Wendel: Call Me, We’ll Hang Like a Banner.

Wendel ClarkWendel Clark is having his jersey number honoured by the Toronto Maple Leafs in a special pre-game ceremony tonight at the Air Canada Centre.  I have to mark the occasion here, because anyone who knows me knows that Wendel was by far and away my favourite Leaf (which means my favourite hockey player) of all time.

I remember well his first year or two in the league, the way he played with fearless abandon, launching a smaller man’s body at the opposition, causing big-man’s devastation, fighting any who dared challenge him, and scoring goal after goal with a laser beam wrist shot.  Add on top of that the fact that he was an aw-shucks farm boy from Kelvington, Saskatchewan who seemed genuinely thrilled to be playing for the Toronto Maple Leafs, and it was no contest:  Wendel was my man.

I wasn’t alone, either. There was something about Wendel. He just seemed to fit with the Leafs and to make things right.  That is saying an awful lot when you keep in mind that the Leafs of the late ’80s were, to put it mildly, a dysfunctional lot, being the plaything of an egocentric, spiteful millionaire who wanted people to love him as much as they loved his sad-sack joke of a team.

Hear me out on this.  In those days, pretty much every telecast of a Leafs home game included the obligatory shot of “The Bunker”, a concrete block box with a glassless window in one corner of the Gardens where Ballard and his long-time companion King Clancy could be seen watching the game, eating popcorn and generally yukking it up.  That little scene encapsulates, in so many ways, what it meant to be a Leaf fan then:  watching the sacred being profaned, looking on as a historically powerful franchise endured  a series of indignities in the present.  There was the hated and hateful Ballard rubbing elbows with a living Leaf legend, one of the greatest players of the early NHL, a guy who was seen by many as the original heart and soul of the franchise, maybe even the entire league.  In 1976, Stan Obodiac’s book The Leafs:  The First 50 Years, described Clancy as follows:

Had a horse named Rare Jewel not won a certain 1930 race, Clancy might never have become a Leaf.  The horse was owned by Conn Smythe, who won a bet on Rare Jewel and used the money as part of a $35,000 and several player package to acquire Clancy from the Ottawa Senators, where he was making $800 a season.

A small, aggressive defenceman, Clancy was the leader of the mightly Leaf teams of the 1930s, a three-time All-Star who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1958.  He was  a top NHL referee for several years, a coach at Cleveland and Pittsburgh, and the Leaf coacch from 1953 to 1956.  When Imlach came to the Leafs, he moved Clancy up to the front office, where he’s been ever since.

Clancy was colourful;  he was a living hockey connection to the glory days that had begun in earnest when Conn Smythe raised a barn at the corner of Carlton and Church and thereafter put his indelible managerial stamp on the team;  Clancy was grit, determination, history, class and humour all in the form of one craggy-faced, impossibly frail but enduringly optimistic gentleman. He had an unforgettable smile, and an almost cartoonishly cliched Irish gleam in his eye.  And here’s the thing:  Clancy loved Wendel Clark.  I can remember seeing a large photograph in the window of Doug Laurie Sports (the store inside Maple Leaf Gardens)  probably in early 1986, that showed Clancy hugging Clark from behind, arms wrapped around Clark’s neck.  Both men smiled broadly and very obviously genuinely.   Clancy told the papers that Clark was the best Leafs rookie in 50 years.  There were so many appalling things going on with the franchise at this time – we were in the middle of the Gerry McNamara era, but with the Clark-Clancy connection, it seemed as though in this one small way that things were right within the world of the Toronto Maple Leafs.  Small victories and minor blessings were what we lived for in those days;  it’s all we ever got, and precious few of them at that.  (Update:  Since I wrote this, the NHL network has posted Mike Ulmer’s interview with Wendel;  during part 2, he discusses his relationship with Clancy).

In the fall of 1986, Clancy fell ill;  he had his gallbladder removed and began suffering from an infection following the surgery.  On November 10, 1986, he died at age 83.  It was the end of a historic era at Maple Leaf Gardens, but also the beginning of a period of hope;  Clark had begun his second season with the Leafs, and all indications at the time were that Toronto had acquired a remarkable hockey talent.  The torch had been passed,  whether Toronto knew it or not.  The heart and soul of the Blue and White now wore #17 and was skating on the left wing, regularly thundering larger opponents to the ice with his cataclysmic bodychecks or with his fists of fury.

I say “whether Toronto knew it or not” because a lot of people forget that the City’s  love affair with Wendel went off the tracks for a while.  The kid risked his own health every game;  hell, that’s inaccurate.  There was no “risk” involved, he actually sacrificed his own health on virtually every shift he played because of the way he played, but there was a time when – with the back woes chronically nagging him and keeping him out of the lineup for large portions of entire seasons – there were those who doubted Clark’s commitment and drive.   My own personal admiration for Wendel was solidified more than ever in this period of time – I remember one night in the late 80s going to a game at the Gardens when Clark hit a New York Rangers defenceman by the name of Bruce Bell very hard behind the net;  I think this is the same Bruce Bell that Clark almost killed a couple of years earlier when Bell played with St. Louis.    The night I saw Clark hit bell, both men tumbled to the ice behind the Ranger net, and it was obvious that Bell wanted to fight when they arose.  Bad decision.  I happened to be taping the game that night, and somewhere in my collection of VHS tapes, I have the clip that shows (with the assistance of slow motion) the very instant that Bell realizes he is about to have the geometry of his face re-arranged as a result of this subpar decision-making.  One other moment in particular  that I remember is the day that Clark nearly killed New Jersey’s Slava Fetisov because Fetisov had taken out Clark’s knee.  if you watch the clip,  Wendel crumples to the ice from the Russian’s low bridge.  What we didn’t know at the time is that the Russian had torn a ligament in Clark’s knee.  Despite the injury, Clark rises to his skates, grabs Fetisov, and attempts to execute him with a single punch, the force of which nearly propelled the Russian downwards into a common grave with whatever other mysterious corpses may lie buried under the Meadowlands.

I met Wendel at the Madison, a pub near the University of Toronto one night in 1986 or 1987.  I was alarmingly intoxicated and, emboldened by drink, I wandered over and slurred something incoherent about how I respected his style of play and offering to buy him a beer.  He laughed and – I know this sounds difficult to believe, but he did say it kindly – told me to “beat it, kid.”  It wasn’t until several years later that it struck me how funny this was:  I am older than Wendel Clark.

By the time 1993 rolled around, Wendel was finally recovered from his injuries and he seemed – at last – to be reaching his potential as he entered the prime of his career.  Sean at Down Goes Brown has done an excellent job of chronicling Clark’s career in this period, especially the 1993 playoffs.  There was Game 7 against the Blues in the Division Final (when Wendel’s wrist shot nearly decapitates Curtis Joseph);  there was Game 6 against the Kings in the Conference Final, when Wendel scored a hat-trick to lead the Leafs back from a 4-1 deficit (I happened to be driving home from my own hockey game that night, down Carlton St. and past Maple Leaf Gardens when Clark scored to tie it – there was an instant roar audible in the city, people were hooting and hollering in the bars and jumping up and down on the streetcars).  I was lucky enough to be there to watch Wendel play one of the greatest games I ever saw a man play in Game 7;  Clark took the team on his back in that game and – but for an unlucky goal that Gretzky banked in off Dave Ellett’s skate, I am sure that Wendel would have lead the Leafs to glory in the Final.

There were signs that my devotion to Wendel was unhealthily strong.  I knew his parents were Les and Alma.  I celebrated his birthday every October 25th.  I knew he had a dog named Kylie.

I was as shocked as everyone when Wendel got traded before the ’94-’95 season.  I held that against Mats Sundin for a long time.  I was at the Gardens the night he came back to town as a member of the Islanders, and privately mourned the indignity of #17 wearing that ugly Captain Highliner atrocity that the Long Island crew were sporitng at the time.  I defended the trade that brought him back to Toronto, and cheered the night he returned and scored a goal.  I was saddened when he later ended up in Tampa, Detroit (ugh) and Chicago.  I remember the night of the final ovation at the Air Canada Centre, when it had become clear to everyone that Wendel’s body had given out on him long before his heart ever did, and that as a result he would soon be sitting in the seats with us, an alumni member waving to the crowd as “Welcome Back” plays over the p.a.

A couple of years ago, my in-laws managed to pull off a major coup for me.  My father-in-law is an accomplished coach, and had some connections to Wendel’s old Notre Dame coaches.  He managed, through that connection, to get it arranged that he could meet Wendel and bring him a jersey to autograph – they then gave me the signed jersey as a Christmas gift.  As an aside, in order to accomplish this task, my father-in-law was provided with Clark’s phone number and had to call him to arrange their meeting.   The signed jersey is one of my most treasured possessions, and I am very jealous of my brother-in-law (a dirty, dirty Habs fan, of all things) who went along with my father-in-law to meet Clark and get the jersey signed.

I read in the Toronto Star this morning that the Leafs are passing out fake fu manchu mustaches to all the fans attending tonight’s game, and encouraging them to wear the ‘staches during the banner ceremony.  What a great touch, something light-hearted and cheerful in honour of the greatest Leaf I ever had the pleasure to watch.  I wish very much that I could be there tonight, but I can’t.  I’ll be recording the game for posterity on my PVR, and though I plan to wear my autographed jersey as I watch the ceremony, I need to be careful.  I have a feeling at some point during the tribute, there might be a bit of dust in my eye, and I don’t want the ink on the autograph to run.

So congratulations, Wendel, on the occasion of this banner-raising.  I’m still willing to buy you that beer some time.  Call me – through my father-in-law, you’ve got the number – and we’ll hang for a bit.