If there was a list of the most popular Toronto Maple Leaf players of all-time, one could be certain that the name Wendel Clark would be right near the top. The former Maple Leafs' captain was idolized by thousands of hockey fans, and held a status, which was nothing short of legendary during more than a decade of service with the blue and white.
Clark was selected first overall in the 1985 NHL Entry Draft by the Maple Leafs after playing two years with the Saskatoon Blades in the WHL. For much of Clark's childhood, and through most of his playing days in Saskatoon, he was a defenceman. Due to his immense talent, he was used primarily on defense but also saw additional playing time on the left wing during his last year with the Blades, where he scored 32 goals and 87 points in 64 games. There was also a tenacious and at times nasty side to the way Clark played the game, as was evidenced by his 253 minutes in penalties. Clark's biggest accomplishment in his teen years was helping Canada's national team take the gold medal at the 1985 World Junior Hockey Championships.
Clark played rough and tumble hockey all his life; after all, he grew up on a farm in Kelvington and was good friends with his cousin Joey Kocur. Clark and Kocur took on virtually every tough opponent who stood in their way--everyone that is, except each other. Both vowed they would never drop the gloves and fight each other in the NHL, and they kept their word. Clark once joked they had done enough of that as kids in Saskatchewan. Another of Clark's cousins, Barry Melrose, also played in the NHL and was a successful NHL coach before turning his attention to broadcasting.
During his first season in Toronto in 1985-86, the coaching staff decided to move Clark to the left wing on a full-time basis. The change seemed to agree with him, as he scored 34 goals and 45 points while spending 227 minutes in the penalty box. He finished second in the rookie of the year voting for the Calder Trophy to Calgary defenseman Gary Suter. In his sophomore season Clark increased his totals to 37 goals and 60 points, while sitting in the penalty box for 271 minutes.
Despite being only 5'11" and weighing about 200 pounds, Clark soon became known as one of the best bodycheckers in the league. Perhaps his most famous check was when he hammered St. Louis' Bruce Bell with a thundering clean hit behind the net which left Bell lying prone on the ice and unconscious for several minutes. However, it was his aggressive, pounding style, and penchant for the fisticuffs which resulted in him missing close to 200 games from 1987 through 1992, or the equivalent of nearly three NHL seasons.
In the three years from the 1990-91 season through 1992-93, Clark twice appeared in over 60 games, but his offensive production and aggressive checking style had clearly gone down a few notches. It was often rumored that he was playing through injuries. In the playoffs, however, Clark seemed to kick it up into high gear, leading the Maple Leafs along with Doug Gilmour to the Western Conference finals where they lost a seven-game thriller to Wayne Gretzky and the Los Angeles Kings. In 21 post-season games, Clark scored ten goals and ten assists.
With his back problems and nagging injuries seemingly behind him, Clark returned relatively healthy for the 1993-94 season, scoring a career-high 46 goals and 76 points. Although he still did not back away from the rough stuff, it was apparent that he had become more particular about when to battle. Clark led the Maple Leafs to their second consecutive Western Conference finals appearance where they were turned back by the Vancouver Canucks.
On June 28, 1994, Leafs' general manger Cliff Fletcher stunned Leaf fans across Canada by sending Clark to the Quebec Nordiques in a six-player deal that saw the Leafs acquire Mats Sundin. In an emotional media conference, Clark thanked all the fans who had supported him during his years in Toronto.
Clark joined the Quebec Nordiques for the shortened 1994-95 season, scoring 12 goals and 30 points. However, it was evident he was not happy playing for the organization and did not re-sign. Clark joined the New York Islanders for 58 games in 1995-96 before being re-acquired by the Leafs in March 1996. Fletcher opted to bring back the popular winger along with defenceman Mathieu Schneider, while giving up defenceman Kenny Jonsson and a first-round draft pick that turned out to be goalie Roberto Luongo.
Clark had a strong 30-goal output in 1996-97, but that individual success was tempered by the fact the slumping Leafs finished out of the playoffs. Once again, the injury bug bit Clark in 1997-98, limiting him to just 47 games. It became evident to the team, the fans, and Clark himself that he was not going to fit in with future plans so he signed with the Tampa Bay Lightning as a free agent in the summer of 1998. In what was a relatively healthy season, Clark tallied 28 goals and 42 points with Tampa before being picked up at the trade deadline by the Detroit Red Wings, who wanted Clark for the playoff run. He finished the season playing 77 games, scoring 32 goals and 48 points between the two teams, with only 37 minutes in penalties, compared with the 271 minutes he had playing 66 games in his second year in the league. Clark played well for the Wings in the playoffs but their run to the Stanley Cup came up short.
In 1999-2000, Clark signed with the Chicago Blackhawks for 13 games before returning for his third tour of duty with the Maple Leafs. He played 20 games, scoring two goals and four points before retiring after the playoffs at the age of 33. Clark played 13 of his 15 NHL seasons in Toronto. He played in 793 games, scoring 330 goals and 564 points with 1,690 penalty minutes. Clark also contributed 37 goals and 69 points in 95 playoff games.