Q&A with Maple Leafs great Wendel Clark: First Cup since 1967 would be 'huge' for Toronto

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December 31, 2016, 8:11 PM

&#151; -- TORONTO -- Former Toronto Maple Leafs great Wendel Clark?will take to the ice again for Saturday's Centennial Classic alumni game at BMO Field. The native of Kelvington, Saskatchewan, played for six teams and was three times a Leaf -- he captained the team from 1991 to 1994 -- and was the first overall pick in the 1985 draft.

Clark, who retired with Toronto in 2000, still lives in the Toronto area and remains part of the Leafs organization as a community ambassador. I sat down with Clark on Wednesday to talk about growing up playing pond hockey, whether the young Leafs look like a playoff team, whether the concussion protocol is working and what it was like to play for Toronto's archrival.

ESPN.com: What will it be like to play on an outdoor rink, given where you grew up and some of the memories attached to that?

Wendell?Clark: Well, it's a lot of fun. You get back to the roots of it [when you're] outside playing. This one is a little fancier than the weeds growing on the side of the ponds where we started. But it's always a great reminder -- and a spectacle and fun for the players as well as the fans.

ESPN.com: You actually did grow up playing on a frozen pond, correct?

Clark: I did. We always hoped that it would get really cold before the snow came because, as kids, we could drive across the frozen field and get to the pond, where you could skate. If there was too much snow, you couldn't take your vehicle across to the pond. That's where we started [skating every season] because we didn't have any artificial ice [in the arena]. The ponds were always frozen before the artificial ice in the town rink. So we'd have a lot of games. Not official games, but we played shinny outside for probably three weeks to a month before the arena rink opened.

ESPN.com: How much do you still play?

Clark: As alumni we do charity events, and that's the bulk of what I play. I'll play anywhere from 15 to 20 games throughout the winter, and it's usually any time after Christmas.?

ESPN.com: You still work with the Leafs, and you're one of the favorite players in the organization's long history. What's it like for you, given your link to the team over the years, to see the Leafs finally turning a corner with their young stars?

Clark: It's a lot of fun. They're all around the same age. They look like they're having fun playing. A good sign is that we're playing really well at home. So it's fun for the fans, there are good things happening at home games, that gives [the players] good energy. Once the energy is good, this is a great place to play, a fun place to play, because the fans are into it. As a past player, you want to see your team doing well. It's fun to be around them when they're winning.

ESPN.com: What do you think of the game today? Wayne Gretzky has joked with me that the game might be too fast for him now.

Clark: Well, they've speeded the game up a lot, with how the rules are, and also it has to do with the type of athletes who are playing. I think Wayne is probably the smartest player to ever play the game. He'd figure out how to play in any era. [chuckles]

But the game has been tweaked. You're always going to be tweaking it. But I think the game [today] is exciting. It's fast. I love to see the 6-5 games, the 5-4 games, as a fan. By the end of the year the coaches will tighten their lineups and the scores will start coming down. But as a fan, you like to see the goals, you like to see the excitement. And the depth of the lineups now -- from the first line to the fourth line, to the top defenseman to the sixth defenseman -- is unbelievable. There's so much talent.

ESPN.com: I'm curious about your vantage point about how far the league and NHL Players' Association have come in terms of how they're dealing with concussions. Players come out now midgame to be checked out as part of the protocol. They certainly didn't do that when you played. But your son, Kody, also plays hockey for the Ontario Hockey League's Ottawa 67's. What is your take on the concussion protocol?

Clark: I think it's great, the way the NHL is doing it. It's a good thing when you get pulled off. Let's make sure the brain is fine, let's make sure your head is OK. And you're not always going to get it [right away], because some concussions happen 24 hours later; that's when the symptoms come. But I think a lot of times, in watching my son play junior hockey now, and watching pro hockey, it's safer to play junior and pro than it is to play minor [youth-level] hockey because of how much better they are at calling certain stuff [in pro and junior].

We want to be safe for all kids because the game is that much faster now. People always want to remember the old days, but in the old days we were going half as fast when we hit somebody, with no equipment on -- whereas these guys [today] are going double the speed with full equipment. You know, the faster you go, the tougher the crash. So, we want to be taking care of our kids. It's not a bad thing when they're making sure the players are healthy. Because we know us players want to shake it off and just get back out there. So somebody from the outside has to give it a few minutes and see what's happening.

ESPN.com: We touched on this season's young Toronto team and where it might be headed. Can you put into words, having been on some pretty good Leafs teams that reached the conference finals in 1993 and '94, what it would be like for this market to end its Stanley Cup drought? How do you explain to a person who's perhaps never been here what it would be like for Toronto to win a championship for the first time since 1967?

Clark: Well, it would be huge. It's the biggest market in our game. You want all your large markets to do well; there's nothing better to promote the game than your bigger markets doing well. It's been a long time.

The ultimate goal is the Cup, but a main goal too is to get back into the playoffs every year. Because that's when you have a chance. You never know once you get back into the playoffs. You get a hot goalie, a couple of injuries to other teams ...

But the key is to be good every year and be in that race to have a chance to get the Cup.

ESPN.com: Before we go -- you're playing for the Leafs in Saturday's alumni game, but you did spend a short time with the? Detroit Red Wings?after being?traded to Detroit late in the 1998-99 season. What was that like to play on another history-rich franchise like the Wings?

Clark: Well, it was great. You see the history from the dressing room on their side versus going against them. I got to know some of those players over the years playing against them -- and then playing with them in 1999. They had won the Cup before I was there and won the Cup after I left. They just didn't want to do it when I was there. [Laughs] But it was fun. There's always that love-hate, but you also saw the respect between the two teams. It was fun. [Joe Louis Arena] is great road rink to play in, and I got to call it a home rink for a while.

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