A rejuvenated Wendel Clark has brought electricity to the
Wendel Clark was creaking to a halt. As last season ended, Clark,
then a 31-year-old Maple Leafs left wing, had missed 339 games
with numerous ailments over an otherwise stellar 13-year career.
He had a chronically sore back, was set to undergo surgery to
repair a torn groin muscle and was coming off a season in which
he had played only 47 games and finished with 12 goals and a -21
rating. Little wonder that Toronto didn't even try to keep Clark,
who was an unrestricted free agent.
When the lowly Lightning signed him to a one-year, $1.5 million
contract in July, NHL observers branded the deal as another bit
of barminess on the part of Tampa Bay's then general manager,
Phil Esposito. At best, it was felt, Clark might be a serviceable
spare part. What no one expected was that Clark would not only be
as hardy as kale and have a team-high nine goals (tied for fourth
in the league through Sunday) but also would be anchoring the top
line of an improved club (6-9-2). "The puck's bouncing right,"
says the modest Clark, who has a wicked wrist shot.
While his scoring has been abetted by the excellent passing of
center Craig Janney, Clark's other contributions to the
Lightning have been purely his own. Last year Tampa Bay was
plagued by a lack of unity, and Clark set about changing that in
training camp. He rounded up stragglers and led them into the
weight room. He organized team lunches and demanded full
attendance. When the season started he was the first player at
the rink on game nights. "One time we had a bad practice, and
even before the coaches came in, Wendel was all over us," says
center Darcy Tucker. "He has such a presence that you have an
ear to everything he says."
Coach Jacques Demers has Clark rooming with 18-year-old center
Vincent Lecavalier, Tampa Bay's future, and Clark's locker is
adjacent to that of right wing Alexander Selivanov, a talented
offensive player who needs to add some hard edges to his game.
"Wendel brings professionalism and determination," says Demers.
"Players are following him because he's Wendel Clark--but also
because he's scoring."
A POOR CAREER DECISION
Picture a marvelously skilled center, 27 years old, the kind of
man who can bring 40 goals and as many assists to an NHL team.
Imagine him following a path he believes will make him rich, but
instead he finds himself in self-imposed purgatory: Though
healthy and able, he's missing the heyday of his career. A case
you might only find...in the Twilight Zone.
Petr Nedved's prolonged holdout is indeed that bizarre. Nedved,
a restricted free agent who hasn't put on an NHL uniform since
April 1997, vows never to play again for Pittsburgh, a team for
which he had a combined 78 goals and 92 assists during the
1995-96 and 1996-97 seasons. In October 1997 he rejected a
five-year, $14.8 million offer from the Penguins, who, in turn,
rejected Nedved's five-year, $18.5 million counteroffer.
Subsequent negotiations have proved futile.
No one in the league would be surprised if Nedved were traded
tomorrow, but irreparable damage has already been done to his
career. He has not only lost a significant chunk of his prime
earning years, but he has also become a symbol of the
increasingly difficult dealings between NHL players and teams. In
September, Bruins general manager Harry Sinden characterized
three Boston players who were not in camp because of contract
spats as "Nedveds."
"It's not O.K.," Nedved says of the time he has missed. "If you
ask 100 people, 95 percent would say I made the wrong decision. I
have to live with it."
Nedved, who recently fired his longtime agent, Tony Kondel, and
hired the respected Mike Barnett (whose clients include Wayne
Gretzky and Brett Hull), has a history of sitting down for his
rights. After scoring 38 goals for the Canucks in 1992-93, he
became a restricted free agent but didn't sign with a team until
March '94, when the Blues gave him $4.05 million for three years.
Then, after being acquired by the Penguins, he sat out the '96
preseason before agreeing to a one-year, $1.7 million deal.
This time, however, Nedved miscalculated. His contract demands
weren't ridiculous--16 centers and 32 forwards will earn more
than $3 million this year--but Pittsburgh general manager Craig
Patrick, restrained by the Penguins' financial woes and fed up
with Nedved's and Kondel's hardballing ways, refused to buckle.
Now Nedved is playing for a minimal wage (no more than $150,000)
in the IHL and hoping Pittsburgh will trade him. Unfortunately
he has been devalued in the eyes of NHL general managers wary of
both the ice time Nedved has missed and his attitude. Says
Mighty Ducks general manager Pierre Gauthier, "I wouldn't pay
him as much money now as I would have a year ago."
The Sutter Family
LET'S TALK TO THE EXPERT
When center Jeff Shantz was traded from the Blackhawks to the
Flames last month, he completed the circuit of the Sutter
brothers, hockey's hard-nosed sextet. Brian Sutter is Calgary's
coach, and Shantz had previously been coached by Duane in the
minors and by Darryl in Chicago. He also roomed with forwards
Brent and Rich during his five-year stint with the Blackhawks,
and worked at a hockey camp with Ron.
Shantz extols all the Sutters for their dedication to hockey and
says that Brent is the brother "most likely to put Vaseline in
your helmet" and the one you'd least like to meet in an alley.
Because he has had three Sutters in his face as coaches and three
as roommates on the road, Shantz is qualified to answer a more
intimate inquiry: Which Sutter has the best breath? "Hmmm, that's
tough," Shantz says. "They're all bad."
COLOR PHOTO: WINSTON LUZIER/REUTERS The rugged but injury-prone Clark is now healthy and among the league's leading goal scorers. [Wendel Clark with puck beside opposing goalie]
When rookie coach Graham, Chicago's former rugged captain, was
hired in June, his mandate was to galvanize the listless Hawks.
But in its first 16 games under Graham, through Sunday, Chicago
often came out flat and stayed that way, earning only four wins.
In addition, Graham feuded with assistant Denis Savard over game
plans. Said Graham last week, "I've let the team down."