Tonight, the Toronto Maple Leafs are raising Wendel Clark's #17 to the rafters at the Air Canada Centre. I for one, will be in attendance, thanks to my buddy Dunner's last minute hookup.
In what was unquestionably the darkest period in the history of one of hockey's most storied franchises, Wendel Clark was the lone beaconing light. He embodied everything that Toronto ever wanted in a hockey player: fearless leadership, an unfathomable toughness, a gritty, scorer's touch, a flair for the dramatic, and a moustache.
In all of the time I spent at Maple Leaf Gardens growing up, he was without question the main reason people continued to pack that grand old building. His open ice hits were the stuff of legends. His fights were little short of epic. He was one of Brophy's Boys. He was everything a hockey player should be.
The most heroic hockey I've ever seen played came courtesy of Wendel Clark during the 1993 Campbell Conference Finals. Early in the series, Wendel had laid a beating on Marty Mcsorley after Marty had caught Dougie Gilmour with his head down coming across the middle. That fight is hands down the most famous in the history of the Toronto Maple Leafs, and I'll never forget the front page of The Toronto Sun the next day, showing the extent of the price Mcsorley had paid for the elbow on Gimour with a world class shiner.
But it was Game 6 of the series, in L.A., that put Wendel into the pantheon for me. I stayed up all night watching that game with my dad, and when Wendel buried a hat trick, his third goal sending the game into overtime, I remember thinking that I'd never seen a performance like the one The Captain was delivering. This was our leader, playing for the Toronto Maple Leafs, and he was outplaying the greatest hockey player who ever lived. I couldn't believe what I was seeing.
When Wayne Gretzky eventually broke my heart by tapping home the overtime winner for the Kings, I had tears in my eyes, and through a voice breaking with emotion, I remember telling my dad that it just wasn't fair.
It was the only time in my life that I can remember crying because of one of my teams losing. Wendel had done everything humanly possible to take the Leafs to the Stanley Cup finals, and it still wasn't enough.
Sports has never meant as much to me as it did in the spring of 1993, when Wendel Clark was the best hockey player in the world.
One more note on how much Wendel Clark means to the City of Toronto.
I was out with my buddies Foley and Joe last night. The three of us are rocking fantastic moustaches for Movember. Usually, when you tell someone that you're growing a moustache to raise money for prostate cancer research, the response is pretty ho-hum. "That's great. Good luck with everything. You look like an idiot." Pretty standard stuff.
In any event, we were being drunk and disorderly at a little local pub, and the conversation invariably turned to the honouring of Wendel's #17 tonight. There was some dude with a hard-on for Wendel talking about how he was the best player he'd ever seen, and how if you had a team full of guys with half of Wendel's heart, you'd win the Cup every year... I told this guy that there was a group of us going to the game tonight, and that, in fact, Wendel's honouring was the reason that we were all growing moustaches.
"HOLY FUCK! THAT'S THE BEST THING I'VE EVER HEARD!!!"
Two seconds later, some other dude walks over and says, "I'm sorry for interupting, but I just overheard you say that you guys grew those moustaches for Wendel... You guys are my fucking heroes!"
Prostate cancer? Yawn... To show your love for Wendel Clark? Drinks on the house all night long.
Only in Toronto. And you wouldn't want it any other way.