Wendel Clark visits Barrie on Thursday
Toronto Maple Leafs winger Wendel Clark (centre) listens in as Los Angeles Kings superstar and all-time great Wayne Gretzky speaks to referee Dan Marouelli in this file photo. SUBMITTED
Want a quick fact that will make you feel old?
Wendel Clark is now 50 years old.
The former Leafs star had that milestone birthday in October and will roll into Barrie on Thursday for an appearance at Wal-Mart on Mapleview Drive to sign his book, Bleeding Blue.
“It was just a good time, with the team turning 100, the NHL (too) and my 50th,” said Clark. “I wanted to bring together all the stories in (a book) and Jim Lang did a great job helping (the process).”
The Barrie stop is the penultimate appearance on his month-long tour that ends Friday with an appearance in Toronto, where it began a month ago.
Clark remains one of the most popular Leafs, fondly remembered for his unique combination of skill, toughness and no-frills manner that spoke to his Saskatchewan down-on-the-farm roots. That he was able to achieve that level of acclaim and remain so beloved spending the first five seasons of his career in the bleak Harold Ballard era is especially notable.
It also gives Clark a rare perspective. To wit, the three dominant coaches in his 11 seasons and two partial ones in blue and white were John Brophy, Pat Burns and Pat Quinn. All three have passed away over the past few years and Clark recently took pause to remember them.
“Brophy was tough and intense,” said Clark. “He had a very (specific) way he wanted the game to be played. With Pat (Burns), he brought that tough cop mentality; you always knew where you stood.
“With Pat Quinn, he was a guy who didn’t always say much or get loud, but he always knew how to get along with his star players and let them play. But he was also always a man who had such presence about him, just the way he would walk in to a room.”
Clark also paid special tribute to Cliff Fletcher as the man who “brought all the pieces together” and brought a prolonged stint of respectability, highlighted by two playoff runs to the conference finals in 1993 and 1994.
It has now been 31 years since the Leafs selected Clark first overall in the 1985 Entry Draft. The club picked in that position again last spring and though it is an imperfect comparison there are similarities between Clark’s entry into the NHL wearing blue and white and Auston Matthews now doing the same. Back then, Clark was barely known outside of Western Canada and was drafted as a defenceman (the Leafs soon moved him up to the wing), whereas Matthews was a known commodity for more than a year before the Leafs won the lottery and the right to pick him.
Though there is so much difference between the two eras, he still looks back to his day fondly:
“To go to the Draft and not know if you’re going to get drafted (No. 1) or where you’re going to go and then to have it work out that you were picked by Toronto at the draft that was in Toronto, it couldn’t have worked out any better.”
Does Clark seem similarities between the Leafs teams of his early years even if the optimism of Clark and his peers was ground down in the waning Ballard years, and the collection of young bucks the Leafs have now, highlighted by Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander and Co.
“There are some (remainders) for sure,” he said, pointing out that the forward group he led, along with Gary Leeman and Russ Courtnall, was somewhat to what Matthews, Marner and Nylander bring to the team now. Clark also made a comparison between defencemen Al Iafrate and Todd Gill, and Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner now.
Clark later shared the label of most popular Leaf with Doug Gilmour when he was dealt to Toronto in 1992. Around that same time some friendly competition developed with the Blue Jays, who were led by Joe Carter, Roberto Alomar and Co. The recent emergence of the Jays and their two consecutive playoff appearances has created more symmetry now.
“It was just such a great time,” recalls Clark of the days when the Jays were winning World Series crowns and the Leafs made two trips to the Conference Finals. “The sense of excitement, fans going between the two buildings and both teams were winning. It was a great time to be in Toronto…it was a love-love situation.”
Speaking of love, the Bleeding Blue tour has drawn huge crowds and fans looking to attend the signing are encouraged to turn up ahead of the 6 pm start to not be disappointed. Clark will sign his book and one piece of memorabilia per customer.