Alright fellow Leaf fans. Shut the door, have a seat. We need to talk. I know that even to this day, 1993 is still burned into your memories, and rightly so. It was a great year for us. However, twenty years later, you still compare one Wendel Clark to the likes of Doug Gilmour and Mats Sundin. It needs to stop. Yes, he hit harder than most. Yes, he was ferocious and sometimes just cruel. Yes, he sportsed harder than anyone has ever sportsed in the history of the league. But no, he was never a franchise guy. No, he was not a legitimate hall-of-famer like Dougie and Mats. No.
When Wendel arrived on the scene in 1985, the Toronto Maple Leafs were in dire straits. The 1980s were not kind to the Leafs. Harold Ballard’s reign of terror was still in full swing. Drafting a farm boy from Saskatchewan who could score, hit and pound players into submission seemed like the perfect remedy. While he started strong, Clark ran into some injury problems early on, which limited his impact during that decade. However, in 1992, Doug Gilmour came to town and started tearing up the league. Setting franchise records for most points in a season, and becoming one of the top players in the league, "Killer" was extraordinary. While Gilmour was incredibly popular, no Leaf was ever as beloved as Wendel. Yes, he put up far fewer points, and played in fewer games. Nevertheless, he brought it all every single night, and blue-collar fans could identify with him. That is where the problem I am writing about started.
Sports fans have an odd habit of emotionally attaching themselves to largely expendable players. I have written countless times about the disturbing amount of love Colton Orr gets, while Leaf fans want Kessel and Phaneuf out of town. Now let us be clear, Wendel Clark was nowhere close to being an expendable player like Orr is today. But I have never understood the huge preference of players like him, over players like Mats and Dougie. Are Leaf fans that insecure about how macho they are that they immediately attach themselves to physical players? Are we more xenophobic than we care to admit? I know that last one angers a lot of people, but I think there’s some merit to it. When Sundin refused to leave Toronto, a vocal contingent of Leaf fans screamed for his head while calling him "selfish" and "greedy". None of these words were ever spoken when Gilmour wanted out of town in 1997. Xenophobia would, at the very least, explain partially why even to this day, a good number of Leaf fans consider Clark to be more important to the franchise’s history than Mats Sundin.
Who really did matter more to the Leafs? Obviously, that can never be answered objectively, since opinions are opinions. However, looking at what can be proven will tell a more complete story than the ones told to kids now about the "glory days". Let’s take a look at what Clark managed to do for Toronto. In total, Clark played 608 games, amassing 260 goals, 181 assists for 441 points in his career as a Leaf. He sits eighth in total goals scored by a Maple Leaf, but does not crack the top ten for games played, assists or points. Although as a side note, he is fifth all time for game winning goals as a Leaf with 38. Now let us compare him to his immediate successor, Doug Gilmour. In 393 games as a Leaf, Gilmour put up 131 goals, 321 assists for 452 points. In far fewer games, Gilmour still managed to out-produce Clark. Also, Clark never managed back to back seasons of over 100 points, something Gilmour did in 1992-1993 and 1993-1994 (127 and 111 points respectively). Now you can say what you want about "gritangibles" and "heart", but those come nowhere close to replacing what Gilmour did in those seasons. After Gilmour came Mats, which still leaves many old-school fans uncomfortable about his time here. Mats Sundin managed to set records for the Leafs in his 13-year career as a Leaf. He was sixth all-time in games played with 981. First all time in points with 420. Second all-time in assists with 567. First all-time in points with 987. And just to throw a wrench in the whole "Only Canadian players are clutch!" Sundin also places first in game winning goals with a massive 79 goals for the Blue and White.
I realize that tangibles are not the only way to judge a player. However, it is the most important thing to judge any player with. You can keep arguing that one player has more heart and drive than another player does. But if that player fails to produce as much, then he really is not as useful. Arguing about intangibles is a great way to weasel out of a debate without having to do the work to prove your opinions. Using the basic stats above, it is very clear that Clark never held a candle to Gilmour or Sundin. Both managed to actually produce more than Wendel, while Sundin’s career totals as a Leaf blow Clark’s out of the water. Twenty years from now, someone looking back at the history of the Toronto Maple Leafs will be able to point out Doug Gilmour and Mats Sundin as two of the best Leafs of all time. I know that inevitably, I’ll be drawn and quartered for saying so, but Wendel Clark doesn’t come close to being anywhere near the best Leaf of all time. I’m sorry, but there is a provable case for Mats. There is a provable case for Dougie. There is even more proof out there for Sittler and Salming than Clark.
Conceptions with athletes never seem to change over the course of history. Leaf fans still talk of Clark as the biggest hero the Leafs have ever seen. Even watching the 93 playoff run now, twenty years later, you can see that his importance may have been exaggerated a little. While Gilmour certainly gets a lot of credit and love from fans for what he did, I personally believe he does not get enough credit. During that time, Gilmour carved up the league and continued his dominance all through the playoffs. Do you know what’s really crazy about the 1992-1993 season? Dougie put up more points than Wayne Gretzky. While Gilmour did not play in nearly as many games for Toronto as a lot of other players, he should be considered one of the best; simply because of how good he was while he was here. Mats Sundin on the other hand, played for Toronto for so long, and managed to average a point-per-game for his entire career. I think it is understated how impressive that really is.
I know my fawning over Sundin annoys a lot of people. However, the fawning over Clark is equally, if not more annoying. Why? Well for one, it is not really based in fact, just anecdotes. And two, he never actually saw more success than Sundin did, yet nobody seems to remember that fact. I get why people love Clark. I really do. He was a great Leaf, and his style of play was entertaining. Nevertheless, we have gotten to the point where Leaf fans routinely compare him to the likes of Gilmour, Sundin and now even Kessel, who is objectively a far more talented player. I think we need to dial back the love affair with lunch-pail style players. I know that in our own lives, trying hard is vital to our jobs, especially when it is lower paying and more physically intensive. To think that the same concept applies to sports is a little foolish. We want to believe that less talented players can be on par with those who possess a far superior skillset is foolish. With a legitimate sample size, even in the playoffs, a player like Kovalchuk will out-produce a player like Max Talbot. In the face of someone who is simply better than you, nine times out of ten, you will lose. It is life. Yet somehow, in sports, that is not the case. Fans can say, "Yeah, I guess Sundin was good. But he wasn’t Wendel Clark!" No, he was not. He set records that will stand the test of time. If I visit the Hockey Hall of Fame again, I will never see Clark’s display in there.
I think it is time we finally stop comparing legendary players to Wendel Clark, and view him as the player he really was. A really good, but probably not great Leaf who scored a few goals and physically decimated a lot of players. He was not one who could magically "will" the team to a victory. Was he important? Yes, he was. However, I think when looking back, we need to honest with our conceptions of players who donned the Blue and White. It is a nice idea to compare a blue-collar guy to an incredibly skilled player. But in reality, you can’t really do that. It is not honest. If there is one thing Leaf fans really lack in their beliefs about the game of hockey, its honesty. Guys and gals, it is time we put the comparisons of Clark to any skilled player to rest. Mats was never Wendel. Gilmour was never Wendel. No, they were on a level of their own. Clark never came close, and that is the cold, hard truth.
Oh, and by the way. While it is nice to slag Kessel for not being Clark-like in his play, any fan with a hint of objectivity can say that after his career is over, Kessel will surpass Wendel. I know it is a horrifying thought. But if I were you, I would prepare for it now. The pain will be more tolerable down the road.