In November of 2008, the Toronto Maple Leafs raised Wendel Clark's No. 17 to the rafters at Air Canada Centre. From the minute he was drafted first overall in 1985, Clark was scoring goals, winning fights, growing facial hair and generally being the engine that the then-mostly-moribund Buds sorely needed. Although his style of play meant missing a lot of games due to injuries, the Leafs captain was a hero to a generation of fans.
After nine years and a two trips to the Campbell Conference finals, the Leafs traded Clark to the Quebec Nordiques in a package deal that sent a young center named Mats Sundin to Toronto. Despite the promise of bringing grit to the finesse-centric Nords, Clark had a pretty lackluster season in 1995 and eventually got into a contract dispute with GM Pierre Lacroix. Clark never suited up for the newly-relocated Avalanche the following year and instead was part of a revolutionary three-team three-malcontent trade: Colorado traded Clark to the New York Islanders for winger/pest Claude Lemieux, who had been acquired earlier for winger Steve Thomas. All three players were squabbling with the managements of their respective clubs and found themselves with new addresses.
Lemieux had an eventful first season in Denver. Thomas scored 26 goals for a Devils squad that missed the playoffs a year after winning the Stanley Cup.
Clark's lone season with the Islanders in 1995-96 isn't fondly remembered. He had good numbers that year - 24 goals and 19 assists in just 58 games - but his 76 penalty minutes and just four fights showed a player that, at 29, wasn't quite the whirling wildman that he once was.
I recall him being a fairly popular player whose reputation preceded him on Long Island. But it felt like we fans were waiting for the "real" Wendel Clark to show up and start kicking asses. And when his time was up, he dissipated into thin air like he was never there in the first place.
ACTUAL VIDEO EVIDENCE
The sight of Clark in the inaugural Islanders fisherman jersey is still, all these years later, very weird. WARNING: the below video is from a game played on Thanksgiving Eve, 1995 and all players are skating as if they've already consumed their weight in turkey and mashed potatoes.
Meanwhile, one of Clark's four fights that year was against an old nemesis, defenseman
Sammy Hagar Marty McSorley.
OIL AND WATER
During his one year with the Islanders, Clark's coach was Mike Milbury who, like Clark, was never one to back down from a challenge. Down Goes Brown, the Internet's foremost chronicler of Clark's Bunyanesque exploits, has a story (by way of a book called The Best Seat in the House by former Islanders goalie Jamie McLennan and Senators reporter Ian Mendes), in which Milbury and Clark butt heads at a practice.
An excerpt from the excerpt:
Then it was Wendel's turn to face the heat. But Mike had to be cautious when going after Wendel, since he was one of the few players who was actually in the league when Mike himself was a player. Wendel was the type of player who carried a lot of respect inside the dressing room and chances are he would not enjoy being verbally challenged by the head coach.
"Wendel, I brought you in here to be a leader and to be engaged with these guys. And you don't talk to anybody. You're in the fucking back room stretching by yourself instead of talking to the kids and helping them to get better," Mike said.
The rest of the story is a frightening glimpse into what playing for Mike Milbury is like.
Towards the end of a season going nowhere, Milbury sent Clark back to where he truly belonged. In March of 1996, Clark and Mathieu Schneider were traded to the Leafs for young defenseman Kenny Jonsson, prospects Sean Haggerty and Darby Hendrickson and a first round draft pick. In the 1997 draft, the Islanders used that pick to take some goalie from Montreal named Roberto Luongo.
Clark's first game back in Toronto was practically a Mardi Gras. He scored 30 goals the next season, but had an injury-marred nightmare in 1997-98. A restricted free agent, he signed with Tampa Bay in 1998, which in retrospect is even weirder than him playing for the Islanders. He was traded to Detroit later that year, then signed with Chicago in 1999 before being traded back to the Leafs for his final tour of duty. He belongs forever to Toronto the way Godzilla belongs to Tokyo.
Wendel Clark wasn't bad as an Islander, just unmemorable. He was one of many, many failed experiments to toughen up a roster that needed a lot more than fists to stay competitive. Six Wendel Clark clones wouldn't have helped the Islanders back then.
But if you're in the market for a personalized fisherman jersey and want to avoid the most popular players like Ziggy Palffy and Ziggy Palffy, a No. 17 Wendel Clark jersey would be a fun reminder of a brief, quaint time in Islanders history. Plus, it'll look cool when you wear it while beating the shit out of somebody.