Wendel Clark, the new left wing of the Quebec Nordiques, was scanning the menu in Café de la Paix, one of Quebec City's swanker restaurants, when his eyes lit on a speciality of the house. "Salmon manure?" Clark said. "Does that mean the same here as it does in the rest of Canada?"
Salmon meunière, Wendel. Meunière. Try pursing your lips and imitating Peter Sellers pronouncing monkey in a Pink Panther movie. Good thing you didn't see the heading over the fish dishes: Poisson. Quebec can be one tough place to play.
Of course Clark is one tough player. He has whipped a chronic bad back, still fights NHL heavyweights when he must, has led the Toronto Maple Leafs to the Stanley Cup semifinals the past two seasons, scored a personal-high 46 goals in 1993-94, and now has pushed the Nordiques to a franchise-best 13-2-0 start in the lockout-compressed 1995 season. Think a menu scares him?
Clark ordered the salmon.
When Quebec's rookie general manager, Pierre Lacroix, made the draft-day deal last June that sent center Mats Sundin, defenseman Garth Butcher and left wing Todd Warriner to Toronto for Clark, defenseman Sylvain Lefebvre and right wing Landon Wilson, he wasn't acquiring Clark for his French accent. Clark didn't have to know the pen of my aunt is on the table of my uncle. He doesn't even need to know French numbers—beyond counting to quatre, the number of playoff series it takes to win a Stanley Cup. Following a season in which the Nordiques stank worse than three-day-old poisson, Quebec was depending on the former Leaf captain to lend some presence to a sniveling yet gifted team. But the Nordiques didn't necessarily count on his getting at least one point in 14 of the team's first 15 games. In all, as of Sunday he had 10 goals and nine assists, including a hat trick in a 4-3 road win against the Boston Bruins on Feb. 9.
But because his game is grounded in hockey's cold reality, the ultimate Wendel Clark moment didn't make the Fantasy League stats. After Hartford Whaler ruffian—and Clark's best friend—Kelly Chase pummeled Lefebvre in a second-period fight at Quebec on Feb. 5, the 5'10", 194-pound Clark flew down the ice on his next shift and planted Whaler defenseman Frantisek Kucera with a high stick. This is considered an intangible in hockey even if it is measured in penalty minutes.
"A real veteran leadership move," says Nordique rookie coach Marc Crawford. "Wendel was telling the other team you don't do that to us, not in our building. They noticed. But our bench also sat up and took notice. Wendel acted right away."
"We got Wendel for his dedication, loyalty, leadership, character, community work, scoring, yelling, hitting," says Nordique president Marcel Aubut. "He's our dream athlete. When we traded Dale Hunter [to the Washington Capitals in 1987], we lost our soul."
Indeed, the principles of metaphysics were suspended for the next seven years, in which Les Misérables lost a league-worst 317 games. They didn't have Hunter, the personification of chalk screeching on a blackboard. Nor did they have a clue about how to play defense. But the wholesale futility and the 1992 trade of Eric Lindros's rights to the Philadelphia Flyers for six players, two draft choices and $15 million allowed the Nordiques to stockpile talent—11 current players were first-round draft picks, including five top-five choices. Even in 1992-93, when Quebec went 47-27-10 in the regular season before being bounced by the Montreal Canadiens in the first round of the playoffs, the team lacked a certain gravity, a seriousness of purpose. "We didn't work that hard or have a physical presence," says center Joe Sakic. "This year we aren't the old Nordiques."
Now almost everything seems new in Quebec. Lacroix, the 46-year-old general manager, knows his side of the table well because he sat on the other side as a successful player agent. "The basics were here," Lacroix says. "We just needed different spices. We needed character. And who's the best-known character guy in the NHL? Wendel Clark."