I kicked off this series by naming Cliff Fletcher’s re-acquisition of Wendel Clark — the one that ultimately cost them the first-round draft pick that was used on Roberto Luongo — as the fifth-worst trade in the history of the Toronto Maple Leafs (since 1967).
But how did Fletcher find himself in that situation? How did Clark, the fan-favourite, the heart-and-soul, the captain, find his way off the Leafs in the first place? It all starts with an incredibly controversial deal that Fletcher made that would end up being the best trade made this organization in the past half-century.
Clark was a breath of fresh air on a putrid Leafs team. Drafted with the first overall pick after that Leafs had put together their most miserable season in franchise history, Clark immediately gave a listless team a much-needed spark.
During the darkest days of the Harold Ballard years, they had become the joke of the league. Not only were they an easy team to beat, but they also rolled over and would let you kick their ass, literally. The team was bad, which was one thing, but this was the wild west days of the 80s. The players were gladiators. The Leafs would routinely get beaten on the scoreboard and they would get beaten up even worse on the ice.
But, with Clark in the mix, that wasn’t the case anymore. A fearless farm boy from Saskatchewan, Clark played with a reckless abandon, skating around like a wrecking ball and hitting everything in his way. As a rookie, he would score a team-leading 34 goals while also racking up a team-leading 227 penalty minutes.
In his first two seasons with the club, Clark helped the Leafs return to respectability. The team squeezed into the playoffs in back-to-back seasons in 1986 and 1987, pulling off first-round upsets over the Chicago Black Hawks and St. Louis Blues.
His wild style of play was perfect for 80s hockey in the difficult Norris Division and it immediately made him a fan favourite in Toronto.
Clark’s style of play also had its ramifications, though. Playing such a reckless, physical style took its toll on Clark’s body and injuries quickly became an issue. A brutal back injury would result in Clark missing major time during the 1987-88, 88-89, and 89-90 seasons. The Leafs would struggle without him.
In 1991-92, Clark was named the team’s captain. Later that season, Fletcher made one of his most important trades as Leafs general manager, acquiring Doug Gilmour from Calgary. A year after that trade, he made yet another huge move, getting Dave Anderychuk from Buffalo.
These two deals were instrumental in lifting Toronto from a mediocre team to a legitimate contender. It would also provide Clark with an opportunity to have some of his best moments in a Leafs uniform.
There are two different highlights from the 1993 playoffs that represent the best of Clark as a Leaf. First, there was his fight against the big, bad goon Marty McSorley, who had decked Gilmour with a questionable hit…
Next, there was his hat-trick that nearly single-handedly pushed Toronto to the Stanley Cup…
This was the best of Clark. The stakes were high, the games were difficult, and he showed up, both as a goal-scorer and a fighter. That’s a captain right there.
The Leafs, unfortunately, would get edged out by the Kings in Game 7 that year. In 1993-94, they would make yet another playoff run, but, again, they got stopped in this Western Conference Final, this time by the surprising Vancouver Canucks.
Clark had put up the best season of his career that year. He had been mostly healthy and put up a career-high 46 goals and 76 points. But, knowing his injury history and the fact that his best days were more than likely behind him, Fletcher realized that it was time to sell high.
Fletcher pulled the trigger on a deal that would rattle Toronto. He traded Clark to the Quebec Nordiques for some Swedish kid.
The trade, all told, was Clark, Sylvain Lefebvre, Landon Wilson, a first-round pick in the 1994 draft (Jeff Keatley) in exchange for Mats Sundin, Garth Butcher, Todd Warriner, and a first-round pick in the 1994 draft (Nolan Baumgartner). Despite the other parts involved, this deal was really about trading Clark for Sundin.
The new kid had massive shoes to fill. Clark had come in, jolted much-needed life and energy into a desolate team, become a fan favourite, an icon for a generation of fans who didn’t have any hope, and, most recently, captained his team to back-to-back appearances in the Western Conference Final.
As much as fans, especially those who loved Wendel Clark, might have hated it at the time, this was a great deal for Toronto. Sundin wasn’t just some kid. Like Clark, he had also been a first-overall pick in the draft. Just three years into his career with the Nordiques, Sundin had put up an impressive 114-point season. He was going to be the player Toronto could build their team around for years to come.
And that’s exactly what happened. While Sundin was never the same on-ice warrior that Clark was, he was the consistent, well-oiled machine that Clark wasn’t. Over 13 seasons with the Leafs, Sundin hardly missed any time due to injury, giving the team a consistent, elite presence at the top of their lineup.
He would eventually carry the torch from Gilmour, getting named captain in 1997. Shortly after that, Sundin would lead the Leafs to some of their best seasons in franchise history. He was the face of the team in the late-90s and early-2000s when the Leafs were a consistent contender, icing great teams that could just never get over the hump.
When it was all said and done, Sundin ended up as the leading scorer in Toronto Maple Leafs history with 987 points. He admirably faced the challenge of filling the shoes of one great captain, succeeded another great captain, and, finally broke the all-time scoring record of the most beloved captain. There’s no simply questioning Sundin’s value to the organization over the decade-and-a-half that he played in Toronto.