Former Toronto Maple Leafs captain Wendel Clark on leading under pressure

“It’s all about carrying yourself with confidence. On the ice, if you dictate the play, you skate away from the scrum when you want to. You call the shots.”

Wendel Clark

Former Toronto Maple Leafs team captain Wendel Clark

Wendel Clark’s new book, Bleeding Blue: Giving My All for the Game, details his journey from growing up in the Prairies to captaining the most scrutinized team inthe NHL. He tells us about keeping cool under pressure, inspiring the troops even when you’re not winning, and skating away from the scrum on your own terms:

You joined the NHL as a hot prospect—the No. 1 pick in the 1985 entry draft. Was that a lot of pressure out of the gate?

There was general pressure, yes, but I think players put more pressure on themselves than what comes from the outside. When you’re a rookie at 18, there’s so much excitement that it outweighs some of the pressure.

Have you developed any tricks to keep stress in check over the years?

I think the most important thing is recognizing what you can control and what you can’t. On the ice, you can compete and work as hard as you can. Off the ice, you can control how well you get along with your teammates and the atmosphere in the dressing room. But you can’t really control something like the media, so why worry about it? Throw your energy at the things you can control.

You became team captain in 1990. How did you prepare for that gig?

I just wanted to be myself. I got the job because of who I was and how I acted. I really believe a good captain leads by example: Show up on time, work hard, get along with everybody. It’s simple. That’s it. You can’t separate yourself from everyone else.

You say it’s simple, and yet we see such massive egos in pro sports.

As captain, you are sort of the go-between connecting the players and the staff, so I think it’s important to be approachable. The more normal and humble you seem, the more you’re going to be able to do that job. Quality communication leads to better play on the ice. It goes back to what your teachers and parents always said: Listen first, talk second.

You captained the Leafs in very hot years and less-than-hot years. What is the difference between leading in good times versus bad?

Well, it’s a lot harder to be the captain of a team that’s not winning. When you’re winning, life is pretty good. When you’re not winning, that’s when everyone’s true colours come out. There’s a lot of debate about which direction to go in. As a leader, you have to be able to focus and stay the course.

Here’s a hypothetical: It’s game seven, and your team is down 4–1 heading into the third period. What do you say in the locker room to rally the troops?

It all depends on the situation. I think a good leader starts [critiquing] from within, not from without. So if you’re losing, you say, “Listen, I’ve got to pull us in a different direction.” You don’t start by telling anybody else that they need to be better. Be your own punching bag, and people will really want to get behind you.

You’re now a businessman, as well as a beloved sports figure. How did your sports career prepare you for life as an entrepreneur?

The longer you live, the more life skills you have. I’m always learning. If you’ve been in the NHL for a long time, hard work isn’t something you shy away from, so that’s something I have brought to other aspects of my life.

You certainly intimidated a fair number of opponents over the years. Got any tips that might work in a boardroom?

I think it’s all about carrying yourself with confidence. On the ice, if you dictate the play, you’re skating away from the scrum when you want to. You’re calling the shots. I think that’s also a big part of doing well in business.