As some of you know, Sportsnet’s Ian Mendes and I are old friends going back to our days in journalism school. In a neat coincidence, we both had our first books come out within days of each other in September.
In "The Best Seat in the House: Stories from the NHL Inside the Room, on the Ice and on the Bench", Ian and Jamie McLennan share some of the inside stories from McLennan’s career as a backup to some of the NHL’s most legendary goalies. It’s a great book and I hope you check it out.
I thought the excerpt below would be of particular interest to DGB readers.
Wendel Clark Shows Off His Toughness and Leadership
When people think about Wendel Clark's career, they automatically picture him wearing a Toronto Maple Leafs jersey. After all, for almost a decade, Wendel had blue and white coursing through his veins and he was one of the most popular sports figures in the history of Toronto.
I was fortunate enough to play one season with Wendel with the New York Islanders in 1995-96. We had a very odd mix of players on that team and we were like a franchise with no clear direction. We had some really good young players like Ziggy Palffy, Todd Bertuzzi and Bryan McCabe. But we also had a collection of veterans, including Wendel, Pat Flatley and Derek King, who wanted to win right away. We had Mike Milbury running our team as the head coach and we finished in last place with just 54 points.
Having Mike as a head coach was a unique experience because he often had some very strange ideas about how to play the game and how he should motivate his players. And that would sometimes clash directly with a guy like Wendel, who was a no-nonsense person both on and off the ice.
One night during that 1995-96 season, we were in Los Angeles to play the Kings when they still had Wayne Gretzky. Before the game, Mike went on and on about how we had to contain Gretzky-which wasn't exactly breaking news to any of us inside the locker room.
"We can't give Gretzky any time and space. We have to close on him quickly," Mike said to us in his pre-game speech. "Make sure you are on him at all times." In theory, this was a great idea because we needed to focus on Gretzky. But the problem was, Gretzky had made a living out of being the best passer in the game for the past 15 years and nobody could really stop him. So if all our defenders would swarm at him, he would easily find an outlet to make a pass to set somebody up for a scoring chance.
By the halfway mark of the first period, Gretzky had three assists and Mike gave me the hook from the net because were losing 3-0. From the end of the bench I had a terrific perspective of the rest of the game as Gretzky continued to torch us. Mike's pre-game plan was a complete failure, but he kept pressing guys to go after Gretzky. As the final buzzer sounded, we had lost 9-2, with Tommy Soderstrom as my replacement for the final six goals that Los Angeles scored. And that Gretzky guy we tried to contain ended up with six points-one goal and five assists.
What I remember most about that game is Wendel Clark's unbelievable passion-even during a blowout loss. In that game against the Kings, Wendel had two of the best fights I've ever witnessed in my career. Both of them were against Marty McSorley, who was considered one of the true heavyweights of his era. And while Wendel gave up a lot of size and weight to Marty, he stood in and went toe-to-toe with Marty in those two fights. They had had a memorable fight during the conference final three years earlier, when Wendel was still in Toronto, so maybe these two fights were a carryover from that unforgettable bout.
In any event, it showed how passionate Wendel Clark was as a hockey player. And after the game--when we had been humiliated and embarrassed by the Kings--it wasn't our head coach who came in and delivered the memorable speech to our troops. (After all, Mike probably didn't have much to say, since his pre-game plan of stopping Gretzky was a complete failure.) It was Wendel who stood up in the room and started talking. And because Wendel didn't often speak his mind inside the dressing room, we all took notice.
Wendel's message was direct and blunt. "We're fooling ourselves if we don't think we need our best effort every night--just to be a good team." And he was absolutely right. No amount of pre-game scheming from Mike Milbury was going to compensate for our lack of talent. We weren't an elite team and Wendel was reminding us of that. And because he had just fought Marty McSorley twice, and was speaking to us now with his knuckles bloody and swollen, Wendel had more credibility inside our dressing room.
I remember another moment in the dressing room, a few weeks later, when Wendel once again showed his passion and intensity for the game.
We were about to have a skate at our practice facility in Long Island and Mike came into the room and started criticizing the players individually. This is something that a lot of coaches will do to try and motivate players during the course of a long season. While one-on-one meetings are sometimes effective, coaches also find it useful to criticize you in front of your peers--so you feel a little bit embarrassed. On this particular day, Mike was going around the room and chirping at different guys. He came to me and said, "McLennan--we need you to be sharper out there. You gotta stop the pucks."
"Hey, Ziggy, remember we're paying you to score goals, right?"
Then it was Wendel's turn to face the heat. But Mike had to be cautious when going after Wendel, since he was one of the few players who was actually in the league when Mike himself was a player. Wendel was the type of player who carried a lot of respect inside the dressing room and chances are he would not enjoy being verbally challenged by the head coach.
"Wendel, I brought you in here to be a leader and to be engaged with these guys. And you don't talk to anybody. You're in the fucking back room stretching by yourself instead of talking to the kids and helping them to get better," Mike said.
Now just for a little background information here, Wendel suffered from severe back pain in the latter stages of his career. Before every game, he'd go to the back area or the training room and do a whole series of stretches to try to loosen up his back. He wasn't trying to be antisocial or to shirk his leadership role, he was just trying to get his back in a state where he felt comfortable enough to play.
Wendel was none too pleased to be challenged by Milbury in front of the entire team, so he stood up and went right back at Mike verbally. I forget exactly what was said, but I remember being impressed at Wendel's ability and leadership to stand up for himself and the team. Most of us just took Mike's criticism without saying anything in return, but Wendel defended himself and the team and went right back at Milbury.
Mike was genuinely surprised at Wendel's emotional reaction, but he tried to act as if this was all part of a premeditated strategy of his.
He looked at all of us and said, "Now that's the type of intensity I'd like to see you all play with every night."
With that, he walked out of the room.
Wendel Clark may have had a bad back, and he may have been forced to play on a directionless New York Islanders team, but nothing could stop him from bringing passion and fire to the rink every day.
Excerpted from The Best Seat in the House. Copyright (c) 2012 by Jamie McLennan and Ian Mendes.
Excerpted with permission of the publisher John Wiley & Sons Canada, Ltd.