Hockey DayWendel Clark revisits his Saskatchewan roots
By CBC Sports
Posted: Wednesday, January 15, 2014 | 06:46 PMBack to accessibility links
Former NHLer Wendel Clark, centre, travelled to his hometown of Kelvington, Sask., with Dave Bidini, left, and Greg Schull to rediscover his roots leading up to Hockey Day in Canada. (Mike Alderson/CBC Sports)
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By Dave Bidini, Special to CBC Sports
Across the prairie, Wendel Clark drove.
The truck -- hulking, black, fully-outfitted, a Ford Expedition -- moved at a speed to get us where we were going on time (Wendel's hometown of Kelvington, Sask.) -- but not so fast that I was worried about the snow, ice or wind that sliced across the empty flat highway.
Besides, the morning sun was bright and high to the east, a funnel of smoky light rising from the land to the sky. The day was clear, minus-12 Celcius, minus-15, then minus-24 as we moved deeper into the country. A good time to be on the road.
Kelvington. I'd never heard the name before the Maple Leafs made Clark their No. 1 draft pick -- No. 1 overall -- in 1985 and, truth be told, I hadn't given Saskatchewan a second thought.
To me -- an Eastern child -- the prairie's emptiest province was like that last pizza slice in the box -- neglected, cold, and overlooked after stuffing myself with the rest of the country's land and culture.
But because Wendel was mythic -- he almost single-handedly resuscitated a moribund franchise from its worst days -- the place he came from was mythic: Kelvington.
I learned about what it exported -- grain, pig meat and a bizarre per capita output of pro hockey players -- and about the province in general.
Where Wendel learned the game
Its remarkable writers (Guy Vanderhage), political seers (Tommy Douglas), legendary hockey players (Gordie Howe, Eddie Shore, Johnny Bower) and lovable freaks, including Humphrey Osmond, who more or less invented LSD, are all a part of it.
To me, Saskatchewan was Canada's great cultural secret, and Kelvington its mecca. And now I was going there with its favourite son.
The towns passed: Humbolt, with its sign honouring Glenn Hall, the goaltender; Watson and Wadeena (Pamela Wallin's home). More signs: Tilsdale, Moose Jaw, Melfort. Each of them ringing with hockey signifiers.
Moving towards Kelvington -- radio off, our conversation spinning around minor hockey, parenting, technology, Tim Hortons, the Leafs and the travails of Scotiabank Hockey Day in Canada (parts of the crew had been left in Calgary after a 13-hour grounding) -- the land roiled a little, but it was mostly flat, although Wendel stressed that a few hours north, "you'd think you were in Northern Ontario."
A few stands of trees appeared, and between one of them we passed a pond, or "slough" (slue), which is what they call it in Saskatchewan.
Wendel slowed the car and pointed.
"That's where we used to play 3-on-3," he said. "My brothers and my cousins. Because the rink wouldn't be ready until November, we'd get out there and skate, morning to night."
It was here that Wendel's personality as a skater, and as a player, was born.
"You'd try things, and be creative, and because my cousins were older than me, you learned to protect the puck and be elusive," he said.
It was a huge stretch of ice covered in deep snow, hundreds of feet between the high banks. For me, it was like seeing Walden's Pond.
Moving into town, we stopped at the Sportsman's Motel where a sign outside promised "Coloured television."
Inside, the lunch crowd spoke to Wendel the way they would have if they were greeting a neighbour -- casual and polite.
Wendel's high school teacher sat in a nearby booth. An RCMP officer came over and said hello.
I toured the mantle above the fireplace, which was crowded with framed photos of hunters posing in front of rows of geese and ducks.
'Are you famous?'
Wendel told me that the Sportsman had once been decorated wall-to-wall with hockey photos, but the former owner had taken them down. I asked Wendel where they'd gone, but he didn't know for sure.
We went to the player's old high school (named after Barry Melrose's father), where he spoke to two groups of kids, filling the small classrooms with his wide-shouldered frame.
"Are you famous? Who was your best friend in hockey? Do you know my father?" were among the questions the kids asked.
One girl had just done her "Famous Canadian" report on Wendel, and she got the former player to sign it. Before leaving, Wendel asked the kids if they had any more questions. A quiet boy at the back of the room put up his hand.
"What did it take to make the NHL?" he wanted to know. It was a good question, a sports writer's question.
We headed to the rink. Not only had Wendel skated there as a teenager before heading to Notre Dame (then the Saskatoon Blades, then the Leafs, then five other teams), but he'd driven a tractor that had tamped down the land where they rebuilt the arena in the late 1970s.
Inside at midday, the rink was dark, cold.
There was an enormous glassless trophy case. Great, yellowing photos of local teams from the '50s who'd won the regional Fishing Lakes tournament; a picture of Wendel from the world junior tournament sporting the teenage traces of a Fu Manchu; and a sweater worn by Les Clark -- the family's late patriarch -- framed along one of the wood-paneled walls.
Clark -- along with cousin Mervin, who was one of the great forces for hockey in regional Saskatchewan -- had had his funeral in the rink.
"It was packed, and we had the social here, too," remembered Wendel. "They needed a room big enough to fit everyone."
With the day fading, we drove back to the pond. This time, we got out of the car, stepping down the bank to the ice. Wendel was pointing to the pond, explaining how he and his cousins used to play, when suddenly, over the great Maple Leaf's shoulder, an enormous dark figure appeared out of the stand of trees.
It was a moose, at least eight feet high. We backed away and watched in wonder as the great beast stopped, took us in, and then loped with all of its heaving weight across the road.
Into another set of trees, it was gone.
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