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Heart And Soul
Michael Farber
February 27, 1995
Wendel Clark has brought far more than scoring to the newly potent Quebec Nordiques
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February 27, 1995

Heart And Soul

Wendel Clark has brought far more than scoring to the newly potent Quebec Nordiques

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On the day Lacroix landed Clark and Lefebvre, he also snared another take-care-of-business defenseman, 6'6" Uwe Krupp from the New York Islanders. Krupp is German, one of six nationalities on this team of Babel Boomers. There was only one logical choice to succeed Pierre Pagé as coach, but Boutros Boutros-Ghali already had a job.

So Lacroix hired Crawford, who had been coaching Toronto's American Hockey League affiliate. Crawford, 34, had a reputation as a bright, demanding coach. He was also unilingual. In Quebec this was a gamble. The last time the Nordiques hired an anglophone coach, the unlamented Dave Chambers, who had a 19-64-15 record between 1990 and '92, it seemed strictly like affirmative action. But Crawford said that he would learn French—the vow of every right-thinking person who lands in Quebec—and in the most revolutionary development of all, he actually has.

"We got home at two in the morning from a trip to Buffalo, and we're playing the [New York] Rangers that night," says Lacroix. "I'm in the office that Saturday morning, and after a meeting I go out into the corridor and hear noise. Marc's in with his French teacher. A two-hour lesson—on game day, after coming in from Buffalo. Not many people would do that." Crawford, in fact, conducted most of his postgame interview in Quebec's primary language after a 5-2 win against the Ottawa Senators on Feb. 11. If his French ain't Camus, at least it's more pleasing than watching the Senators.

The Nordique philosophy on the ice is elemental: Take the heat off goalies Stéphane Fiset and Jocelyn Thibault by spending as little time in the defensive zone as possible. Now that right wing Owen Nolan's shoulder has healed and Swedish Olympic hero Peter Forsberg has joined the team, the Nordiques have more talent up front than any team except the Detroit Red Wings and the Pittsburgh Penguins. Says Sakic, "We just have to take care of our end."

Sakic ranks among NHL scoring leaders—he had six goals and 18 assists at week's end—which isn't exactly a scoop. During the past five years the 25-year-old Sakic has averaged 100 points a season. But the careworn look of Quebec's captain is gone. Although Clark didn't take Sakic's C, Clark has assumed much of the team's leadership, slipping into the role of alternate captain and occasional dressing room orator. Sakic and Clark have an unspoken understanding, one forged through respect and complementary skills that Crawford has packaged on a line with right wing Andrei Kovalenko. Sakic is swift, shifty and a superb passer; Clark has good hands, a heavy shot and a knack for finding space in the offensive zone. "The greatest impact Wendel has had has been on Sakic," Aubut says. "His coming has made Joe a different player and a different person."

That's Clark. For nine years in Toronto he tried to make everyone around him play a little bigger, a little better—at least when he wasn't hurt, which was so often that he missed the equivalent of three seasons. Clark, 28, was the one force on the Maple Leafs in the mid-1980s, an old-style wing who could score and muck and fight, combining 71 goals with 498 penalty minutes his first two seasons. (After the second year he opened a hockey school that promised to teach kids to play "the Wendel way." Leaf executives wondered if that meant whipping a wrist shot from the blue line and punching out the guy next to you.) He was the most familiar face in Toronto's mid-1990s renaissance, scoring 19 goals in 39 playoff games the past two seasons. He also played his best at the most important times. His Game 7 totals were six goals, three assists and a plus-nine in four matches.

He was ideal for the team whose logo mirrors the nation's—a poster boy for old-time Canadian virtues like industriousness, grit, modesty. A regular Exhibit Eh. He became so entrenched in Toronto mythology that the thought of Mr. Maple Leaf tucking that battle-scarred body into a Nordique sweater with a fleur-de-lis seemed bizarre—to everyone but him.

"The thing is, people didn't know Wendel any better on his last day here than they did on his first day," says Bob Stellick, the Leaf director of communications. "They identify Wendel so closely with Toronto, but Sylvain Lefebvre had a tougher time leaving. He has family. A home. He put down roots. Wendel [who is single] could have tossed his stuff into a garbage bag and been out of town in 15 minutes."

Of all the contributions Clark will make in Quebec City, his greatest may be to remove the "Siberia on the St. Lawrence" stigma. Clark, a Saskatchewan farm boy, is all hockey; if the provincial capital is good enough for him, who can gripe? If he had recited the tired litany of know-nothing complaints that have haunted the city—too cold, too many taxes and, especially, too French—Clark could have buried the franchise. But aware that the hockey world was awaiting his reaction, he was nothing but positive and professional from the moment he heard of his trade on his truck radio last summer. Quebec? That's O.K., Clark told everyone. The word hockey is bilingual.

"Wendel knows he's lucky to have a job doing what he's doing," says his father, Les, who returned to the farm in Kelvington, Saskatchewan, after a fringe career as a minor leaguer in the 1950s. "He didn't grow up criticizing the man who pays him. There are 15,000 people paying $40, $60 a night to see him play. Money's hard to get. Wendel's going to say he doesn't want to play there? That's an insult."

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