A rejuvenated Wendel Clark has brought electricity to the Lightning
Wendel Clark was creaking to a halt. As last season ended, Clark, then a 31-year-old Maple Leafs left wing, had missed 339 games with numerous ailments over an otherwise stellar 13-year career. He had a chronically sore back, was set to undergo surgery to repair a torn groin muscle and was coming off a season in which he had played only 47 games and finished with 12 goals and a -21 rating. Little wonder that Toronto didn't even try to keep Clark, who was an unrestricted free agent.
When the lowly Lightning signed him to a one-year, $1.5 million contract in July, NHL observers branded the deal as another bit of barminess on the part of Tampa Bay's then general manager, Phil Esposito. At best, it was felt, Clark might be a serviceable spare part. What no one expected was that Clark would not only be as hardy as kale and have a team-high nine goals (tied for fourth in the league through Sunday) but also would be anchoring the top line of an improved club (6-9-2). "The puck's bouncing right," says the modest Clark, who has a wicked wrist shot.
While his scoring has been abetted by the excellent passing of center Craig Janney, Clark's other contributions to the Lightning have been purely his own. Last year Tampa Bay was plagued by a lack of unity, and Clark set about changing that in training camp. He rounded up stragglers and led them into the weight room. He organized team lunches and demanded full attendance. When the season started he was the first player at the rink on game nights. "One time we had a bad practice, and even before the coaches came in, Wendel was all over us," says center Darcy Tucker. "He has such a presence that you have an ear to everything he says."
Coach Jacques Demers has Clark rooming with 18-year-old center Vincent Lecavalier, Tampa Bay's future, and Clark's locker is adjacent to that of right wing Alexander Selivanov, a talented offensive player who needs to add some hard edges to his game. "Wendel brings professionalism and determination," says Demers. "Players are following him because he's Wendel Clark—but also because he's scoring."
A Poor Career Decision
Picture a marvelously skilled center, 27 years old, the kind of man who can bring 40 goals and as many assists to an NHL team. Imagine him following a path he believes will make him rich, but instead he finds himself in self-imposed purgatory: though healthy and able, he's missing the heyday of his career. A case you might only find...in the Twilight Zone.
Petr Nedved's prolonged holdout is indeed that bizarre. Nedved, a restricted free agent who hasn't put on an NHL uniform since April 1997, vows never to play again for Pittsburgh, a team for which he had a combined 78 goals and 92 assists during the 1995-96 and 1996-97 seasons. In October 1997 he rejected a five-year, $14.8 million offer from the Penguins, who, in turn, rejected Nedved's five-year, $18.5 million counteroffer. Subsequent negotiations have proved futile.
No one in the league would be surprised if Nedved were traded tomorrow, but irreparable damage has already been done to his career. He has not only lost a significant chunk of his prime earning years, but he has also become a symbol of the increasingly difficult dealings between NHL players and teams. In September, Bruins general manager Harry Sinden characterized three Boston players who were not in camp because of contract spats as "Nedveds."
"It's not O.K.," Nedved says of the time he has missed. "If you ask 100 people, 95 percent would say I made the wrong decision. I have to live with it."