July 20, 2009.
Being a Leaf fan it is impossible not to get emotionally attached to players wearing the blue and white. Jerseys with Palmateer and Roberts names on the back still hang in my closet with Gustavsson about to join the ranks. Salming, Markov, Sittler and Zezel all stir up emotion when their names are mentioned but for the life of me I will never understand the love for Wendel Clark.
In a weak 1985 NHL Entry Draft the Toronto Maple Leafs would hold the first overall selection for the first and only time in team history. Teams build around these draft picks they are hall of famers, 50 goal – 100 point players, international superstars, NHL trophy winners, franchise goaltenders and Stanley Cup winners. They are Mario Lemieux, Guy Lafleur, Gilbert Perreault, Denis Potvin, Sidney Crosby, Alexander Ovechkin and Marc-Andre Fleury. In the '85 draft, a year removed from Lemieux being the first overall pick expectations were high for Leaf Nation plugging along in the Ballard Era missing the playoffs in three out of the past four seasons. The first selection in a draft could this be true??
Having the honor of hosting the draft in their own city, Toronto had their selection down to two choices Clark and winger Craig Simpson who had just scored 45 goals and 141 points in just 88 games with the Spartans. The Leafs were highly interested in the London, Ontario native, but the feeling was not mutual. Craig made it known publicly that he would never play for them so the choice was obvious. Wendel Clark would become the only good thing to happen in the hockey Mecca until the early 90s.
Not a particularly strong draft Toronto still ended up taking a pass on hall of famer Igor Larionov, All-Stars and Stanley Cup winners Joe Nieuwendyk, Bill Ranford, Sean Burke and Mike Richter, 40 goal scorer Derek King and international and NHL stud blueliners Calle Johansson and Fredrik Olausson.
Granted Clark brought a ton of intangibles to the Leafs with his bruising hits and “lead by example” play he managed to only play a full season once in the 86-87 season and topped the 40-goal mark a single time finishing his career with 564 points in 793 games played with six NHL teams.
Not the worst first overall draft selection Clark can certainly be grouped with the likes of Joe Murphy, Alexander Daigle, Greg Joly and Patrick Stefan, players selected first overall who went on to decent careers but were a far cry from the franchise player tag that comes with being a top pick. Clark was a fan favorite there is no disputing that but a player embraced in Leaf land the same way Dave “Tiger” Williams and Eddie Shack were loved by Toronto fans.
A franchise player?? Absolutely not.
Hall of famer?? Far far from it.
Stanley Cup winner?? Close, made it to the final four.
NHL trophy winner?? Another close one but again no cigar, second in the Calder trophy voting.
Number honored by the Leafs?? Ridiculous but done to appease fans and bring some excitement to a hockey city that was starved for anything positive with a string of fours years and counting without a post season berth.
Good player without a doubt but Wendel does not deserve the legendary status he has been given in Toronto, any other NHL team he would have been remembered as a tough, gritty third line player who never reached his draft potential.