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Friday, November 21, 2008
The other big party on Saturday night? Toronto honors "Mr. Maple Leaf"


Patrick Roy isn't the only former star being honored in the NHL on Saturday night.

While the former Habs goalie sees his No. 33 retired at the Bell Centre in Montreal (yours truly will be there), rival Toronto is honoring former Maple Leafs winger Wendel Clark at the Air Canada Centre.

The Leafs don't retire numbers, they simply honor players. That's a quibble for another day. Still, Clark's No. 17 will indeed be a banner raised to the roof. And we suspect the roof will be shaking.

"Should be special. I'm starting to think more and more about what it's going to be like," Clark told ESPN.com last night.

Clark is absolutely beloved in this city. The humble native of Kelvington, Saskatchewan, was an instant hit in Toronto from the second the Leafs took him first overall in the 1985 NHL draft. He was the shining light on a dreary team in the mid-to-late 1980s.

"Fans like scoring, hitting and fighting, I guess," Clark said when asked to explain the bond he has with Leafs fans.

In the early '90s, Clark partnered with another massive fan favorite in Doug Gilmour on the blue-collar Toronto teams that went to back-to-back conference finals.

"We were a people's team," Clark said. "We had to outwork the other team to succeed."

Then came June 28, 1994, draft day, and the stunning blockbuster deal that sent Clark, Sylvain Lefebvre, Landon Wilson and a first-round pick to the Quebec Nordiques in exchange for Mats Sundin, Garth Butcher, Todd Warriner and a first-round pick.

"And that was really before cell phones," Clark said. "So I didn't even know right away. I was at an event that day and I remember stopping at a gas station and turning on the radio while I filled up. That's how I found out."

Cliff Fletcher was in his first go-around as Leafs GM when he made the deal.

"It was the hardest trade I ever had to make," Fletcher told ESPN.com on Wednesday. "But my responsibility was to the team. It had to be done when you were acquiring a just-turning 23-year-old [Sundin] who looked like he was going to be an impact player for the next decade -- which he has more than turned out to be.

"But Wendel came back and finished his career with us and that was a good thing."

Clark also understands why the deal was made, but he was indeed thrilled when Fletcher brought him back home in a deal with the Islanders in March 1996.

"I brought him back because in my mind he was Mr. Maple Leaf," Fletcher said.

I happened to be working Clark's first game back with the Leafs after that trade, and I'll never forget the press box at Maple Leaf Gardens vibrating because of the crowd's eruption a few minutes into the first period.

"Yeah, I think it was either my first or second shift when I able to pop one in," said Clark, who scored eight goals in those 13 remaining games with the Leafs that season.

That kind of affection from the fans will once again be front and center Saturday night for Mr. Maple Leaf.

"Wendel was a 185-pounder who played the game like he was 210," Fletcher said. "He was the ultimate competitor. He had one of the great shots in the game. And the thing I liked about Wendel, you knew the bigger the game, the more you could rely on him to come through for you."