There are a few cards that stand out above all the others as my favourites. They'll have some perfectly-captured moment, beautifully-framed, that is somehow set apart from the rest of a bulk product sold to kids at twenty-five cents per pack. This is one of them.
Here's Wendel Clark getting ready for battle. The anthems are still playing, the game approaches. He's still in his teens, an NHL rookie wowing a town that's been watching it's team fall apart one way or another for a decade and a half. They've just come off a last-place finish and the prize was this tasmanian devil of a player. He could hit, fight, score, all of it well. He'd get jobbed out of the Calder mainly because he'd lose 14 games to a busted foot. Without that, he probably scores 45 goals. There's no sense of the injuries to come, just the greatness. He's all upside.
There are two images of Wendel Clark in my mind's eye. He's the captain doing everything he could to will the team to win in 1993 and 1994, and he's this raw rookie setting a jaded hockey town on its ear. These images are timeless and ageless.
The Leafs are not the team I was born to, for lack of a better phrase. They are my adopted team. My mother was a Leafs fan, as was my grandfather, but I simply have no recollection of my parents watching hockey before the Flames came to town. The Leafs might have been on TV occasionally, but they would have been two time zones away and the Canucks, who were on a lot, were unwatchable. Calgary had a WHA team for a couple of years, but I can't say I recall anyone ever talking about them. It was a hockey vaccuum.
We moved east (by my standards) in August of 1983. I was not quite 13. It was a tough age to move. I didn't really find a comfort zone at any point in the first year. High school was better.
I wasn't quick to adopt the local team. I had no real animosity to them, but I had no real interest either. I was still hanging on to a lot of my old life, and part of that was my hockey team.
The problem with following a team remotely was that at that time, there was no internet. There were no chat forums. There were no highlight shows. There were hardly any sources of up-to-date news. You saw the game highlights on the six o'clock news the following day (most of which were local highlights), picked up a story here or there in a weekly like The Hockey News or a monthly like Hockey Digest. Beyond that, you read game summaries in the paper. That was it.
Maybe a third of Leaf games were on TV, so if they happened to play Calgary on a Wednesday or a Saturday, I'd get to see them. It was a great recipe for losing touch. In the mid '80s, Calgary turned over a ton of their roster - by 1986 I had no clue who more than half the team was.
At the same time, the Leafs were the team on the radio, the one that was on TV. I became more familiar with their players than with the players on "my" team. All my friends (save three - one of which liked Boston and two who were Habs fans but were allowed to hang with us anyway) were Leaf fans. Slowly I got drawn into it.
In late '84-85 or early '85-86, I was in a now-closed card shop on Eglinton. They had the game on (the FAN was then "CJCL 1430 - The Music of Your Life" - they played big band and '40s tunes) and the Leafs were on the power play. The shop owner asked me if I knew who was on the PP and I said, "We are." The shop owner said, "It's so nice to hear a young person say, 'we.' You never hear that anymore." I was kind of surprised myself. The team was bad, but it was becoming the team I knew. Similarly, I was joining life here. I'd found a group of friends I still consider my best friends to this day, even if I rarely see people in person these days. I stopped yearning for "home."
In the summer of 1985, the Leafs drafted this kid named Wendel Clark. Heading into that draft, another of the top prospects, a kid named Craig Simpson, had publicly advised the Leafs not to draft him as he wouldn't report. That was the depth to which things had fallen for Toronto. (Another Craig - Redmond - had done the same thing to them a year prior. This was embarrassing.)
The Leafs had no need of Craig Simpson. They picked Clark and man, how could you not love this guy? He was a legend within the first month. That hit on Bruce Bell was the hardest thing we'd ever seen. I can't say whether it was specifically because of Clark, or just something that paralleled his arrival, but by the time his rookie season was done, I cheered for the Leafs - even when Calgary came to town. The Flames went to the Stanley Cup in 1986, but they were now my B team, and that's what they've been ever since.
That Leafs team, though, was fun for a lot of reasons. There were a lot of kids on it. There was talk that another rookie, Steve Thomas, might actually be as good as Wendel. Courtnall and Leeman were young and coming on. Iafrate was finding his game. They still lost a lot, but were really interesting in doing so. People talk disparagingly about the 1980s, but the back half, at least, had a lot of fun times. It helped that you could make the playoffs with 57 points. That let you dump a team like Chicago on their butts when you shouldn't even have been on the same ice surface.
That hockey card is now 24 years old. Wendel Clark, long-retired, owns a bar in Vaughn that I've never actually been to. The Leafs have had two really strong teams and a number of iffy ones and currently bear more than a passing resemblance to those 80s teams I first knew. I'm still watching them, though. I've lived in two other markets but never needed to stray again.
The kid who bought that card is now 40, which just yesterday seemed horribly old and kind of depressing, but after spending this morning with the family, now seems just about perfect. It's a good day.
Visit the Wendel Clark Gallery at the HHOF.
|1982-83||Notre Dame Bantam Hounds||SMBHL||27||21||28||49||83|
|1985-86||Toronto Maple Leafs||NHL||66||34||11||45||227||-27||10||5||1||6||47|
|1986-87||Toronto Maple Leafs||NHL||80||37||23||60||271||-23||13||6||5||11||38|
|1987-88||Toronto Maple Leafs||NHL||28||12||11||23||80||-13|
|1988-89||Toronto Maple Leafs||NHL||15||7||4||11||66||-3|
|1989-90||Toronto Maple Leafs||NHL||38||18||8||26||116||+2||5||1||1||2||19|
|1990-91||Toronto Maple Leafs||NHL||63||18||16||34||152||-5|
|1991-92||Toronto Maple Leafs||NHL||43||19||21||40||123||-14|
|1992-93||Toronto Maple Leafs||NHL||66||17||22||39||193||+2||21||10||10||20||51|
|1993-94||Toronto Maple Leafs||NHL||64||46||30||76||115||+10||18||9||7||16||24|
|1995-96||New York Islanders||NHL||58||24||19||43||60||-12|
|1995-96||Toronto Maple Leafs||NHL||13||8||7||15||16||+7||6||2||2||4||2|
|1996-97||Toronto Maple Leafs||NHL||65||30||19||49||75||-2|
|1997-98||Toronto Maple Leafs||NHL||47||12||7||19||80||-21|
|1998-99||Tampa Bay Lightning||NHL||65||28||14||42||35||-25|
|1998-99||Detroit Red Wings||NHL||12||4||2||6||2||+1||10||2||3||5||10|
|1999-00||Toronto Maple Leafs||NHL||20||2||2||4||21||-3||6||1||1||2||4|
WHL East First All-Star Team (1985)
NHL All-Rookie Team (1986)
Played in NHL All-Star Game (1986, 1999)
- Traded to Quebec by Toronto with Sylvain Lefebvre, Landon Wilson and Toronto's 1st round choice (Jeffrey Kealty) in 1994 Entry Draft for Mats Sundin, Garth Butcher, Todd Warriner and Philadelphia's 1st round choice (previously acquired, later traded to Washington - Washington selected Nolan Baumgartner) in 1994 Entry Draft, June 28, 1994.
- Transferred to Colorado after Quebec franchise relocated, June 21, 1995.
- Traded to NY Islanders by Colorado for Claude Lemieux, October 3, 1995.
- Traded to Toronto by NY Islanders with Mathieu Schneider and D.J. Smith for Darby Hendrickson, Sean Haggerty, Kenny Jonsson and Toronto's 1st round choice (Roberto Luongo) in 1997 Entry Draft, March 13, 1996.
- Signed as a free agent by Tampa Bay, July 31, 1998.
- Traded to Detroit by Tampa Bay with Detroit's 6th round choice (previously acquired, Detroit selected Kent McDonell) in 1999 Entry Draft for Kevin Hodson and San Jose's 2nd round choice (previously acquired, Tampa Bay selected Sheldon Keefe) in 1999 Entry Draft, March 23, 1999.
- Signed as a free agent by Chicago, August 2, 1999.
- Signed as a free agent by Toronto following release by Chicago, January 14, 2000.
- Officially announced retirement, June 29, 2000.
What the HHOF has to say about Wendel:
If there was a list of the most popular Toronto Maple Leaf players of all-time, one could be certain that the name Wendel Clark would be right near the top. The former Maple Leafs' captain was idolized by thousands of hockey fans, and held a status, which was nothing short of legendary during more than a decade of service with the blue and white.
Clark was selected first overall in the 1985 NHL Entry Draft by the Maple Leafs after playing two years with the Saskatoon Blades in the WHL. For much of Clark's childhood, and through most of his playing days in Saskatoon, he was a defenceman. Due to his immense talent, he was used primarily on defense but also saw additional playing time on the left wing during his last year with the Blades, where he scored 32 goals and 87 points in 64 games. There was also a tenacious and at times nasty side to the way Clark played the game, as was evidenced by his 253 minutes in penalties. Clark's biggest accomplishment in his teen years was helping Canada's national team take the gold medal at the 1985 World Junior Hockey Championships.
Clark played rough and tumble hockey all his life; after all, he grew up on a farm in Kelvington and was good friends with his cousin Joey Kocur. Clark and Kocur took on virtually every tough opponent who stood in their way--everyone that is, except each other. Both vowed they would never drop the gloves and fight each other in the NHL, and they kept their word. Clark once joked they had done enough of that as kids in Saskatchewan. Another of Clark's cousins, Barry Melrose, also played in the NHL and was a successful NHL coach before turning his attention to broadcasting.
During his first season in Toronto in 1985-86, the coaching staff decided to move Clark to the left wing on a full-time basis. The change seemed to agree with him, as he scored 34 goals and 45 points while spending 227 minutes in the penalty box. He finished second in the rookie of the year voting for the Calder Trophy to Calgary defenseman Gary Suter. In his sophomore season Clark increased his totals to 37 goals and 60 points, while sitting in the penalty box for 271 minutes. Despite being only 5'11" and weighing about 200 pounds, Clark soon became known as one of the best bodycheckers in the league. Perhaps his most famous check was when he hammered St. Louis' Bruce Bell with a thundering clean hit behind the net which left Bell lying prone on the ice and unconscious for several minutes. However, it was his aggressive, pounding style, and penchant for the fisticuffs which resulted in him missing close to 200 games from 1987 through 1992, or the equivalent of nearly three NHL seasons. In the three years from the 1990-91 season through 1992-93, Clark twice appeared in over 60 games, but his offensive production and aggressive checking style had clearly gone down a few notches. It was often rumored that he was playing through injuries. In the playoffs, however, Clark seemed to kick it up into high gear, leading the Maple Leafs along with Doug Gilmour to the Western Conference finals where they lost a seven-game thriller to Wayne Gretzky and the Los Angeles Kings. In 21 post-season games, Clark scored ten goals and ten assists. With his back problems and nagging injuries seemingly behind him, Clark returned relatively healthy for the 1993-94 season, scoring a career-high 46 goals and 76 points. Although he still did not back away from the rough stuff, it was apparent that he had become more particular about when to battle. Clark led the Maple Leafs to their second consecutive Western Conference finals appearance where they were turned back by the Vancouver Canucks. On June 28, 1994, Leafs' general manger Cliff Fletcher stunned Leaf fans across Canada by sending Clark to the Quebec Nordiques in a six-player deal that saw the Leafs acquire Mats Sundin. In an emotional media conference, Clark thanked all the fans who had supported him during his years in Toronto. Clark joined the Quebec Nordiques for the shortened 1994-95 season, scoring 12 goals and 30 points. However, it was evident he was not happy playing for the organization and did not re-sign. Clark joined the New York Islanders for 58 games in 1995-96 before being re-acquired by the Leafs in March 1996. Fletcher opted to bring back the popular winger along with defenceman Mathieu Schneider, while giving up defenceman Kenny Jonsson and a first-round draft pick that turned out to be goalie Roberto Luongo.
Clark had a strong 30-goal output in 1996-97, but that individual success was tempered by the fact the slumping Leafs finished out of the playoffs. Once again, the injury bug bit Clark in 1997-98, limiting him to just 47 games. It became evident to the team, the fans, and Clark himself that he was not going to fit in with future plans so he signed with the Tampa Bay Lightning as a free agent in the summer of 1998. In what was a relatively healthy season, Clark tallied 28 goals and 42 points with Tampa before being picked up at the trade deadline by the Detroit Red Wings, who wanted Clark for the playoff run. He finished the season playing 77 games, scoring 32 goals and 48 points between the two teams, with only 37 minutes in penalties, compared with the 271 minutes he had playing 66 games in his second year in the league. Clark played well for the Wings in the playoffs but their run to the Stanley Cup came up short.
In 1999-2000, Clark signed with the Chicago Blackhawks for 13 games before returning for his third tour of duty with the Maple Leafs. He played 20 games, scoring two goals and four points before retiring after the playoffs at the age of 33. Clark played 13 of his 15 NHL seasons in Toronto. He played in 793 games, scoring 330 goals and 564 points with 1,690 penalty minutes. Clark also contributed 37 goals and 69 points in 95 playoff games.