Wendel Clark is a former professional hockey player who played fifteen professional seasons with the Toronto Maple Leafs, Quebec Nordiques, New York Islanders, Tampa Bay Lightning, Detroit Red Wings and Chicago Blackhawks. Clark was captain of the Maple Leafs between 1991 and 1994. During thhis time with the Maple Leafs, Clark was known as "Captain Crunch" due to his physical and intense style of hockey, as well as his famous mustache's similarities with the one owned by the eponymous breakfast cereal character.
A star junior hockey defenceman with the Saskatoon Blades of the Western Hockey League, Clark was converted to forward after he was selected first overall by the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 1985 NHL Entry Draft. His professional career lasted from 1985 until 2000, during which time he played for the Maple Leafs (during three separate stretches), Quebec Nordiques, New York Islanders, Tampa Bay Lightning, Detroit Red Wings, and Chicago Blackhawks.
Clark came into the league with intensity, and refused to back down to the league's toughest players, racking up 227 penalty minutes during his rookie year. Clark quickly gained a reputation for hard-nosed hockey, showing little regard for his opponents or himself. His most famous check is perhaps his hit on unsuspecting St. Louis' defenseman Bruce Bell. Coming from opposite corners, Clark caught Bell with his head down, the devastating hit left Bell unconscious. Many legendary hits followed during his career, leading to his famous nickname, Captain Crunch.
Clark was known for his emotional, physical play, combined with scoring prowess. After his rookie season, he was named to the NHL All-Rookie Team and finished third in voting for the Calder Memorial Trophy. Clark suffered a serious back injury during a game against the Chicago Blackhawks in 1987, when he was cross-checked into the crossbar of his own goal. This injury hindered his progress as an elite NHL player. Nonetheless, he was a crowd favourite at Maple Leaf Gardens and won a place in the hearts of Maple Leaf fans as he provided a spark during the latter part of the Harold Ballard era, considered the darkest period in the storied franchise's history. He was named captain of the team for the 1991-92 season.
During the 1992-93 season, Clark's second year captaining the team, the Maple Leafs set team records in wins with 44 and points with 99 and also made the playoffs for the first time in three years. The Maple Leafs had a memorable run to the Campbell Conference Finals, although, after leading the best-of-seven series three games to two, they lost to the Wayne Gretzky-led Los Angeles Kings, who were coached by Clark's cousin, Barry Melrose. Two career-defining moments happened in this series for Clark's career. One being his historic defense of Doug Gilmour, resulting in a bruised and battered Marty McSorley, and his hat-trick in game 6 of the series, but the kings ended up losing to the Montreal Canadiens.
While Clark was known for intense and physical play, play that led to him amassing 1,690 career penalty minutes, frequent injuries meant that he never played a full regular season. Nonetheless, he did manage an impressive 46 goals for the Maple Leafs during the 1993-94 season, playing on a line with Dave Andreychuk and Doug Gilmour. In the playoffs, the Maple Leafs made a second consecutive trip to the Conference Finals, but fell 4–1 to the Vancouver Canucks, who were coached by future Maple Leafs coach Pat Quinn. However, Canucks ended up losing to the New York Rangers.
In June 1994, with his value at an all-time high, Clark was traded to the Quebec Nordiques in a multi-player deal which notably involved a young Mats Sundin. He was succeeded as Maple Leafs captain by Gilmour. Clark played the lockout-shortened 1994–95 NHL season in Quebec. After the Nordiques became the Colorado Avalanche, Clark became embroiled in a contract dispute with the team. As a result, shortly before the beginning of the 1995-96 campaign, he was sent to the New York Islanders in a three-way trade that brought Claude Lemieux to Colorado and Steve Thomas to the New Jersey Devils. Clark played 58 games with the Islanders, but finished the season back in Toronto.
In 1998 Clark signed as a free agent with the Tampa Bay Lightning, but was dealt at the trade deadline to the Detroit Red Wings, where he finished the 1998-99 season. Clark signed with the Chicago Blackhawks later in 1999, but only appeared in 13 games with the team. Upon returning to the Leafs in 2000, after being benched by the Blackhawks, Clark was not particularly effective for the remainder of the regular season, but he found his form for the Leafs' playoff run. The love that Leaf fans had for their former captain could be seen when they gave a 1:30 standing ovation after Clark barreled into the New Jersey zone and hit the post in Game 1. During Game 4, Clark assisted on the game-winning goal that gave the Leafs a 2–1 victory and tied the series with the Devils.
Due to age, reputation and injuries, Clark's fights became less frequent during latter part of his career. But despite the numerous injuries, Clark's ability to change a game with a single bodycheck continued right up to his eventual retirement.
Wendel is now employed by the Toronto Maple Leafs Hockey Club as a community ambassador and public relations officer. He can be seen at virtually all Leaf home games, usually with his wife Denise and children. The Toronto Maple Leafs honoured the former captain by raising his legendary number 17 to the rafters on November 22, 2008 at the Air Canada Centre. He owns a restaurant, Wendel Clark's Classic Grill and Sports Lounge, in Vaughan, Ontario, and resides in King City.