The Clark ceremony is one of two the Maple Leafs have scheduled for this season. Toronto will also honor the No. 93 of Clark's old linemate, Doug Gilmour, on Jan. 31 before the game with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The respective No. 17 and No. 93 banners for Clark and Gilmour will join those of Syl Apps, Ted Kennedy, Walter "Turk" Broda, Johnny Bower, Tim Horton, George Armstrong, Charlie Conacher, Frank Mahovlich, Darryl Sittler, Clarence "Hap" Day, Leonard "Red" Kelly and Borje Salming.
The Maple Leafs historically only retire numbers of distinguished players that have died or had their career shortened due to tragic or catastrophic circumstances while being a member of the team. Irvine "Ace" Bailey (6) and Bill Barilko (5) are the two represented in this category, and both have banners in their name at Air Canada Centre.
"It's huge. I'm very humbled and honored to go up there with the guys whose banners are already up there under the roof," Clark said.
Former Maple Leafs coach King Clancy said in 1985 that Clark was the most exciting rookie to join the Maple Leafs in 50 years. Clancy would know, he played seven years in Toronto in the 1930s and rejoined the organization as a minor-league coach in 1951. He remained employed there in various capacities until his death in 1986.
Fans took to Clark's rugged, productive style and he called his relationship with them "a love affair going back to 1985. He was asked the source of that bond.
"It started a lot with the draft. It was the first time the draft had moved out of Montreal to Toronto and so I was drafted out of Toronto," he said. "I think the style of play really helped. We had a young, energetic team, a lot of times didn't win a lot of games, but it was an exciting brand of hockey, as far as scoring and hitting and fighting. That type of game was exciting for the fans to watch."
The Maple Leafs were inconsistent in Clark's first seven seasons, making the Stanley Cup Playoffs four times, with two series wins, and missing three times, including his sixth and seventh years.
Then, everything came together for two exciting runs to the conference finals. The Maple Leafs fell to the Los Angeles Kings in 1993 and the Vancouver Canucks in 1994. Their runs to the conference championship series were the stuff of legend.
"It was an excellent group of guys and it all started when (GM) Cliff Fletcher came to town. He started orchestrating the lineup that he wanted together," Clark said. "He got Pat Burns to coach the team and then was able to pull off a huge deal in getting Dougie (Gilmour). When Dougie got here, he just grabbed the team by the horns. Those two years were the best offensive hockey I've ever seen Dougie play, whether it was St. Louis, Calgary or Toronto. That was something where he was really in a groove and the team rallied.
"We wound up trading Grant Fuhr to get Dave Andreychuk and added a 50-goal guy. Nikolai Borschevsky came over as a rookie, a guy with a great set of hands who could finish. We had guys who went from a little bit of offensive players, like Peter Zezel and Mark Osborne, that took on defensive roles and were a shut-down line. Felix Potvin came up as a rookie and was able to step in and be a No. 1 goalie as a 19- or 20-year-old.
"Everybody, for a team, came together and was able to either accept their roles or changed their roles. From Cliff putting the team together and Pat Burns coaching it and the players all jumping on board, it was an exciting two years for us. We didn't quite get where we wanted to go, but we had a tight team, as tight a team as I've ever played on."
The regular season is not always a good predictor of the outcomes of Stanley Cup Playoff series, but few fans thought Toronto could upset Detroit, the division winner, in the first round in 1993. The first clue about how good the Maple Leafs were getting came when they downed the Red Wings in overtime of Game 7.
"We lost the very first two games quite badly in Detroit against the high-falutin' Red Wings who could really score and a lot of people thought it was going to be over, but we won the next two games (4-2 and 3-2) in Toronto. That's how we won a lot of games, in close battles. If we were in it by the end, we had gained that confidence that we knew we could finish it if we were in it at the end and that confidence grew through the playoffs.
Not surprisingly, Clark had an assist on the winning goal.
"The puck went in deep," Clark said. "We had battled back to tie it. The puck went around. (Defenseman) Bob Rouse threw it back on net and 'Nik' was going to the net and tipped it. I was behind the net to watch the whole thing happen. It was very exciting. The things you remember: The trainers on the bench to Cliff Fletcher and Mike Murphy up in the box. When you watch the highlights today, you can see the relief and happiness at what they had accomplished in a year."
The seven-game conference final against the Wayne Gretzky-led Kings remains steeped in controversy. Marty McSorley leveled Gilmour in Game 1 and Clark was there to fight him. The Maple Leafs took a 3-2 series lead into Game 6 and Clark had three of Toronto's four goals. Gretzky's stick cut Gilmour's face in overtime, but "The Great One" wasn't penalized and scored the winning goal. The Kings then took Game 7.
"It's a tough one," Clark admitted. "We battled back in Game 6 to tie it and hoping we could get there and we just weren't able to finish it off. We got the penalty late in that game that made us shorthanded. That's the game that everybody wanted Wayne to get the penalty because of his faceoff high-stick. So, all that controversy. It wasn't meant to be or we would have been able to win it."
"As you grew up in a small town and graduated from level to level, you knew if you got a chance to play in the city, whether it was Tier II junior or Tier I junior, you were going to do whatever you needed to do to stay there. That was your way of either getting out of your small town or moving off the farm to the next level of hockey."
-- Wendel Clark explains the motivation for his way of playing hockey
"It was a huge battle because of how far we went and because Montreal did go all the way," Clark said. "Everybody was hoping for that, especially up here in Canada. If you could ever get a Montreal-Toronto Stanley Cup Final again, you'd probably shut down the country for about two weeks. It was something everybody was really watching, even if you weren't a Maple Leafs fan, you would have been a Montreal fan and everybody would have been watching if we were able to get it."
The Maple Leafs returned to the conference final in 1994, but lost in five games to the Vancouver Canucks, a team that seemed to be peaking all the way into the Stanley Cup Final series against the New York Rangers.
"The long travel, and the seven games against San Jose, and a tough round against Chicago and then we ran into Vancouver, who was playing very well," Clark said. "They were a big team and they weren't as tired as we were by that third round. You could see it and sense it. I think we won the first game (3-2 in overtime) of that series. They took control after Game 1 and you could see that they were a team of destiny. Unlike the year before, we couldn't find another gear and come back and play. We just couldn't find it that year."
The hockey world was shocked in late June 1994 when Toronto shipped Clark, Sylvain Lefebvre, Landon Wilson and a first-round draft pick to the Quebec Nordiques for Mats Sundin, Garth Butcher, Todd Warriner and a first-round pick. Clark was also shocked.
"It was a tough one at the time. Usually, the team you start on, play for for nine years and have a lot of great memories, you're more attached to than to another team," Clark said. "That was a tough time there. In the big picture, I was very fortunate to be able to come back to Toronto two more times. But I also got a chance to see Quebec, Long Island, Tampa, Chicago and Detroit. It was a lot of good experiences along the way and I met a lot of good people. It may have been tough at the time, but you grow by it and I learned a lot of things."