Thursday, April 9, 2020

My Favorite Player: Wendel Clark

The Athletic is asking us to write about our all-time favorite players, and I’m going to save you the suspense: I chose Wendel Clark.

That may not be a surprise to you if you’ve been reading my stuff since the very early days over a decade ago when I did a gushing 17-part tribute to him. Or if you’ve read me more recently and noticed that I keep finding ways to link to the All Heart video for the 10,000th time. Or if you live near The Athletic’s Toronto headquarters and have seen me marching outside holding a sign reading “Wendel Was Robbed” and loudly demanding to speak to the manager. Or if you’ve ever met my two lovely children, Wendel and Also Wendel.

OK, that last one isn’t true. (My wife vetoed it.) But you get the point. Wendel Clark was my first favorite player as a kid, arriving in Toronto not long after I was old enough to enter life as a real sports fan. And in 35 years since, nobody’s really come close to knocking him off the throne.

If you’re a Leafs fan, you get it. Wendel might be your favorite player too. And even if he isn’t, you understand why he could be. To this day, if you go to a Leafs game in Toronto and watch the various hype-up videos that play on the scoreboard before the game, the biggest cheer still comes when Wendel shows up. Leafs fans know.

But if you’re a fan of some other team, you might be confused by this decades-long cult of Wendel Worship. It’s not like the guy made the Hall of Fame, or was even a serious candidate. He never scored 50 goals or won a major award. He’s a modern-day Maple Leafs icon, so we know he didn’t win the Cup. He wasn’t especially fast or good in the defensive zone or much of a playmaker and he always seemed to be hurt. We’re talking about a team that’s been around for over a century and has produced more Hall of Famers than any other franchise – how does this guy show up near the top of every list of most beloved Maple Leafs? Is it just because he punched a lot of people?

No. Well, yes, the punching is part of it. But there’s a lot more to it than that, and to understand, you have to know the history.

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