Conn Smythe would have loved Wendel Clark. Smythe, one of the early patriarchs of the NHL and the fellow who built Toronto's Maple Leaf Gardens, was fond of saying, "If you can't beat 'em in the alley, you can't beat 'em on the ice."
Clark, the Maple Leaf captain, has a style suited for either venue. His eight goals through two playoff rounds include a pair he scored last Saturday night in Toronto's 4-2 Game 7 win over the San Jose Sharks at the Gardens, a victory that advanced the Leafs to the Western Conference finals against the Vancouver Canucks. And when Clark isn't illuminating the little red lamp, he's lighting up opponents.
Ask Chicago's Chris Chelios, who crawled to the bench after being freight-trained by Clark during Game 6 of the Maple Leafs' first-round series against the Blackhawks. Ask San Jose's Jeff Norton, who was bent into a horseshoe by Clark in front of the Shark bench in Game 4 of their series. So enthusiastically did Clark finish his check that Norton was left gazing up into his teammates' nostrils, then was helped off the ice, semiconscious.
Around the NHL, Clark is given wide berth even though he doesn't drop his gloves as often as he did when he first arrived in the league, nine years ago. "He can still fight like a bastard," says Toronto assistant general manager Bill Watters. "He's just more selective." Adds Leaf defenseman Todd Gill, "There's not a guy in the league that wants a piece of him. Wendel isn't swinging for show. He's swinging to hurt you."
He's also swinging to score. With a wonderfully soft touch in close, rare for a pugilist, and one of the most dangerous wrist shots in the game, Clark has learned that he can do more damage with his hands wrapped around the shaft of a stick. This year the left wing had a career-high 46 goals during the regular season. Says Gill, "Wendel's finally using his hands to score, not fight."
But for a man who causes so much mayhem on the ice, Clark is surprisingly unimposing off of it. The program says he is 5'11"—maybe he's 5'10"—and with his playoff beard and progressing baldness, he is an old-looking 27. He even sounded mature after the Leafs' elimination of San Jose Saturday evening, philosophizing that "every player has his ups and downs. Life is a circle."
Clark is up now, as he was in 1985-86, when he had a team-high 34 goals and set a Toronto scoring record for rookies. With 37 goals the next season, he was beloved by Leaf fans and then-coach John Brophy, who had played in the minors with Clark's father, Les, now a wheat farmer on a 4,000-acre spread in Kelvington, Saskatchewan. Says Clark, "Dad always said, 'I don't care what you do, just do it as hard as you can.' "
Following that advice has probably shortened Clark's career. He ran everything that moved and fought everyone who looked at him the wrong way, and then his back went out in the summer of 1987. Over the next five seasons Clark averaged fewer than 40 games and got used to talk that he was malingering. His manhood was questioned again last winter when a Detroit Red Wing player said, "He's Wendel at home and Wendy on the road." That label resurfaced a month later during postseason play after Clark disappeared in the first two games of Toronto's opening-round series in Detroit. Trashed by the hometown media as well, Clark responded by playing huge the rest of the way, scoring 10 goals as the Leafs made it to within a game of the Stanley Cup finals.
He hasn't let up. He's now contending for the postseason's MVP award, a gaudy piece of hardware known as the Conn Smythe Trophy. Smythe's kind of guy all the way.