Wendel Clark’s résumé is full of highlights. The Kelvington, Sask., native won gold at the World Juniors, was the first-overall pick in the NHL Entry Draft, played in the NHL All-Star Game, captained the Toronto Maple Leafs and had his number honoured by the team.
But one of Clark’s first milestones came in 1982, when the young defenceman took to the ice at the Air Canada Cup, Canada’s National Midget Championship, in Victoria, B.C.
“I was a 15-year-old playing for the Notre Dame Hounds,” Clark says. “I remember the tournament being special because it was the first time we got to play in national games.
“Every team was the best of the best in their province and was playing at their best, so every game was important. Canada’s got so many talented players, we had to give it our best game in and game out because consistency was the key to winning.”
Consistency wasn’t a problem for Notre Dame, which was making its fourth consecutive appearance at the national championship as the Saskatchewan representative; the Hounds won bronze in 1979, and earned their first national title in 1980.
One of just a handful of 15-year-olds on the Notre Dame roster, Clark says the experience gained from Air Canada Cup was key to preparing for the next stage in their careers.
“When you play at that level, it’s the first taste of what you’ll be facing as you get older,” he says. “You always learn when you get to play in that kind of competition. It shows how much you want to battle against the other guys, and more often than not it isn’t about the skill-for-skill; you quickly come to realize that the athlete you’re playing against is competing as hard as you are. If you’re equally talented, it always comes down to who wants it more.”
Clark and the Hounds finished second in their group in the preliminary round with a 4-1 record, but were upset in the quarter-finals by Cape Breton and settled for a fifth-place finish.
He went on to play two seasons with the WHL’s Saskatoon Blades, and was selected No. 1 by the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 1985 NHL Entry Draft. Clark played 15 NHL seasons with Toronto (on three separate occasions), Quebec, the New York Islanders, Tampa Bay, Detroit and Chicago.
Looking back, Clark says playing in the NHL wasn’t his major goal at 15; he looked at a more immediate and achievable goal – to play for a national championship, and says today’s players should do the same.
“To play in the TELUS Cup, at such a high level and against so many good players, is a great goal to reach.”
TELUS Cup Team & Year: Notre Dame Hounds, 1982
TELUS Cup Finish: fifth place
NHL Entry Draft: 1985, Toronto Maple Leafs (1st round, 1st overall)
NHL Teams: Toronto Maple Leafs (1985-94, 1996-98, 2000); Quebec Nordiques (1994-95); New York Islanders (1995-96); Tampa Bay Lightning (1998-99); Detroit Red Wings (1999); Chicago Blackhawks (1999-2000)
NHL Statistics: 793 GP; 330 G; 234 A; 564 PTS
Team Canada Experience: IIHF World Junior Championship (1985, gold medal)