Written By: Mark “The Hard Hitter” Ritter
A couple of years ago I had the pleasure of meeting former Toronto Maple Leafs captain Wendel Clark. Purolator Courier had set up a photo op at the Air Canada Centre and for $5 bucks you could get a picture with the legendary Clark.
Being a huge fan of Clark’s, I stumbled up to the podium, paid my $5 bucks and proceeded to grin ear to ear while I awaited my turn. As I waited to get my picture I started thinking about Clark’s great career and what his place was amongst the greatest Maple Leafs of all-time.
The first thing that popped into my head was Wendel's toughness. The fights between Clark and Detroit Red Wing bully Bob Probert were legendary. Clark’s ability to lift the entire team with a drop of the gloves was unparalleled. That said, did Clark deserve all the accolades Toronto fans threw at him throughout his career?
Ask any Toronto fan who watched the Leafs in the 80’s and 90’s who the heart and soul of the team was and you will get the same answer over and over again, “Wendel”. Nobody else even comes close, not Rick Vaive, not Darryl Sittler, not Gary Leeman, not Mats Sundin, there was Wendel and then everyone else, period...
Clark, who was drafted by the Maple Leafs first overall in the 1985 NHL entry draft, came into the League on a mission. He racked up an incredible 227 penalty minutes in his rookie year, backing down from no one.
At 5’11 and 200 pounds, Clark was a tad undersized for a “Tough guy”. That said, Clark quickly established himself as one of the Leagues toughest players, fighting the likes of Craig Berube, Bob Probert, Cam Neely, John Kordic, Marty McSorely and Garth Butcher, all of whom were much bigger players and established fighters.
Not only could Clark fight, he could also throw a hit and score a few goals along the way. As his hitting reputation built, Clark earned the nickname “Captain Crunch”. He also established himself as an offensive threat scoring 34 goals in his rookie year and following that up with a 37 goal effort in 1986-87.
Unfortunately Clark’s reckless style caught up with him in 1987-88. Playing in just 28 games, Clark scored a respectable 12 goals, but it also marked the beginning of Clark’s lingering knee and shoulder problems. He would follow the 1987-88 season up with seasons of 15 games played in 1988-89 and 38 games in 1989-90.
After spending three seasons mostly on the sideline, Clark, who only knew one way to play the game, was forced to tone down his fighting and his aggressive style of play. He reinvented himself, but was no-less effective, he still was the heart and soul of the Leafs and the fans cheered for him every time his skates touched the ice.
Although Clark’s penalty minutes declined, his ability to be an offensive force increased, reaching it’s pinnacle in the 1993-94 season when Clark scored a career high 46 goals and 30 assists, good enough for 76 points.
After the 1993-94 season, then Toronto Maple Leafs’ GM Cliff Fletcher orchestrated a multi-player trade with the Quebec Nordiques that would essentially see Clark leave Toronto for a talented youngster named Mats Sundin, a player that would be the cornerstone of the Leafs’ franchise throughout the mid-nineties until his departure at the conclusion of the 2007-08 season.
Toronto fans were devastated at the news of Clark’s departure. Many fans lobbied to have management bring Wendel Clark back to the Blue and White. Their loud voices paid off when in March 1996 Clark was acquired from the New York Islanders along with with Mathieu Schneider and D.J. Smith for Darby Hendrickson, Sean Haggerty, Kenny Jonsson and Toronto's 1st round choice (Roberto Luongo) in 1997 NHL entry draft.
Unfortunately Clark was not a good fit for the Leafs. As a result, to the chagrin of many Leaf fans, Clark signed with the Tampa Bay Lightening in the off-season.
Clark would bounce around the NHL from 1998-99 through 1999-2000, playing for the Tampa Bay Lightening (1998-99), Detroit Red Wings (1998-99 trade deadline/playoffs), Chicago Blackhawks (1999-2000) and ending with one final 20 game stint with the Leafs, ending his NHL career at the conclusion of the 1999-2000 season, scoring two goals and adding two assists for the Leafs before playing in six games in the playoffs where Clark notched one goal and one assist.
In the end, it is the sum of Clark’s game that separated him from his peers. Clark was never an “elite” player, in fact, he played in just two NHL All-Star games, albeit thirteen years apart, 1986 and 1999. All-Star appearances and stats aside, Clark meant much more to Toronto than many realize.
Clark’s passion for the game, fearless disregard for his own well-being, ability to change the composure of a game with a single hit or timely fight and his unwavering leadership qualities combined to make Wendel one of the most popular players in Toronto Maple Leaf history.
Was he the best Maple Leaf of all-time, quite frankly, no. Most popular? Probably...In the end, with a total of 330 goals, 234 assists, 564 points in 793 career NHL games Clark’s numbers were “good” but not “great”.
Wendel may very well be the most beloved player to ever dawn the Blue and White and in the hearts of many Maple Leaf fans Wendel stood for everything a Maple Leaf fan loves in a player, toughness, grit, the ability to give an honest effort and the heart of a lion.
Statistically there may have been better players that played for the Leafs, but no player ever captured the imagination of Leaf fans the way Wendel did, for that he will always be remembered as one of the greatest players in Maple Leaf history.
Odds are there will never be another Wendel Clark in Toronto, thanks for the memories Wendel, you were/are a class act and a legend in the hearts of every Leaf fan from coast to coast.
Until next time,
Written By: Mark “The Hard Hitter” Ritter