Wendel Clark played one season for the Red Wings, doing so during the 1998-99 campaign. (Photo by Getty Images)
Wendel Clark spent 13 of his 15 NHL seasons playing left wing with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Toronto’s first overall draft pick in 1985, Clark quickly became a crowd favorite at Maple Leaf Gardens and captained the team from 1991-94.
A tough, physical player, Clark was never one to back down in an altercation – and certainly not against Detroit players. In his first two years as a Leaf, he registered 10 fights against Red Wing players. His Detroit opponents were never easy prey: Bob Probert, Randy Ladouceur and Reed Larson had multiple bouts with the 5-foot-11, 200-pound forward over the years.
“It was a great rivalry in the 80s,” Clark said. “That was one of the best things, the Detroit-Toronto rivalry. Always the games were like a Friday, Saturday so there was always a buildup of something going on either the first game or the second game, so the fans would really get involved with everything. So it was probably one of the biggest rivalries.”
It was a rivalry that led to back-to-back playoff meetings in 1987 and 1988, both of which Detroit won. Although Clark missed the ’88 playoffs due to injury, he helped lead the team to two Western Conference finals in 1993 and 1994.
For Clark, the intensity of the Toronto-Detroit matchup was something that extended beyond the ice.
“Just the liveliness, the energy,” Clark said. “And really, especially then, it was a raw energy. In today’s version of hockey the players are really secluded from the fans. In those days, with the rivalry that was going on and the playoff series, you’re walking out through to the bus and outside to the hotel and you’re going right through the people all the time. You’re right involved and the people are right involved with the players.”
In 1994, in a trade that shocked many Leafs fans, Clark was sent to the Quebec Nordiques. After spending time with the New York Islanders, the Leafs (again), and the Tampa Bay Lightning, he was picked up by Detroit at the 1999 trade deadline just in time for the playoff run.
“It was a lot of fun putting on the red jersey after battling against Detroit for so long,” Clark said. “It was fun to be there, be a part of it and get to know some of the other people on the other side that you battled against in the organization all those years. And once you play with guys you realize that they’re all great people.”
A cousin to former Wings Joe Kocur and Barry Melrose, Clark played only 12 regular season and 10 postseason games with Detroit before the team was eliminated from the Western Conference semifinals by Colorado.
After spending the beginning of the 1999-2000 season with the Chicago Blackhawks, Clark returned for the third time to Toronto, where he retired at the age of 33 having played in 793 NHL regular season games and 95 playoff games – acquiring a total of 330 goals, 234 assists and 1,690 penalty minutes in his career regular season, and 37 goals, 32 assists and 201 penalty minutes in the postseason.