Wendel Clark for Mats Sundin: 25 Years Later

June 28 will be the anniversary of one of the most remarkable trades in Toronto Maple Leafs history. It was the trade that sent Maple Leafs captain and fan-favorite Wendel Clark for a young Swedish center iceman named Mats Sundin.

Related: What Mats Sundin Meant to Toronto Hockey

The trade, at the time, shocked Toronto’s die-hard fans. However, from our perspective a quarter-of-a-century later, it turned out just fine for the Maple Leafs.

Wendel Clark Was an Icon in Toronto

To say that Clark was popular in Toronto is a vast understatement. In fact, he had become the Maple Leafs captain and the team’s on-ice leader. He probably was the most popular player to play for the team since Darryl Sittler.

At the moment of his trade, he had several things going for him. First was his popularity. Second, he had just completed a 46-goal season in only 64 games (he missed 20 games with injuries) playing on a great line with Doug Gilmour and Dave Andreychuk. Third, he had come to the defense of Gilmour after Los Angeles Kings’ Marty McSorley had elbowed him during a game the Maple Leafs were easily winning.

For Maple Leafs fans, Clark was the perfect combination of hockey skill, scoring, toughness, and leadership that the team needed badly. Clark was both a consistent scorer and the team’s fearless policeman who took on any opponent or enforcer who dared try to intimidate his teammates. There was no doubt; he was the leader.

How the Trade Happened

His scoring, leadership, and toughness endeared him to fans. But Maple Leafs general manager Cliff Fletcher saw it differently. He knew Clark’s body had been taking a consistent beating, and that made Clark older than his years. He also saw, in the 27-year-old Clark, an asset that would never carry more trade value than he did at that particular moment.

Fans wearing Clark & Gilmour cutouts. (Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports)

Fletcher also knew that his counterpart with the Quebec Nordiques, general manager Pierre Lacroix, was at a negotiating disadvantage. Sundin was pushing Lacroix hard to renegotiate his contract with the Nordiques, and the Nordiques general manager was stubbornly resisting. Lacroix, a former player agent, was adamant that he had never asked to renegotiate a client’s contract. That Sundin demanded a new contract with more money seriously upset him.

Related: Maple Leafs News & Rumors: Prospects, Marner, Zaitsev, Contract Talks

When the trade was made, the hockey world was shocked. First, it happened on the NHL draft floor. Second, it was a blockbuster. When it was announced, the crowd on the floor gasped. The Maple Leafs traded Clark, Sylvain Lefebvre, Landon Wilson, and the 22nd overall pick in the 1994 NHL Entry Draft to the Nordiques. In return, they got Sundin, Garth Butcher, Todd Wariner, and the 10th overall pick in the draft.

Clark was devastated. Usually not one to show emotion, he cried when he spoke to the media after the trade. He had no idea the trade was coming, and he had believed he would spend the remainder of his hockey career playing for the Maple Leafs.

The fans were just as shocked. They showed their appreciation for what Clark meant to the team by showing up in the thousands for his send-off at Mel Lastman Square. On a Coach’s Corner at the time, Don Cherry ranted about the trade and belittled the Maple Leafs chances for the next season.

The Maple Leafs Won the Trade Hands-Down

Although the trade was extremely one-sided in favour of the Maple Leafs, the Nordiques won the trade of defensemen. Lefebvre played another nine years in the NHL and helped the 1995-96 Colorado Avalanche win the Stanley Cup. Butcher, who was four years older than Lefebvre, played only one more season before retiring at age 32.

Wilson and Warriner, when they were traded, both had been first-round draft picks. Wilson never played for the Nordiques, but Warriner went on to have a decent career with the Maple Leafs.

Related: Remembering Borje Salming: The “King” of Maple Leafs’ Defenseman

Forgetting the other pieces of the trade, Clark for Sundin straight-up was a steal for the Maple Leafs. However, Cherry’s forecast of dire times for the team was partially right. During the 1994-95 (the strike-shortened) and 1995-96 seasons, the Maple Leafs lost in the Stanley Cup Quarterfinals, then sunk into a funk and didn’t qualify for the playoffs again until 1998-99.

Mats Sundin
Mats Sundin went on to became captain of the Maple Leafs. (Richard C. Lewis/Icon SMI)

Sundin played 13 seasons in Toronto and was elected on the first ballot to the Hockey Hall of Fame. Clark played just one season with the Nordiques, and was traded to the New York Islanders after a contract dispute.

Clark didn’t even finish one season with the Isles and was traded around the NHL. After being benched by the Chicago Blackhawks, he returned home to Toronto in 1999-00 and finished his career as a Maple Leafs player.

The Maple Leafs Remember Wendel Clark

If you talk to Maple Leafs fans, they believe Clark should have been elected into the Hockey Hall of Fame immediately after he retired. Clark was the shining star on some poor Maple Leaf teams, and his style of play made him one of the most popular Maple Leaf players of all time.

Related: Darryl Sittler – Toronto Maple Leafs Legend

He was one of the toughest players of his era. If the Hall of Fame elected players simply on the size of their heart, Clark would have entered on the first ballot. As it stands, he’s been elected to both the Ontario and the Saskatchewan Hall of Fames, but he has little chance to join Sundin in the Hockey Hall of Fame.

An intense Wendel Clark, as featured in the 1991-92 Topps Stadium Club set. (THW Archives)

Clark was one of the most loved players in the team’s history. His No. 17 hangs from the rafters in Scotiabank Arena. In the end, Fletcher was wise to trade Clark when he did. But, to Maple Leafs fans, Cherry’s rant nailed it. Although today we know the Maple Leafs won the trade, at the time it was a tough trade to swallow.

Present-Day Ponderings

Looking back at the Clark for Sundin trade after all these years, I have two thoughts.

First, in 2019 the Toronto Raptors won the NBA Finals. To get to that point, they had to trade beloved Raptors player DeMar DeRozan. Perhaps hockey fans are more vehement than basketball fans, but much about that trade reminds me of the Clark for Sundin trade.

Related: Maple Leafs Prospects News: Marchment, Sandin, Lilijegren, Carcone

Second, it’s interesting to consider how any trades current Maple Leafs management are considering might look from the perspective of 25 years down the road. That’s one neat thing about NHL trades, they often take years to understand how things really turned out.