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Wendel Clark: remembering one big hit in San Jose

The Sharks make an infrequent appearance at the ACC tonight, which brings back some (and they are pretty sparse, I admit) memories of the Leafs playing the Sharks.

Those following this site will know that I normally talk about the really “old” days or the current Leaf team. Rarely do I venture into a discussion of the ‘90s, as that is fairly recent and does not exactly fall into the “vintage” realm—for me at least.

However, the ’93 and ’94 Leafs were pretty special teams and Leaf fans well remember those great playoff runs under Pat Burns in the spring of 1993. Much of what happened came about because of Wendel Clark.

We all remember how, in the first series against Detroit in the spring of ‘93, the Leafs were a bit on the docile side and the Wings ran out to a 2-0 lead in games. The media quoted Red Wing players taking not-very-veiled shots at Clark, suggesting he was a tough guy at home—but not so tough on the road.

It seemed that, from that moment on, Clark (along with Doug Gilmour, a strong checking line and a hard-working Leaf team) took over the playoffs.

There were ups and downs along the way, but Clark made his presence felt right away in Game 3 against Detroit and his impact increased as that series went on, and then against St. Louis.

He was a huge difference-maker against the LA Kings. No Leaf fans will forget his three goals in Game 6 in Los Angeles, or the way he scored them—a backhand while being hampered from behind on a break-in, a kind of slap-snap shot, and then that booming, rising wrist shot. (If that shot had it missed the target—it might have killed Gilmour, who set Clark up and was watching the play unfold from behind the net).

We know how that all ended at the end of Game 6, and then in Game 7 back in Toronto. It’s just too disappointing to go over again.

But the moment that just came to mind today involving Wendel was something that actually happened the following spring, in the quarter-final series against San Jose.

I don’t remember which game it was (I’m guessing Game 3 or 4, but maybe Game 5, they were all in San Jose) but Clark hit Sharks defenseman Jeff Norton around the blue line, right at one of the benches. Clark hit Norton so hard that Norton was bent over the boards in such a way that you had to believe he was not getting up again. To Norton’s credit, he soldiered on after that devastating hit.

I guess my point is, in this era where there are so many hits from behind, head shots, dirty hits to the knee, I remember Clark’s thundering hit as a good, clean hockey play. To me, that’s legitimate ‘tough’ hockey—as opposed to some of the pre-meditated fighting that we often see nowadays that passes for toughness.

On that note, I’ve had a friendly debate with people for years about the ‘value’ of penalty minutes. Heck, some fantasy polls have a category for that, apparently. Often times fans look at high penalty-minute totals and assume that’s a good thing. The problem is, many of those minutes are often either bad two-minute penalties—(lack of effort penalties such as hooking, holding, and tripping) or fighting majors that have nothing to do with playing good, tough hockey.

Real toughness, to me, is demonstrated by guys who play hard but within the rules. They may fight, but they don’t necessarily have to fight to be tough, valuable players.

In the ‘70s and ‘80s, Terry O’Reilly was a truly tough player with the Bruins. He could fight, sure. Stan Jonathan, too. He was a fighter, but he played hard. Johnny McKenzie was a small but physically tough player in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Bob Nystrom of the Islanders was another with the Islanders in their great years. Bob Gainey was no fighter but a very tough player, between the whistles. Every fan has their own memories of guys who played that way.

The best compliment I can pay to Clark is that, when he was focused and injury-free, he was that kind of player. He wasn’t a tall or big guy—just naturally strong, like Bobby Hull before him. He was clearly talented in terms of offensive skills, and he had that great shot, but he was also truly “tough”—which made the guys around him play that much bigger.


  1. If the NHL isn't careful, our great sport may become as pussified as the NFL.
    I can understand, condone even, dropping the gloves in defense of a teammate who was the victim of a blatant cheap shot, but fighting after EVERY good hit is really taking away from the game.
    The refs cannot be counted on anymore to make the correct calls, if they even make a call at all, concerning what is or isn't a cheap shot, so the guys have to police the ice themselves. But, this 'Instigator Rule' seems to be a major deterrent, and something so petty should not be the determining factor in these instances.
    What the league has done to 'speed up the game' has done exactly the opposite, and it's time to re-evaluate said rules.

  2. The Norton hit was from Game Four. Here's an SI article that ran a few days later: