Each day from now until the Winter Classic, Sportsnet will count down the greatest Toronto Maple Leafs of all time.
It was love at first fight. Or maybe it was first hit or shift or goal.
On the June day in 1985 when the struggling Toronto Maple Leafs drafted Wendel Clark—a robust defenceman from the Saskatoon Blades—first overall, he represented hope that perhaps one day it could get better.
Clark, whom the Leafs immediately turned into a left-winger, could change the tempo of a game and light up a rink in so many ways—with a crushing bodycheck (he was one of the best open-ice hitters ever), a fight (he admittedly loved to drop the gloves), or a timely goal with his patented and deadly wrist shot (as a kid, his dad never allowed him to use the slapshot). He was a throwback to be sure. He played an honest game. And off the ice he never allowed himself to appear rattled.
One of the most notable instances of his great composure came during the memorable 1993 playoff run, in which the Leafs knocked off the heavily favoured Detroit Red Wings in seven games, then beat St. Louis in seven before finally losing to Wayne Gretzky and the Los Angeles Kings in, you called it, seven games.
In the first two games in the Motor City, the Leafs stunk and so too did Clark, by then the team’s captain. He didn’t play with his usual zest and avoided any confrontations with Wings tough guy Bob Probert. There were whispers that Detroit players were taunting him, calling him “Wendy.” The newspaper critiques were cutting, and some players and members of the media said he didn’t play as tough on the road as he did at home.
Rather than respond, Clark kept his mouth shut and turned the tide in the series with big hits and a big goal in the third game. He also refused to defend his lack of interest in fighting Probert because it would have meant giving up a dressing room secret: Before the series started, Leafs coach Pat Burns had twice ordered Clark not to fight Probert. Clark wasn’t going to alter the game plan or ease his burden by announcing it. That’s what leadership is all about and Clark was a great leader.
In the series opener against the Kings, Clark again showed how much he brought to the game, squaring off in a fight for the ages with Kings winger Marty McSorley, who had taken a run at Leafs star Doug Gilmour.
And then, in the sixth game in L.A., with the Leafs leading the series 3–2, the captain almost willed his team to victory. Clark’s body was broken. Throughout his career he played a bigger game than his size dictated, but that was the only way he knew how. It was the same in those ’93 playoffs. Clark had been on the trainer’s table for hours in the afternoon before that game six, but was still so sore he could only make it through three minutes of the pre-game warm-up. He admitted that had it been any other game, he probably wouldn’t have played.
But despite the pain and discomfort, Wendel was Wendel. In the second period he scored on a breakaway to give the Leafs a 2–1 lead. In the third period, after Toronto had fallen behind 4–2, he lifted the team onto his ailing back for one last push. Clark scored with a huge wrist shot to cut the deficit to one, then with a little more than a minute to go in regulation, he came on the ice as the sixth attacker and snapped another wrister past Kelly Hrudey to tie the game.
Sitting there that night, you just felt Clark was not going to allow his team to lose. But the rest, of course, is history. A late Leafs penalty, a missed high-sticking call and a power play goal in overtime allowed the Kings back into the series. They won again two nights later to clinch a spot in the Cup Final.
Still, that playoff run really demonstrated everything Clark was as a hockey player. It’s why there were public rallies and tears when the Leafs traded him a year later and it’s why they brought him back again and again.
Toronto loved Wendel—the hitter, the fighter, the goal scorer, the game changer, the captain.
It’s another measure of the impact he had on Leafs nation that he remains one of those rare athletes who can be identified with just one name—Wendel.