Q&A: Former Maple Leaf Wendel Clark talks injuries, wrist shot and why Toronto shouldn't rush to name a captain

Bleeding Blue: Giving My All For the Game was released on Nov. 1. (Courtesy: Simon & Schuster)
Bleeding Blue: Giving My All For the Game was released on Nov. 1. (Courtesy: Simon & Schuster)

Like many former athletes yet to publish their autobiography, Wendel Clark had been approached many times with offers to put his life on the printed page. The beloved former Toronto Maple Leafs' captain is arguably the most popular player in team history. He entered the NHL like a freight train as an 18-year-old rookie in 1985, electrifying fans with his skill and physicality on the ice while maintaining modesty off of it. Injuries, brought on by his ferocious style of play, eventually caught up to Clark, forcing him to retire at 33 years old after 15 seasons.

Last year, with his 50th birthday on the horizon and the Maple Leafs' centennial season approaching, Clark decided the time was right and teamed up with broadcaster/author Jim Lang to tell his story in Bleeding Blue: Giving My All For The Game

The book was released on Tuesday and Clark has just embarked on a month-long publicity tour with 26 stops including his home province of Saskatchewan, as well as Alberta, Newfoundland, Nova Scotia and multiple towns in Ontario.  Prior to hitting the road, Yahoo Canada Sports had a chance to talk with him for this Q&A.

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Yahoo Canada Sports: Auston Matthews was drafted first overall by the Maple Leafs in 2016, prior to that, you were the last player selected first overall by the team in 1985. Was it a forgone conclusion you would be a Leaf?

Wendel Clark: It was never 100 percent that I was going there until they actually announced the name, I didn’t know for sure until the announcement, they had kept it under wraps in deciding what they were going to do until the last moment. I had interviewed with all the top teams and probably had I been drafted to a different team, I would have been a defenceman instead of a forward because I had played defence my whole life.

YCS: You retired at 33, how old was your body?

Clark: My body? (Laughs). I just turned 50 but I was probably already 50 at 33. My body basically shut down at 33 and that was the injuries which caught up to me. I couldn’t rehab quickly enough to get ready 24 hours later to play again.

YCS: How long after retiring did it take you to get back to feeling physically 100 percent in your day-to-day life?

Clark: I don’t think I’ll ever get there physically. You pretty much always live with injuries that you had and it's probably why I don’t play a lot of rec hockey like a lot of guys do. I play some, but not a lot because it reminds you of what your body went through. I retired because of health, sometimes when you put everything back on, you say, “Oh yeah, that’s why I retired.” Usually the guys that play a lot after they are done (in the NHL), they didn’t retire because of health, they retired because of other reasons.

YCS: An interesting part of your book involves the evolution of rehab and its impact on your career, can you expand on that?

Clark: Rehab probably didn’t become a big part of the NHL until the late '80s. It probably hinged side-by-side with salaries. Around 1991, salaries really jumped and all of sudden you’ve got expensive players so you better get help looking after these contracts. I think a lot of it had to do with the medical side (of the sport) catching up because of how expensive players were for the owner. 

YCS: The timing of these advances couldn’t have been better for you as you were moving into your mid-20s and had only played essentially one season worth of games between 1987 and 1990 as your style of play kept your sidelined.

Clark: You’re right, if you put the stats together, I had a 30- or 40-goal season but I played it over three years (laughs). Had I not met a fellow like Chris Broadhurst, who dedicated his time and then became head trainer with the Leafs and getting that kind of medical treatment, my body wouldn’t have been able to play. You think back even just ahead of me, Gary Nylund had a couple of major knee operations and no real rehab, he went from surgery to playing. 

YCS: Early in your career, Edmonton Oilers coach and GM Glen Sather said you weren’t going to last the way you were playing. How did you adjust your style of play to stay in the league?

Clark: It really doesn’t matter the size of the player, you can’t play a crash-and-bang style forever, year after year after year. You have to learn to pick spots because nobody can last (playing that way). It takes a little longer (to do that) for some players but a lot of it depends on the team you make right off the bat as well. If you are on a team that is not as strong and that’s the way you play, it’s done more. If you go to a winning team right away then you are pieced into a lineup, you don’t have to do a job-and-a-half, you just do your job.

YCS: Because the Leafs were so poor when you started, did you feel like you had to do it all?

Clark: That’s the way I played anyway. Somebody didn’t tell me to start changing, so I was doing it to myself. I loved playing that way. I carried it over (from junior) and when you talk to more veterans and different coaching staffs and as our team got better -- whether it was (head coach) Pat Burns or (GM and president) Cliff Fletcher, (you find out) it’s not all or nothing, every shift. 

YCS: You netted a hat trick despite a bad back in Game 6 of the Campbell Conference Finals against the L.A. Kings in 1993, was it your best performance in a single game?

Clark: I don’t think it was. It was one of those games, though, where you get to feel like the Wayne Gretzkys of the world because the puck follows you. Your body doesn’t feel 1000 percent but in the third round of the playoffs everybody was probably feeling along the lines of the way I felt anyway. You have those games where the puck, all of a sudden -- it’s there. You have games where you feel awesome, you’re skating all over the place but the puck seems to be leaving just when you get there, whereas you have those games like Game 6 where you always seem to be in the right spot. When the puck is following you, you just have to make sure you can put it away when you got it.

YCS: Early in your career the Leafs had no captain for three seasons from 1986 to 1989. The current team also has alternates instead of one player wearing the 'C.' What are they dynamics like in the dressing room when this is the case?

Clark: Leadership is all natural, no one is waiting for someone to throw a letter on their jersey so they can change who they are. The guys are all going to be leaders in their own way and over time, being that our team is so young, management will figure out who they think is capable of wearing the 'C.' Until then, they want all the guys to be who they are and then it’ll come to the forefront (as to) who they want. It’s not a bad thing, it’s actually a very good thing when the team is this young, especially in Toronto. Don’t put it on any one (player) because now outside the room it becomes a focal point that somebody has to handle and why handle it when you’re that young and you don’t have to. 

YCS: You had a lethal wrist shot primarily using a wooden Bauer stick during your career. How much more deadly would it have been using a modern composite stick with a lot of flex?

Clark: I don’t know if it would be a whole lot different. Technology has helped the guys that don’t shoot it well. It’s like golf, the technology in a hockey stick has helped the guys that don’t shoot a puck very well, shoot a puck better.

YCS: Did the NHL come too far, too fast in allowing the modification away from a traditional wooden stick?

Clark: No. It’s speeded a lot of things up, it’s allowed a lot of younger kids to be better at a younger age. In my day, as a 10-year-old holding that big heavy wooden stick, it felt like a two-by-four in your hands. The skill level at our young kids’ age now is so good and that is because of the technology, they are able to make a lighter small kids stick. The Connor McDavids of the world growing up with this got to be so good because they are using this really nice piece of equipment at a really young age.

Bleeding Blue: Giving My All For the Game is published by Simon and Schuster

Follow Neil Acharya on Twitter: @Neil_Acharya