Wendel Clark gazed up at the banners hanging from the rafters at the Air Canada Centre, but he still couldn't fathom the fact that on Saturday night, his name, likeness and number will be among them.
"I'm speechless," he said, after spending an afternoon at the ACC, just being Wendel Clark, and after spending most of his National Hockey League career being speechless. "I don't know what I'm going to feel on Saturday night. I don't know what I'm going to say. This is such a huge thing.
"I thought playing in the Gardens was an honour. I thought being drafted by Toronto was an honour. I thought being a Leaf for all those years was a huge honour. This is the greatest honour of my life."
He looked up again, saw the names on one side of the building. Johnny Bower. Red Kelly. George Armstrong. "I've bumped into all of them doing stuff for the Leafs." Borje Salming and Darryl Sittler. "I played with Borje. I know how great he was. And I was a big fan of Darryl Sittlers. And Tim Horton. "I'm there every morning."
Now it's different. Now it's Wendel, who missed almost one game for every two he played as a Leaf, the first Leaf player to have his number honoured who wasn't first inducted in the Hockey Hall of Fame.
"All I did was battle," Clark said. "The best I could do. That's all really. I emphasize that with the kids I coach now. You battle, every day, every game, every shift."
Clark played parts of 12 seasons with the Leafs, only three of those with winning teams. He was, in a way, a sign of the times. The best on so many bad teams. The excitement when there wasn't any. In the words of Cliff Fletcher, who traded him away and then traded to bring him back to Toronto, he represented the hope of a team and its town.
"In terms of his importance to a franchise, he ranks right up at the top," said Fletcher, who says trading Clark to Quebec in the deal that brought Mats Sundin to Toronto was one of his best trades he ever made but clearly the most difficult to make. "For a great many years in Toronto, Wendel was the hope. He was the show. He was what every fan hung their hat on. And he carried that off so well, playing like a 210-pounder when he barely weighed 180."
Clark doesn't have a single regret, not in how he played, not in how often he was hurt: He did, he said, the only thing he knew. "It took its toll on me. I missed 500 games," he said, which isn't exactly accurate. He missed 437 games to injury, 260 of those with the Leafs. "The injuries were an accumulation of how I played. I always looked up to the player who did a little bit of everything. If it was a tough game, I could play tough. If it was a finesse game, I could play a finesse game. Inside the glass, it was all fun."
Outside, it seemed, it was all treatment. Wendel Clark had a Humpty Dumpty career in Toronto and Chris Broadhurst, the trainer, kept having to put him together again. They would meet in the early morning. They would meet late at night. "He had to have time for the rest of the team," Clark said. "So often I saw him at 6 or 7 in the morning or at 11 at night. Sometimes I had to have as much as four hours of treatment just to be able to play. If I'm going up there (he points to the rafters again), Chris Broadhurst should be going right beside me."
This is a weekend of banner juxtaposition in Canada, with the goings on at the Air Canada Centre and the Bell Centre in Montreal saying much about the hockey teams over the past several decades. In Montreal on Saturday night, the storied goaltender Patrick Roy will have his jersey retired by the Canadiens. He won them Stanley Cups in 1986 and 1993. Some consider him the greatest goaltender to ever play.
Never won a Cup
In Toronto, the expectations have never been so lofty: Clark never won a Cup and along with Doug Gilmour almost carried the Leafs to one that Roy won. He will not get elected to the Hall of Fame, but the mythology of the time and the way in which Toronto took to Clark, like it has taken to few athletes before him or since, says much about where the Leafs have been, not necessarily where they are going.
Clark thought he had a chance to win when he was in Quebec, but he lasted only one season with the Nordiques and was traded for Claude Lemieux. "We had everything but a goalie then," he said of the team that would move to Denver. "When Patrick went to Colorado, you knew it was going to happen for them."
Unlike a lot of Leafs fans and some former players, he doesn't look back with bitterness at 1993, when a call in the conference final could have altered the outcome. That's not who Clark is or will ever be. "I don't look back and think we were cheated," he said. "To me, if it was meant to be, it would have happened. If it was there for us to get, we'd have got it. I don't break it down any other way."
If he is truly honest, the teams he enjoyed playing for in Toronto were all about kids and not a whole lot about success. By today's standards, this seems almost impossible, but in Clark's rookie season with the Leafs, they had 11 players of consequence 22 years old or younger. Clark was 18. Al Iafrate and Todd Gill were 19. Jeff Jackson and Russ Courtnall were 20. Gary Leeman, Gary Nylund, Allan Bester and Ken Wregget were 21. Jim Benning and Steve Thomas were 22.
"We thought Rick Vaive was an old guy. He was 27," Clark said. "There was a lot of fun on that team. That was a glorified junior team. We didn't know pressure. We were all so happy to be playing in the NHL for the first time. We thought we were building something big for the future."
But one by one, players didn't develop, or were developed elsewhere, or weren't coached properly -- and Clark, as usual, was the last man standing.
The battle now, he said, is to keep his emotions in check on Saturday night. He comes from a family of people who don't express themselves. His father, who will be here for the ceremony, has never told him he was a Leafs fan. Clark cried at a press conference when Fletcher traded him to Quebec and the reality had set in that he was leaving the Leafs. He doesn't cry often.
"It hurt," he said. "Your first time, first team. It's funny, there were so many rumours over the years. But that year, I had a good year, and it was dead quiet. No rumours at all."
One trade sent him away, another trade brought him back, and a third time Clark returned to the Leafs as a late season pickup by Pat Quinn. In all, Clark lasted in Toronto through six different general managers and seven different coaches. His last game was a playoff game, a loss to New Jersey in 2000. He retired at the young age of 33.
"As soon as I play now, I know how old I am," said Clark. "I know how old I feel. People have been telling me I looked like 40 since I was 22. My body feels old now. The way I played took its toll."The way he played got him to this point in history. To Saturday night. To the rafters.
"This is big for my parents," Clark said. His mom, dad, brothers, children, and wife will all be there to support. And about his speech?
"I told them, I won't be long."