Wendel Clark always wore his heart on his sleeve. It's one of the many reasons he became so beloved by Maple Leafs fans since the day he was drafted first overall by the franchise in 1985. And if you thought the passing of 32 years has made him stoic, Clark would've disabused you of that notion Thursday when he stepped to a podium outside Air Canada Centre and received one of the biggest honours of his life: his induction into Legends Row, the Leafs' group of life-sized statues located at the southwest corner of the building.
Clark's voice quivered multiple times as he spoke on a gorgeous fall afternoon in which the Leafs celebrated his career, as well as the careers of fellow team legends Frank Mahovlich, Red Kelly, and the late Charlie Conacher. And it's easy to see why: the statues join the 10 that were previously created - for icons Darryl Sittler, Dave Keon, Johnny Bower, Ted 'Teeder' Kennedy, Borje Salming, George Armstrong, Syl Apps, Mats Sundin, Tim Horton and Turk Broda - and will be the last ones put in for the foreseeable future. The significance of the honor was not lost on the 50-year-old Clark, whose robust physical style and resolute determination to win made him one of the franchise's most popular players of all time.
"It was even harder than I thought," Clark told reporters after the Legends Row ceremony ended - an ending that included an explosion of blue-and-white ticker tape and a serenade from the 48th Scottish Highlanders Pipe and Drum Band - and the curtain had dropped to show his likeness forever captured in bronze. "It's something that hits home. Home is (Maple Leaf Gardens) and now the Air Canada Centre. That's where I spent more of my life than anywhere else - even back home. I spent more time at Maple Leaf Gardens and the Air Canada Centre than I did growing up in Kelvington (Saskatchewan), so this is home."
Kelly and Mahovlich also were in attendance Thursday, and both expressed their gratitude for the honour and their excitement for the future of the team. Kelly - who turned 90 this summer and looked terrific - noted he'd watched the Leafs' regular-season-opener in Winnipeg Wednesday and was confident another Stanley Cup championship would be coming Toronto's way soon. But the Simcoe, Ont., native also took time to reminisce fondly about his seven-plus seasons as a crucial member of the Leafs, and one who won half of his eight career Cups with the Buds.
"What more can you ask for in life than playing the game that you love to play," said Kelly, who was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1969 and who went on to coach 742 regular-season games, including 318 with Toronto.
Mahovlich was Kelly's linemate with the Buds, so it was especially moving to see the two men honoured on the same day. The now-79-year-old Mahovlich, also a Hockey Hall of Famer who won four Cups as a Leaf, said he'd like to see more players eventually added to Legends Row, but was nonetheless overwhelmed to be recognized like he was Thursday.
"I had a lot of great memories - there were many," Mahovlich said. "Winning four Stanley Cups was a great feeling, but there were so many others. I could spend all day telling you about them, but I'd just say it's been a fantastic experience in so many ways and I'm happy to be part of this today."
Mahovlich still gets recognized by Leafs fans, and when asked what people tell him they remember about his playing career, the Timmins, Ont., native was humble and grateful in his reply.
"They remember my stride and the way I played, and the excitement," Mahovlich said. "I had a great amount of fans that followed me around, and it was great. I'm just thrilled that I went through it all."
Conacher was represented by his son, Brad, who spoke about his father's dominance of the NHL in its early days, and his family's happiness to see the organization recognize his father's impact as a Leafs captain and a superstar of his time.
All in all, it turned out to be a perfect day to remember the four fixtures of Leafs history. And current GM Lou Lamoriello, a man who has seen a lot of ceremonies in his decades as an NHL executive, was blown away to see it all take place.
"It's an amazing moment, without a doubt," Lamoriello said. "To recognize the great history of the franchise and to honour these fine men this way, it's just tremendous. It really gives you chills."