The record book will always say that Wendel Clark is from Kelvington, Saskatchewan. Leaf fans know better. He was a player from an earlier era, a player who willingly sacrificed to lift the Maple Leafs out of one of their darkest chapters.
He still has a belt buckle he wore in his rookie year. The buckle reads: just a farmer.
Wendel Clark’s career harkens back to a time when the Leafs harvested the finest players, Max Bentley, Johnny Bower, Lanny McDonald, Jimmy Thomson, Turk Broda, from prairie cities, towns and farms.
That legacy was extended when Wendel Clark arrived after two seasons with the Saskatoon Blades.
The Leafs were coming off a miserable 20-win campaign in 1985 and the club’s fortunes were so low, at least one high-end prospect said he would not play in Toronto. When they asked Wendel Clark whether he would acquiesce to being a Maple Leaf, he thought it was it was one the stupidest questions he had ever heard.
“Whoever wants me, I’ll go,” he said.
The Leafs did and drafted him first overall.
A defenceman in junior, Clark was asked to play left wing.
“I’ll play wherever they think I can help them,” Clark said. “My goal is to make the team.”
He made the team all right and displayed his determination with four training camp scrapes. Then he directed his energy outward.
Clark scored 34 goals for a Leafs team that had only garnered 47 goals from all its leftwingers the year before.
But the goals were only part of the story. Clark tore through the NHL, fighting and hitting at every turn. His clean hit on the Blues Bruce Bell was so ferocious, it knocked the defenceman unconscious.
By February, Clark had fought a dozen of the toughest hombres in the league.
“Of the 16 years I’ve been involved in pro hockey, said Leafs coach Dan Maloney, “I’ve never seen anything like him.”
Clark was a five-foot-10, 190 pound forward who played six inches taller and 30 pounds heavier. His presense lifted the Leafs, not just to a sweep of the Chicago Blackhawks but to within a victory of the Norris Division finals. Clark scored five goals in 10 playoff games including an end-to-end effort.
But shrewd observers believed he could not use that style forever.
“He works real hard but he’s going to have a hard time maintaining it if he keeps playing like that,” said Edmonton coach Glen Sather. “If he keeps running into guys who are 210 and 215, he’s going to hurt once in a while.”
Clark scored 37 goals the next season but the Leafs went out in the first round and by the beginning of Clark’s third season, Sather’s prophecy was coming true.
A troubling shoulder injury gave way to agonizing back pain. Clark missed 23 games, scored eight goals in 17 games and then took himself out of the lineup.
He would be out of the lineup for one year and 25 days. Clark could barely stand or sit in the same position for a minute.
The secret came in examining not his spine but his career. There was nothing structurally wrong with Clark’s back. His high pain tolerance allowed him to play through injuries that should had stopped him. Groin injuries, shoulder injuries, leg injuries had settled into his back. Through massage and physiotherapy, injuries incurred years before were broken down. Clark underwent acupuncture nearly every day.
It took two years to make his back serviceable and many more years to compensate for the steady stream of injuries Clark would incur.
Clark succeeded Rob Ramage as captain in 1991. His 1993 playoff would be among his very best with 10 goals and 10 assists in 21 games. The next season, Clark was again excellent with nine goals and 16 points in 18 games as the Maple Leafs went deep into the third round.
In 1994, the unthinkable happened. Cliff Fletcher, coveting a young centreman, dealt for Mats Sundin. One of the pieces going back to Quebec was Wendel Clark, who had just come off his finest season with 46 goals in 64 games.
It was his first separation from the Leafs after nine years in Toronto and an emotional Clark wept as he said his public goodbyes.
Two years later he was back and while he would turn in his fifth season of 30 or more goals, the Leafs were in a downward spiral and Clark signed with Tampa.
In 2000 after turns with the Lightning, Detroit and Chicago, Clark came back for a final 20 games plus six playoff contests. If the goals came more sparingly, the hits did not. In a memorable regular season finale, Clark threw himself into the New Jersey Devils. If the Zamboni driver had shown up, Wendel Clark would have hit him too. At 33, he had given all he had.
Today, he lives on a spread north of Toronto. He built and manages a small arena on his property where friends can play all winter. He maintains everything, including the refrigeration. When asked if that is difficult, the man with the “Just a Farmer” belt buckle guffaws.
“Water freezes at 32 degrees,” he said, “and anyone who tells you any different is lying to you.”
Clark, however just watches. “All I have to do is just put on the equipment,” he said, “and I’m sore for days.”
Clark will be saluted in a pregame ceremony prior to the Maple Leafs’ November 22 game against the Chicago Blackhawks.