Hockey should be a dream, not an obsession

Wendel Clark speaks at Easter Seals banquet

Wendel Clark can spend hours telling stories of his hockey career; just don’t ask him to re-enact it.

Clark retired from the National Hockey League in 2000, after 15 seasons in the league. A lifetime of hard hits and fights took its toll on his 5’11” frame and now, he says, his body won’t let him continue to play in retirement.

“I retired because of health, not age,” Clark says. “(I coach my son’s teams) but I only play three or four times a year in charity games. My body just doesn’t like (hockey) as much as it used to.”

A former Leafs’ captain and one of the franchise’s most popular players ever, Clark continues to wear the blue-and-white as a goodwill ambassador for the team. He flies across North America attending functions for the club and working with various charities. He says he’s invited to more than 100 corporate and charity functions in a given year.

Bruce Power brought Clark to Port Elgin Thursday night for its annual Easter Seals Spirit of Giving Dinner. Clark’s involvement with the charity goes back to early in his playing days. The Maple Leafs have always had a relationship with Easter Seals and Clark understands how his attendance can help boost fundraising efforts.

“If you can help raise some money by bringing some athletes into it, that’s what you try to do,” Clark says.

A Kelvington, Saskatchewan native, Clark left his small-town home at a young age before ending up at Notre Dame, a Saskatchewan private school. His play led to a junior career with the Saskatoon Blades.

In 1985, he was selected for the Canadian world junior team and earned a gold medal in Finland. That same year, the Leafs chose him first overall in the entry draft. The next fall, he made the team out of training camp and never looked back.

“My favourite memory is the draft year of 1985. It was the first draft held in Toronto and I was entering my first season as an 18-year-old,” he says. “Everything you do (and experience) is new, you have more fun (than the veteran players because there are lower expectations).”

Clark stayed with the Leafs until the 1994-1995 season when he was traded to Quebec. He captained the team through its long playoff run in 1993, but never won a Stanley Cup. His career ended with stops in Quebec, New York, Tampa Bay, Detroit and Chicago before he made a brief return to Toronto, but Clark says he’ll always be a Leaf in his mind.

“I think I always am (a Leaf),” he says. “I spent 13 of my 15 seasons in a Leaf sweater.”

During his speech to the Spirit of Giving attendees, Clark mixed stories of his youth with tales from the National Hockey League. He answered questions from the audience and gave his opinion on the state of today’s game.

The latter part of Clark’s career coincided with a defensive era of NHL hockey. Players were bigger and slower, and the league’s most skilled stars weren’t given any room to operate. Following the recent lockout, the NHL has once again opened the door to smaller, better players and Clark says it’s helped to improve the game.

“Every year (since the lockout) the game has gotten better,” he says. “It took a step back (from 1994-2004), but now it’s getting back to where it was when I started.”

As a highly-celebrated teenager, Clark understands the pressure put on some children playing the game. He says the key to the sport is not to make it seem like work. Clark says so few people are able to play professional hockey, but it should always remain a dream for children of all skill levels.

“You want (players) to keep this as a dream, don’t make (becoming a hockey player) an obsession,” he says. “No kid ever takes it seriously; it’s the parents that take it seriously. No athlete ever refers to it as work.”

Clark also gave his thoughts on the current state of the Leafs franchise, saying the team is not ns as bad of shape as it was when he joined them. In his current position, he offers his opinions to the club’s hockey minds but he has no intention of becoming more directly involved in the hockey operations at this stage of his life.

Clark retired with more than 300 career goals and 500 career points, as well as almost 1700 penalty minutes.