Leafs great Wendel Clark reveals why he didn’t fight the Red Wings


Wendel Clark of the Toronto Maple Leafs skates up ice against the Quebec Nordiques on September 19, 1990, at Maple Leaf Gardens.(Graig Abel Collection/Getty Images)

Wendel Clark’s epic scrap with Marty McSorely in the 1993 Western Conference final is the helmet-popping, jersey-yanking, knuckle-crunching stuff of hockey lore.

But, as the Toronto Maple Leafs icon explains, that tilt stands as the only entry on his 1993 post-season fight card for good reason.

Clark was simply obeying coach’s orders. He was buying in. Nasty nicknames, frustrated fan base, and pestering reporters be damned.

Although the 53-year-old club ambassador would rather be rooting on an Auston Matthews–led Leafs playoff run at this time of year, Clark is in good spirits and happy to reminisce about his longest post-season run as a player when he picks up the phone outside his quarantined home in Muskoka.

“Seven of us in a condo wouldn’t go very well,” Clark chuckles, referring to his downtown Toronto place.

Despite keeping his fists in his mitts and skating third-line minutes, Clark was a force in 1993’s opening-round roller coaster versus a stacked Detroit Red Wings team. He racked up seven points in seven games and registered the winner in a pivotal Game 3, which re-airs Saturday on Sportsnet.

“It’s all we’re left with right now,” Clark concedes.

Over an enlightening chat (edited here for length and clarity), Clark discusses GM Cliff Fletcher’s bold trades, Pat Burns’s tough-dad approach, and draws a parallel to the current Maple Leafs — desperate to get over the Round 1 hump themselves.

Sportsnet: Tell me about coach Pat Burns. What strings did he pull?
Wendel Clark: He was a tough cop. It was gonna be his way, and he was gonna force you to do things — even though everybody on the outside didn’t know you were forced to do it. Everybody had to do what he wanted to do, and he got everybody on the same page. A lot of times we’re all sticking up for each other because you’re mad at Burnsy. That was part of his coaching – he knew that would make us closer as a team, right? It’s all part of him putting in a structure that he wanted, and he did it every year. He started in Montreal, then Toronto, then Boston, then Jersey. He coached the same way in every spot. He had a game plan, and he had us as a very hard team to play against. We were all on the same page from ’92 to ’94.

SN: In the first round of 1993, you drop the first two games in Detroit by lopsided margins, 6-3 and 6-2. What was the mindset heading home for Game 3?
WC: I got more nicknames in that series than I had in my whole career because I didn’t have a fight in the first two games, and we were losing so bad. Our whole game plan, to this day, nobody really knows. Burnsy, he said, “You are not to get in a fight with [Bob] Probert or anybody else.” I wasn’t allowed to go fight because we’re losing and change the game. We had to sit and take it. I kept looking back at the coach [for permission]: “No! You’re not! No!” I wasn’t allowed to do anything. So, after the first two games, as a team we were taking a lot of heat, and a lot of us guys that played physical were taking a lot of heat, because we didn’t do anything to change it. That was part of Burnsy’s game plan. We didn’t have to agree, but that was his thing — you’re not getting involved.

SN: Game 3, you score a power-play winner and Toronto climbs back into the series. What do you remember?
WC: Burnsy’s plan kind of worked. We won Games 3, 4, 5, and then we got trounced again Game 6 at home. Going back to Detroit for Game 7, it was all on the line. We weren’t really under any pressure, I don’t think. You always have your individual pressure because you want to win, but it was Detroit’s to win. They beat us in Game 6, and they were higher in the standings.

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SN: How difficult was it for you to listen to Burns telling you not to fight when you’ve made a career out of responding physically?
WC: It was more difficult because of the old reporters that were there at the time. I did five days of questions. For five days, I had no answer for why I wasn’t fighting or trying to change the game. As an individual, and as a team, we had to take a lot of crow from the media. They were expecting something because of the lineup we had built. We had a tough lineup, and we weren’t doing anything to change the style. Detroit was known as the finesse guys. They had the skill. But we stuck to Burnsy’s game plan, and come Game 7 we won. So, in the big picture, Burnsy was right.

SN: Your goalie was Felix Potvin, only 23 years old. He had no playoff experience and just 52 total games at the NHL. How did he handle the moment?
WC: Unbelievable. Maturity-wise, he was above his years. You don’t expect that. You know, being a French kid coming up, there’s also the language barrier. He didn’t know a lot of English to begin with, so you didn’t know what Felix was going to be thinking. But he came in with such confidence. Level-headed is how handled things. He’d have a 7-2 or 8-3 loss and come back and win 1-0 or 3-2. He had such confidence in himself at a young age and played so well for us, that’s why Cliff was able to do that trade [at the ’93 deadline]. You trade a Grant Fuhr to Buffalo and get a 50-goal guy in Dave Andreychuk, and all of a sudden you can form your Andreychuk-Gilmour pairing that, for two years, was probably the best pairing in the league.

SN: I spoke to Dave about this series. He singled out you as the most inspiring teammate because he didn’t realize all the pain you were battling through. What ached?
WC: [laughs] From 1990 on, coming back from my back injury, I was doing three to four hours of rehab a day for the rest of my career. Every day. So, from ’91 through 2000, I was spending three hours a day on a therapy table.

SN: My gosh. Did you ever second-guess whether it was worth it?
WC: If I second-guessed it, I’d be done playing hockey in 1990. I had an unbelievable training staff. [Long-serving Leafs head athletic therapist] Chris Broadhurst was the guy that kept me together, and Ben Smith was his backup at the time. The work Chris did all those years kept me taped together.


SN: What about the importance of Glenn Anderson to that ’93 squad, of having a guy who’d endured so many long playoff runs?
WC: He can be a guy you don’t notice. Then all of a sudden, it’s a game-winner in Game 5, and then he wins the first game of the next series or something. He had an intensity, something you can’t put your finger on. He can make the big play at the right time. You wonder how they always do it. Glenn did it all those years with Edmonton and with us in that one year. Then he got traded to the Rangers and did it for the Rangers as well. Even at the end of his career, he could have those big games. You wanted him on your side, because you knew if something may happen, he was gonna be the guy.

SN: Explain the challenge Detroit presented. They were the favourite. They had 103 points that season. They led the league in scoring (369 goals) and had the NHL’s best power play (24.9 per cent).
WC: They played with such skill that, other than the Gilmour-Andreychuk line, [we couldn’t match them] as far as that type of skill. We called them the Russian 5 there. They threw all those guys together. How they can handle the puck, and how they could control the game, we had to keep them to the outside so they wouldn’t shoot. They almost wanted to make too perfect of a goal. Then you have one of the best players ever in Stevie Yzerman, and he could do something on his own, on another line. They had so many scoring parts. Paul Coffey on defence. So many pieces of great offence. You see it – three of the games they beat us badly.

SN: The game flowed differently.
WC: I always say ’90s hockey, ’92 to ’94, if you could ever bottle it…. The scoring in all our series made for such great hockey — 6-5, 5-4 games — for the fan to watch. The goal-scoring guys got their points. There was physicality along the way. It was such a great era for the fans. Throughout playoffs, it wasn’t a shutdown 1-0 game. There was some stuff going on all the time.

SN: Andreychuk says he still feels an incredible bond to the ’93 group. The only team that comes close for him is 2004, when he won it all in Tampa.
WC: That comes from Cliff Fletcher down, building that squad. He put that all together, and there was a lot of moving parts starting in ’91 to pull that team together. In today’s [salary-cap] world, you could never do it. You trade for Dougie, who was probably the best player in the league for about two years, in my mind. Then you make a Fuhrsy deal twice, once to get him [by trading star forward Vincent Damphousse], and once to get a pure 50-goal scorer in Dave Andreychuk. Then bringing Burnsy in to enforce his system. And then, the coaching staff with Kitch and Murph [Mike Kitchen and Mike Murphy] really made Pat Burns a better coach. They were the go-between. A couple of the best assistant coaches I’ve had.

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SN: And Gilmour put it all out there.
WC: Dougie was losing weight daily. Remember, I didn’t play with Dougie all the time. Most of the time I played a third-line role. Come playoff time, Dougie would play 30 minutes. He played first line and third line. He’d step down and play with myself and Glenn Anderson, myself and Rob Pearson, myself and Mike Foligno. Foligno was another great leader, a captain in Buffalo, and all of a sudden there’s a role guy in our team that accepted it. Just the leadership that he had at the end of his career.

SN: What else about that ’93 series sticks with you?
WC: We were a fairly confident team, but we were playing against a very good Detroit team, so we never really knew going into it what would happen. Just winning that series, it’s almost like — click! — OK, we know how to play this way. We play three rounds and lose Game 7 [of the Western Conference final to the Kings] and last three rounds the next year as well. So that series clicked the team together. Everybody buying into their role — that’s the best thing.

SN: Do you remember that feeling when Nikolai Borschevsky scored in overtime in Game 7?
WC: No. Other than, we got through it. The player just lives it. I think the fan feels it more than the player sometimes, because you want to go on to the next level. But it was a good feeling for us because we hadn’t won a playoff round since ’87. That was a long time. Anytime you win, it’s the confidence you can build within your team without knowing that you’re building it. Think about right now [with the current Leafs]. The last three years we’ve been in the playoffs, and we just haven’t found a way to win. If we ever find a way to win a Game 7, there’s your next step. They’ve now figured it out. The second round would be easier than the first round.

SN: What kind of impact will this pause have on today’s Leafs after an up-and-down season?
WC: Just a confidence. They’ve gone through a lot of injuries this year, and injuries to key guys. A Morgan Rielly — when you miss a guy who skates 30 minutes a game [it hurts]. Everybody always goes by his stats, but it isn’t always about the stats. It’s the kind of minutes he plays. And the coaching change — the coach, he just doesn’t come in and flick a switch. He’s gonna feel all his players out; he’s gotta figure out which players he feels best. Sheldon [Keefe] was just getting all that figured out it. He pushed all the buttons during the year, and I think he was getting this lineup to know who could do what when.

SN: Has the organization come around a little bit on a need for toughness? The Kyle Clifford trade was interesting. The fact Kyle Dubas re-signed Jake Muzzin was huge. What do you make of the toughness of this group?
WC: Well, we have to play our style. Your level of toughness isn’t always about giving it. It’s also about your finesse players understanding they have to play through it. What used to be your crosscheck in the regular season isn’t a crosscheck in the playoffs. A knee on your back and holding you down the extra 10 seconds used to be interference in the regular season, but isn’t in the playoffs. Your finesse players have to understand and play through that. That’s a form of toughness we have to see our guys play through. It might mean your best players might only have two points in a seven-game series, and the team wins. That doesn’t mean they had a bad series; they did what they had to do. That’s playoff hockey.

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