Wendel Clark, the new left wing of the Quebec Nordiques, was scanning the menu in Cafè de la Paix, one of Quebec City's swanker restaurants, when his eyes lit on a speciality of the house. "Salmon manure?" Clark said. "Does that mean the same here as it does in the rest of Canada?"
Salmon meunière, Wendel. Meunière. Try pursing your lips and imitating Peter Sellers pronouncing monkey in a Pink Panther movie. Good thing you didn't see the heading over the fish dishes: Poisson. Quebec can be one tough place to play.
Of course Clark is one tough player. He has whipped a chronic bad back, still fights NHL heavyweights when he must, has led the Toronto Maple Leafs to the Stanley Cup semifinals the past two seasons, scored a personal-high 46 goals in 1993-94, and now has pushed the Nordiques to a franchise-best 13-2-0 start in the lockout-compressed 1995 season. Think a menu scares him?
Clark ordered the salmon.
February 27, 1995
When Quebec's rookie general manager, Pierre Lacroix, made the draft-day deal last June that sent center Mats Sundin, defenseman Garth Butcher and left wing Todd Warriner to Toronto for Clark, defenseman Sylvain Lefebvre and right wing Landon Wilson, he wasn't acquiring Clark for his French accent. Clark didn't have to know the pen of my aunt is on the table of my uncle. He doesn't even need to know French numbers—beyond counting to quatre, the number of playoff series it takes to win a Stanley Cup. Following a season in which the Nordiques stank worse than three-day-old poisson, Quebec was depending on the former Leaf captain to lend some presence to a sniveling yet gifted team. But the Nordiques didn't necessarily count on his getting at least one point in 14 of the team's first 15 games. In all, as of Sunday he had 10 goals and nine assists, including a hat trick in a 4-3 road win against the Boston Bruins on Feb. 9.
But because his game is grounded in hockey's cold reality, the ultimate Wendel Clark moment didn't make the Fantasy League stats. After Hartford Whaler ruffian—and Clark's best friend—Kelly Chase pummeled Lefebvre in a second-period fight at Quebec on Feb. 5, the 5'10", 194-pound Clark flew down the ice on his next shift and planted Whaler defenseman Frantisek Kucera with a high stick. This is considered an intangible in hockey even if it is measured in penalty minutes.
"A real veteran leadership move," says Nordique rookie coach Marc Crawford. "Wendel was telling the other team you don't do that to us, not in our building. They noticed. But our bench also sat up and took notice. Wendel acted right away."
"We got Wendel for his dedication, loyalty, leadership, character, community work, scoring, yelling, hitting," says Nordique president Marcel Aubut. "He's our dream athlete. When we traded Dale Hunter [to the Washington Capitals in 1987], we lost our soul."
Indeed, the principles of metaphysics were suspended for the next seven years, in which Les Misèrables lost a league-worst 317 games. They didn't have Hunter, the personification of chalk screeching on a blackboard. Nor did they have a clue about how to play defense. But the wholesale futility and the 1992 trade of Eric Lindros's rights to the Philadelphia Flyers for six players, two draft choices and $15 million allowed the Nordiques to stockpile talent—11 current players were first-round draft picks, including five top-five choices. Even in 1992-93, when Quebec went 47-27-10 in the regular season before being bounced by the Montreal Canadiens in the first round of the playoffs, the team lacked a certain gravity, a seriousness of purpose. "We didn't work that hard or have a physical presence," says center Joe Sakic. "This year we aren't the old Nordiques."
Now almost everything seems new in Quebec. Lacroix, the 46-year-old general manager, knows his side of the table well because he sat on the other side as a successful player agent. "The basics were here," Lacroix says. "We just needed different spices. We needed character. And who's the best-known character guy in the NHL? Wendel Clark."
On the day Lacroix landed Clark and Lefebvre, he also snared another take-care-of-business defenseman, 6'6" Uwe Krupp from the New York Islanders. Krupp is German, one of six nationalities on this team of Babel Boomers. There was only one logical choice to succeed Pierre Pagè as coach, but Boutros Boutros-Ghali already had a job.
So Lacroix hired Crawford, who had been coaching Toronto's American Hockey League affiliate. Crawford, 34, had a reputation as a bright, demanding coach. He was also unilingual. In Quebec this was a gamble. The last time the Nordiques hired an anglophone coach, the unlamented Dave Chambers, who had a 19-64-15 record between 1990 and '92, it seemed strictly like affirmative action. But Crawford said that he would learn French—the vow of every right-thinking person who lands in Quebec—and in the most revolutionary development of all, he actually has.
"We got home at two in the morning from a trip to Buffalo, and we're playing the [New York] Rangers that night," says Lacroix. "I'm in the office that Saturday morning, and after a meeting I go out into the corridor and hear noise. Marc's in with his French teacher. A two-hour lesson—on game day, after coming in from Buffalo. Not many people would do that." Crawford, in fact, conducted most of his postgame interview in Quebec's primary language after a 5-2 win against the Ottawa Senators on Feb. 11. If his French ain't Camus, at least it's more pleasing than watching the Senators.
The Nordique philosophy on the ice is elemental: Take the heat off goalies Stèphane Fiset and Jocelyn Thibault by spending as little time in the defensive zone as possible. Now that right wing Owen Nolan's shoulder has healed and Swedish Olympic hero Peter Forsberg has joined the team, the Nordiques have more talent up front than any team except the Detroit Red Wings and the Pittsburgh Penguins. Says Sakic, "We just have to take care of our end."
Sakic ranks among NHL scoring leaders—he had six goals and 18 assists at week's end—which isn't exactly a scoop. During the past five years the 25-year-old Sakic has averaged 100 points a season. But the careworn look of Quebec's captain is gone. Although Clark didn't take Sakic's C, Clark has assumed much of the team's leadership, slipping into the role of alternate captain and occasional dressing room orator. Sakic and Clark have an unspoken understanding, one forged through respect and complementary skills that Crawford has packaged on a line with right wing Andrei Kovalenko. Sakic is swift, shifty and a superb passer; Clark has good hands, a heavy shot and a knack for finding space in the offensive zone. "The greatest impact Wendel has had has been on Sakic," Aubut says. "His coming has made Joe a different player and a different person."
That's Clark. For nine years in Toronto he tried to make everyone around him play a little bigger, a little better—at least when he wasn't hurt, which was so often that he missed the equivalent of three seasons. Clark, 28, was the one force on the Maple Leafs in the mid-1980s, an old-style wing who could score and muck and fight, combining 71 goals with 498 penalty minutes his first two seasons. (After the second year he opened a hockey school that promised to teach kids to play "the Wendel way." Leaf executives wondered if that meant whipping a wrist shot from the blue line and punching out the guy next to you.) He was the most familiar face in Toronto's mid-1990s renaissance, scoring 19 goals in 39 playoff games the past two seasons. He also played his best at the most important times. His Game 7 totals were six goals, three assists and a plus-nine in four matches.
He was ideal for the team whose logo mirrors the nation's—a poster boy for old-time Canadian virtues like industriousness, grit, modesty. A regular Exhibit Eh. He became so entrenched in Toronto mythology that the thought of Mr. Maple Leaf tucking that battle-scarred body into a Nordique sweater with a fleur-de-lis seemed bizarre—to everyone but him.
"The thing is, people didn't know Wendel any better on his last day here than they did on his first day," says Bob Stellick, the Leaf director of communications. "They identify Wendel so closely with Toronto, but Sylvain Lefebvre had a tougher time leaving. He has family. A home. He put down roots. Wendel [who is single] could have tossed his stuff into a garbage bag and been out of town in 15 minutes."
Of all the contributions Clark will make in Quebec City, his greatest may be to remove the "Siberia on the St. Lawrence" stigma. Clark, a Saskatchewan farm boy, is all hockey; if the provincial capital is good enough for him, who can gripe? If he had recited the tired litany of know-nothing complaints that have haunted the city—too cold, too many taxes and, especially, too French—Clark could have buried the franchise. But aware that the hockey world was awaiting his reaction, he was nothing but positive and professional from the moment he heard of his trade on his truck radio last summer. Quebec? That's O.K., Clark told everyone. The word hockey is bilingual.
"Wendel knows he's lucky to have a job doing what he's doing," says his father, Les, who returned to the farm in Kelvington, Saskatchewan, after a fringe career as a minor leaguer in the 1950s. "He didn't grow up criticizing the man who pays him. There are 15,000 people paying $40, $60 a night to see him play. Money's hard to get. Wendel's going to say he doesn't want to play there? That's an insult."
"Look, I could have said, Yes, I'll go if you give me this, this, this," says Clark, who did not ask to renegotiate his $800,000 salary even though it is substantially below market value. "I could have made it tough on the G.M., but that would have been rocking the boat with the team, rocking the boat in the province. So what if it's French? You don't hate anyone because of their culture."
Clark mastered the Gallic shrug before the rest of the language, although he did study French in school. "I passed," Clark says. ("A's and B's," remembers Emile Lalonde, who taught him in grades 7 and 8 at Kelvington High School.) When someone doesn't understand his rare stabs at French, he says it's O.K., no one understood his English until the 12th grade.
"He'll give you the simple farm boy stuff, but Wendel's incredibly bright—not that he wants you to know it," says Gord Miller, a friend who is a commentator for The Sports Network in Toronto. "Nothing gets by him. He knows what everybody in the league is making. He walks into a room and sizes up situations immediately. He'll hate this, but his favorite TV program is Matlock."
Clark can still watch Matlock. Quebec has cable television, a capable coach and four swarming lines. If Lacroix lands a defenseman to quarterback the power play and the 24-year-old Fiset continues to develop into a premier goalie, the Nordiques could start winning as many big ones as Clark's favorite smarter-than-you-think TV lawyer. "The transition has been easy for me, but winning always makes everything easier," Clark says. "I do miss some friends and some of the conveniences I had in Toronto, but now I wake up and think, Hey, I can do something new today." Clark took in some of Quebec's renowned winter carnival earlier this month, particularly admiring the ice sculpture outside the wall of the Old City. Of course, it was a drive-by sighting.
"Forty below," Clark reported. "I wasn't about to get out of my truck." This is one bright man.