Wendel Clark knew one way to play during his 15 NHL seasons. His 5-foot-11, 200-pound physique meant nothing competing with an indomitable work ethic against the beasts of the League.
One of the oldest of frayed cliches explains how it's not the size of the dog in the fight but the size of the fight in the dog. Clark played all-out with no thoughts of putting his body in peril. His will to win made him immensely popular with the Toronto Maple Leafs, but at times overshadowed a natural ability that helped him total 330 goals and 564 points in 793 NHL games.
A tenacious and skilled forward who became a fan favorite with the Toronto Maple Leafs, Wendel Clark is ready to put the jersey back on to compete in the Alumni Showdown against the Detroit Red Wings. (Photo: Getty Images)
"I think because of his smaller stature people started to think, well, here's a guy who just made it on his heart. He was a very skilled guy too," said Barry Melrose, Clark's cousin, a former NHL player and coach and current NHL Network analyst. "He was an awesome combination of toughness, skill and heart. I think he was a pretty complete player."
Clark's name may not be engraved on the Stanley Cup, but he thrived playing in one of hockey's hottest cauldrons. He never melted under the annual pressure to win it all. He not only accepted the responsibility, he enjoyed it.
"You're not really worried about it when you're playing, you're just out there to do it for yourselves now and win as a team and be as good as you can as a team," Clark said. "But it's fun to play in these hockey markets. There's nothing better than where everybody loves to be at the game and be around the building. That's really what playing hockey is about as a kid. You get to play in front of full buildings and everybody between the players and the fans enjoy the game."
Clark will get to be a kid again while reliving a career that began as a 19-year-old in 1985 and ran full-circle when he retired as a Maple Leaf in 1999-00 when he joins more than 50 Maple Leafs and Detroit Red Wings from the past to participate in the 2013 Maple Leafs vs. Red Wings Alumni Showdown on Tuesday at Comerica Park.
"You're going back to watch a little bit of history and learning the game," Clark said. "The whole package is an event with the big game [the 2014 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic] being played at the Big House [Michigan Stadium]. These games and the festivities that are going on at Comerica Park starting Dec. 27 and our alumni games, you're really seeing a lot of the history of the game and the way it was right from the Hall of Famers who will be there."
A converted defenseman, Clark has dealt with pressure since he became a star entering junior hockey en route to being selected by the Maple Leafs with the first pick of the 1985 NHL Draft. Many of the Leafs' top picks of that era didn't pan out; not only did Clark pan out, he excelled.
"He [handled] that pressure and the people loved him," Melrose said. "When you watch Wendel play you can't help but love him. Wendel thrives in those situations. He doesn't shrink from that; he never has as a kid. He just thrives. The more they expected of him the more he gives you."
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Even before Clark scored 34 goals as an NHL rookie in 1985-86, he offered a glimpse of what was to come when he led Canada to a gold medal at the 1985 IIHF World Junior Championships. One season after Clark was named captain in Toronto, the Maple Leafs set franchise records in wins (44) and points (99) in 1992-93. Clark's 10 goals and 20 points in 21 games sparked Toronto to the Campbell Conference Final during its first postseason appearance in three years. He had a hat trick in Game 6 against Melrose's Los Angeles Kings, but the Leafs couldn't sustain the momentum and after leading the series 3-2 lost in seven games.
"It wasn't meant to be," Clark said. "We had a great run and played a lot of difficult series getting there; that was our third Game 7 series out of the three. It was a lot of fun to be able to play that late. I understand a little bit what it must feel like for those guys who won the Cup just after us in Detroit. You're going four full rounds and I got to do it twice going three runs, and you understand what those players go through."
Currently employed by the Leafs as a community ambassador, Clark has left a legacy of playing hockey like it ought to be.
"When you think of hockey, at least when I think of hockey and the way it's supposed to be played, what makes our game special, Wendel embodies all of that," Melrose said. "The size factor, the heart factor, the toughness factor, the skill factor … everything I just think is great about our sport, Wendel embodied. That's why I enjoyed watching Wendel play. He played the game the way we hope the athletes play it. That's why everybody in Toronto loved Wendel so much."
Clark may have missed out on Cup glory, but his NHL career was a hit. An entire country watched his every move and never was there a greater experience.
"There's only two teams and probably no better feeling that you're going to the rink in late May and June and there's only two hockey teams left still playing," Clark said. "That's the fun part. The whole world is watching us play."