Built in 1931, Maple Leaf Gardens is 77 years old and still looks beautiful.
Wendel Clark, at 42, doesn’t look too bad either.
We brought both together for a memora
ble interview in advance of ceremonies to honour Clark’s number 17, Saturday at Air Canada Centre.
Wendel Clark burst into the league here as a savagely competitive bodychecker, fighter and finisher. This was a place where Harold Ballard had his name and handprints set into concrete at centre ice.
The Gardens has been idle since 1999 when the Maple Leafs moved to the Air Canada Center. The boards are gone. The compressors have been disabled. The Leafs dressing room has been stripped down and locked.
But thanks to the abundant kindness of Loblaws, the Gardens’ present owner, Wendel was able to reminisce on his home turf.
The result is spectacular. The building looks fantastic. The floors are as clean as when the place was occupied.
When you visit with Wendel Clark you see how it all turned out. He comments on the scowling 18-year-old, famously filmed walking down Yonge Street, his draft, his departures and everything in between with the wisdom, humour and perspective of a man well into midlife.
Clark wore number 17 because it was the number they hung in his locker. He would have wore an exclamation mark on his back if they had asked.
Everything was bigger than life: Ballard, who used to raid the kitchen of the Hot Stove Club late at night for chocolate ice cream, John Brophy, who would sprinkle hilarious critiques into his obscenity laced diatribes and dare the players to laugh, even the pain in his back and side that knocked Clark out of the lineup for more than a year.
The first thing an NHL player needs to learn about retirement, Clark said, is that nothing will replace playing.
It’s a typically earnest truth, delivered by an unflinching, honest man.
When you put Wendel Clark back at Maple Leaf Gardens, even the ghosts stop to look and listen.
You will too.