark appealed to older generations, too. Veteran fans, who grew up with the Leafs as perennial Cup threats in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, were reminded of the days of Teeder Kennedy or George Armstrong. Perhaps most importantly, he attracted his own legion of fans that breathed new life into Leaf Nation.

Despite Clark's best efforts, the lack of a supporting cast in those late 1980s meant the lean years for the Leafs would continue through to the next decade. Wendel took the losses very hard, and critics said he did not use his above average hockey skills enough to his advantage - even though they loved his all out style. To make matters worse that physical style led to many injuries. He missed significant time with reoccurring back, knee, rib and shoulder problems. Clark, one of the leagues' best body checkers, played in only 207 out of a possible 400 games from 1988-1992.

As Wendel matured, the Leafs got much better. Wendel learned to rely on his skating and puckhandling abilities - he had an incredible wrist shot - and cut down on the rough tactics without giving them up altogether. He learned to pick his spots and rely on his sizeable reputation. Players seemed to be afraid of Clark despite his fragile history. He was able to take advantage of the extra space the opposition would give him, and return to his goal scoring ways.

As the 1990s came along, Wendel was named the 15th captain in team history, and the resurging Leafs, thanks in part to Doug Gilmour who ultimately replaced Clark as the emotional on ice leader of the club, became not only respectable, but a league power.

Clark was able to erase a poor 1992-93 performance with an excellent playoff - including 10 goals and 20 points as the Leafs fell just short to Wayne Gretzky's Los Angeles Kings en route to the Stanley Cup finals. Clark was at his best during these playoffs. Perhaps his signature moment came in game 2 of the series against the Kings. L.A.'s evil Marty McSorley dared to rock the Leaf's new leader Doug Gilmour with a vicious body check. Clark answered by challenging McSorley to one of the most famous bouts of all time. The two warriors slugged away until neither man could fight no more.

During the 1993-94 season Clark picked up right where had left off in the previous post season, scoring a career high 46 goals and 76 points. Again the Leafs almost made it to Stanley Cup finals, but came up short against their Canadian rivals in the Vancouver Canucks.

On June 28, 1994 Leafs GM Cliff Fletcher shocked the city by dealing Clark to the Quebec Nordiques in a six-player deal that saw the highly talented Mats Sundin come to the Leafs. There was certainly mixed reaction to the trade as Clark was one of the all time favorites in Toronto's hockey history, yet it turned out to be a brilliant deal as Sundin would go on to become the Leafs best player for years to come. The Leafs were looking to move Clark while he was extremely marketable given his career year and recent run of good health. Clark, a soft spoken man who rarely expressed his emotions off the ice in public, even broke down and openly wept at the accompanying press conference.

Over the following years Wendel bounced around with several teams, and became more reliant on his shot as he abandoned his physical game almost out of necessity in order to remain healthy and extend his career.

Wendel actually returned to the Leafs twice after the big trade for Sundin. The first time was in March of 1996. The trade was applauded by sentimental Clark fans, but widely questioned by media and fans. The Leafs sent young star Kenny Jonsson and a first round pick which turned out to be Roberto Luongo for the aging Clark. Clark was able to quiet the questioning when he scored 30 goals the following year, but he missed much of the rest of his time in Toronto due to groin surgery. He was subsequently allowed to test the free agent waters in 1998.

Clark signed with Tampa Bay and proved he still had what it took to play in the league - scoring 28 goals before the trading deadline. At the deadline Tampa Bay auctioned off their only prize scorer for some future help. In a terrible site for Leaf fans, Clark would don the red and white of the hated Detroit Red Wings for the remainder of the season. Clark had made a name for himself back in the 1980s by battling with hated Wings - never backing down from the likes of Bob Probert.

Wendel quietly wound up his career in 1999-2000 with an ill fated trip to Chicago before resigning with the Leafs to end his career where was at his best - with the Maple Leafs of Toronto.

3 comments:

Anonymous,  5:46 AM  

To me, he was the greatest Leaf ever! He wasn't the most skilled, but he was always there to stick-up for his team mates. There will NEVER be another Wendel!!!!!!

Anonymous,  4:34 PM  

"If you can't beat 'em in the alley, you can't beat 'em on the ice".....that was Wendel Clark and he also had good skill to back it up. He had the fans[and me at home] on the edge of their seats every time he delivered a big hit/scored with that laser wrist shot/bloodied Probert. He was the ultimate Maple Leaf.

Anonymous,  6:36 PM  

I don't care how many points Sundin got playing for the Leafs. He was never the impact player Clark was. That trade never should have happened.

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