Editor's Note: Thank God for 1967ers. Here is his player of the day, the man of the coming hour, #17 in your programs and # 1 in your hearts: WENDEL CLARK!
Nov 19, 2008 - Wendel Clark (young Wendel)
The '84-85 Leafs were a sterling 20-52-8 (and getting 20 wins out of that team was quite the accomplishment) and won the right to draft first overall. Had they finished last the year prior, the prize was Mario Lemieux. This year, it wasn't quite as clear. There were three candidates in the running. Craig Simpson took himself out of the running by telling the Leafs up front not to bother drafting him. (Now, to be honest, I remember this as being Craig Redmond from the '84 draft, though it's entirely possible this happened more than once. It wasn't that unusual, either. Mario himself wanted no part of Pittsburgh in 1984 and wouldn't put on their sweater on draft day or even go down to the podium. As for Redmond, perhaps I've maligned his character all these years when he would have been happy as a clam to have been part of the '84-85 Leafs. I'm sure he'll get over it.)
On draft day, the Leafs made their pick - a Saskatchewan farmboy named Wendel Clark. Nominally a defenseman, the Leafs early on announced he'd be playing on left wing with the Leafs.
My first actual memory of Wendel is of an injury (not a good omen). On Nov 26, 1985, a Chris Kotsopoulos slapper had hit him in the foot and broken it, costing him 14 games and ultimately the Calder Trophy. Wendel would be named the Hockey News Rookie of the Year, but it wasn't the same thing. That Calder was Wendel's to lose.
He'd been an awesome rookie. He scored a Leaf record 34 goals, hit everything in sight and fought pretty much the entire league at least once. A hit on St. Louis Blue Bruce Bell made every highlight reel. On a young team, he took a leadership role almost immediately, despite being just 18. The Leafs went from dead last to the second round of the playoffs, and Wendel added 5 more goals in 10 playoff games.
His second year was even better. Now wearing an 'A' on his sweater, Wendel hit for 37 goals and 60 points along with a career high 271 penalty minutes. Things were looking up.
Then the injuries hit. First the back, and then the knees. Wendel somehow or other overtrained and got his back muscles out of whack. A fight with Bob Probert did the injury no favours. Wendel would play just 28 games in 1987-88, 15 in 1988-89 and 38 in 1989-90. He'd produce when he was playing, but was virtually never in the lineup. He came under a lot of heat in the press and Harold Ballard publicly questioned his commitment. (People who say Sundin gets bad press because of being Swedish have completely forgotten the criticism Clark received.)
Wendel was mostly healthy (for Wendel, that is - he probably should have missed more time but played anyway) in 1990-91, but the team was a disaster and he only managed 39 points in 66 games.
A huge change happened in the off-season. Not only did the Leafs go out and acquire Cliff Fletcher to run the team, but Rob Ramage was lost to Minnesota in the Sharks expansion draft. For 1991-92, Wendel Clark would be the captain of the Leafs.
Tomorrow: Captain Clark