At a bar in Edmonton for a charity function, surrounded by Oilers fans.
“They were very happy. The fans didn’t want No. 1 again. They wanted No. 4. They’ve had three No. 1’s and it hasn’t worked so far,” Clark smiles, relating the story to Sportsnet at Thursday’s Regent Park Gala, a fundraiser that creates athletic opportunities for Toronto’s youth.
“I’m happy, very much so. That’s the start of our rebuild. We’ve got the organization going in the right way, and this can help. Management will choose a player they want, not just what’s left. It’s a great spot for us.”
Toronto will be a great spot for the first-overall pick, says Clark, the Maple Leafs’ only other No. 1 selection in the draft’s 63-year history.
Clark, 49, is officially a community representative of the Leafs and unofficially a living legend in the town that drafted him over the highly touted Craig Simpson in 1985.
As he mills about the Capitol Event Theatre, strangers steal him for a few words or a quick photo. His autograph decorates items at the silent auction, and he never has to pay for a beer.
“Look at Wendel. He’s a hero in this town still,” a partygoer points out.
Despite his incredible career, Clark was traded away by the Leafs, later allowed to walk as a free agent, and never did bring the city a championship. Yet he couldn’t be more beloved.
It’s a very long ways off, but this is the type of civic icon status that could await the next No. 1.
“Everybody keeps talking about the pressure of playing in Toronto, but every young player wants to play on the best team you can play on. If there’s too much pressure in Toronto, does that mean you don’t want to play on the Olympic team?” Clark says. “Pressure is a fallacy. You grow up in a rink dreaming of playing in situations like this.”
And it’s preferable to be drafted into the centre of the hockey universe than getting traded to it. That way, it’s all you know.
“If you come here as a 27-year-old, you’ve learned seven years of something else and it might be a shock to you,” Clark says.
Clark, a 564-point winger, hasn’t seen presumptive No. 1 Auston Matthews play, nor Finnish flankers Patrik Laine or Jesse Puljujärvi. But all things being equal talent-wise, you have to draft the centre, right?
“Ovechkin or Crosby—you tell me,” he fires back. “They’re both pretty good players. It’s who you think is going to lead the best, who you can build around. The guys we have leading the organization will pick the right guy.”
When Clark moved to Toronto from Saskatchewan to score 34 goals as a teenager, he billeted with Peter Zezel’s parents in Scarborough while their son tore it up as a rookie in Philadelphia.
Matthews’ mom, Ema, traveled with her son to Switzerland, where he played pro this season, providing him with home-cooked meals and family support.
Sidney Crosby lived with Mario Lemieux as a rookie. Aaron Ekblad shacked up with Willie Mitchell. Connor McDavid roomed with Taylor Hall.
Clark isn’t concerned about the next No. 1 having adult supervision as he did, though.
“When you’re 18 years old, your home is the dressing room. That’s where the team is, all your buddies. The central point for that pick is Air Canada Centre and the practice rink,” he says.
“The kids in the top three have all played in men’s leagues. They’ve all been on their own. They’re a lot older 18-year-olds than the kids who played junior hockey. They’ve moved away from home. [Matthews] left the country.”
Still, you scan the Leafs’ young, captain-less roster, and you wonder whom the new No. 1 should seek for mentorship. Clark immediately suggests 22-year-old defenceman Morgan Rielly as the top candidate.
“Rielly is one of your best role models. He’s learned well and played hard. He’s still a young guy [at 22], but he’s got three years under his belt. He’s one of the main role models. He’s seen it. He was drafted here,” Clark says.
Then he offers some simple, straightforward advice, from one No. 1 to another.
“Be yourself. Play hard. Have fun. That’s all you can control—how hard you work,” Clark says. “You can’t control any outside situation, no matter what city you play in.”
Memo to Mr. Shanahan: Bring Wendel Clark with you to Buffalo on June 24. Let him hand the Maple Leafs sweater to the first-overall selection.
One-Timers with Wendel Clark
On the Leafs potentially entering 2016-17 without a captain: “We never had a captain for three seasons after Rick Vaive [was traded to Chicago in 1987]. There’s no rush to pick any kind of captain. The leadership comes from the guys in the room. Leadership doesn’t come from putting the alphabet on a jersey.”
On the fear of Craig Simpson getting drafted first-overall in 1985: “I really didn’t care. I was just hoping to go as high as I could and hoping my next stop was the NHL. You don’t fall into all that. You can’t control it, so why worry about it? That’s for media and fans to debate. The player, when he’s 18 years old going into the draft, he just wants to play in the NHL. He’s going, ‘OK, I’m 18. Next stop is to play in the NHL. I don’t care where. I just want to play at the level I’ve been dreaming about.’ ”
On giving back to Regent Park though after-school programs: “I lived in Scarborough my first year. I’d leave [Maple Leaf Gardens], go down Church, through Dundas. That was the first route I knew, so I’ve been going through there forever. It was sketchy in the ’80s. Now with the new construction and new buildings going in, it’s brought new life to the area.
“You have to keep our kids active. Knowing they can interact, have fun, grow their personalities, be supervised in ways they don’t really know they are, it’s great. Activity is the best way.”