Wendel Clark on what it means to wear the 'C' in Toronto
The Experts Series is a multi-part project which delves into the mindset of athletes who've reached the pinnacle of their profession, offering insight on the philosophy and fundamentals that led to their most memorable moments.
On a November night in 2008, each Toronto Maple Leafs player took the ice with the same number on his back.
The team was set to play the Chicago Blackhawks in an Original Six matchup, but the game was secondary to the ceremony that preceded it, as Wendel Clark's No. 17 jersey was raised to the rafters of the Air Canada Centre.
At the midway point of the 1984-85 season, the Maple Leafs were 6-29-5. They'd finish the season having set new franchise marks for futility in wins (20), losses (52), and points (48).
Their reward: Wendel Clark, the No. 1 overall selection in the 1985 NHL Entry Draft.
The payoff was immediate, as Clark led all rookies with 34 goals en route to a second-place finish in voting for the Calder Trophy.
An instant crowd favorite at Maple Leaf Gardens, he was named team captain in 1991. By the 1992-93 season, the Leafs were setting franchise records in wins (44) and points (99). Their matchup against Wayne Gretzky and the Los Angeles Kings in the Campbell Conference finals that year marked what may have been the highest point the franchise has reached since last winning the Stanley Cup in 1967.
To Clark, his success as captain had a lot to do with the players around him.
"When you have a great team around you, that definitely helps," Clark told theScore. "Being a captain, you still need other leaders with you to help, and come along. You need the team to do well, because if the team does well, then it looks like you're doing a better job. If the team doesn't do well, then sometimes you get more blame, because the team's not doing well. It all plays together as one, the whole team thing."
Clark captained the Maple Leafs for three seasons from 1991-94. He knows as well as anyone what comes with wearing the "C" in Canada's biggest hockey market.
"As the captain of the Toronto Maple Leafs, you're front and center. You're the focal piece, being a Canadian city, which any Canadian captain would face," Clark said. "A lot of times, when a captain is taking heat in Toronto, a lot of times he's not taking it personally, even though it may come across as being personal. It's just something that's part of the situation that you're going through.
"The captain may cut up the whole team. If the team's doing poorly, you're hard on the whole team, but you're going to do it through your spokesperson, who is the captain. So you have to make sure as the captain you're not taking everything that comes through you - wearing the 'C' - personally. Because a lot of the negative stuff can be meant to be towards the team. The team's not doing well, but being that you're the face, it's easy to blame the one person."
Clark's best piece of advice for captains is to continue doing what earned them that designation in the first place.
"Everybody's got a different personality. Everybody's got a different way of handling themselves," Clark said. "My thing is, if the organization honored you by making you the captain - and that's how I felt, very honored - you had those qualities before you had the 'C' on your jersey.
"The big thing is you can't change who you are just because there's another letter on your jersey. You keep being yourself. You keep doing the things you've done that made them think you're acceptable to have that letter on your jersey. My big thing is: Don't change who you are."
Previous editions of The Experts Series
Mike Weir on putting under pressure
Mike Weir on winning on golf's biggest stage
Kelly Gruber on what it takes to hit for the cycle
Tyler Bozak on the art of the faceoff
Tyler Bozak on the most exciting play in hockey
Dwayne De Rosario on perfecting the penalty kick
Dwayne De Rosario on delivering a set piece