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Clark Takes His Place Among Leaf Greats

by Mike Ulmer / Toronto Maple Leafs

They honored Wendel Clark at the Air Canada Centre on the same evening Patrick Roy had his jersey retired at the Molson Centre and that fits.

Both players symbolized the elements of their respective teams through the 1980s and 1990s. There are, however, two critical differences. Roy quit the Canadiens when he was left in a game too long. Clark wept when he had to leave Toronto.

Roy could look down and see four Stanley Cup rings. In the end, Wendel would find only calluses.

But those battered hands would define Clark just as surely as Roy’s bright rings. They were farmer’s hands.

True to the nature of the man in question, Clark’s banner-raising was short and to the point. Leaf fans, who reflexively cheer when they see his face, showered him with a lengthy ovation, which Clark cut short just on the right side of gracious.

He called being drafted the Leafs in 1985, being named captain in 1991 and last night’s ceremony “his official hat trick.”

Now 42 with a wife and three kids, Clark’s hair is thinning and he is a more substantial man than the player who walked the beat on the Leafs’ left wing. Today he lives on what can only be called an urban farm north of the city.  The ‘Just a Farmer’ belt buckle that defined him is still somewhere in his house. Farmers don’t throw anything away. Without being asked, he will hop on his tractor and push the snow out of a neighbour’s lane. Sometimes he will push on through into town and pick up a coffee at the Tim Horton’s drive-through.

Never fortunate enough to play in the Cup final, Clark was nevertheless the truest Maple Leaf. Club founder Conn Smythe coined the expression “if you can’t beat them in the alley, you can’t beat them on the ice.” No player embodied that maxim more than Clark who hit town as an 18-year-old roughneck from Saskatchewan anxious to fight everyone to gain a job. He would start on his own team, work his way through the league and still score 34 goals in that rookie season.

He would score 37 the next season and by then the mythology about Clark would be set. He was and is a savant who spoke simply, an ace in high school algebra who kept it simple. I asked him this week why he wore 17. “When I got to training camp my first year,” he said, “number 17 was hanging in the stall.”

Clark saw Leafs’ owner Ballard early in the morning as the old man fixed his own breakfast in the Hot Stove League. Clark would often leave Maple Leaf Gardens late in the evening after treatment to find Ballard raiding the chocolate ice cream in the restaurant. He recognized Ballard as a lonely man without his own peers who befriended the parents of his players. Clark never spoke poorly of him.

There would be almighty trials. Compounding injuries settled in his back in his third season and Clark missed more than a year. He would be traded by the Leafs twice (only to be repatriated three times). As he aged his body became ever less dependable. Every night he would take inventory of how far it would take him that night. He would ration out his energy accordingly.

Clark’s high water mark came in 1993 when the Leafs lost the Conference Finals in seven games to the Los Angeles Kings. When Kings colossus Marty McSorley leveled Doug Gilmour with what is still looked upon in Toronto the most heinous elbow ever, Clark threw off his gloves and engaged McSorley in a fight for the ages.

Yesterday, the Blackhawks’ Ben Eager hit the Leafs’ top scorer, Mikhail Grabovski, from behind into the board. Toronto’s Alexei Ponikarovsky then jumped Eager. Ponikarovsky was the only player penalized. Times change.

The final slate would read 260 goals for the Leafs, seventy more divided among the Nordiques, Islanders, Blackhawks and Red Wings. Six hundred and eight games played for the Leafs, 185 games for the other guys, 608 games played for the Leafs.

Now he has standing among the 16 players whose likenesses hang from the roster. There is a sublime twist here. Wendel Clark, the roughest, most reckless man in the pantheon of the greats is the only one wearing a helmet.

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