Wendel Clark and Kelly Chase, two of the best NHL players to don Saskatoon Blades jerseys, returned to their WHL stomping grounds to partake in a sold out Huskies Off the Leash Luncheon on Oct. 16 at Prairieland Park.
Best known for being drafted first overall in the 1985 NHL draft and his years as a Maple Leaf, Clark made the trip from Toronto to Saskatoon to speak at the event in an effort to raise awareness for a needed increase in program funding for the Huskies hockey.
“It’s great to come out and meet some old friends and help raise money for a good cause. I’m around a lot of different areas doing functions and I have close friends that are tied in with the Huskies so it hit home for me,” said Clark, ecstatic to be back on the prairies.
“Any time you can hold events and raise money for a program, it’ll run better and the better it is for our athletes and kids.”
Though Huskies hockey has remained a respected university hockey program due to its many achievements since its establishment in 1910, the faction is grossly underfunded. The outdated Rutherford Rink on campus confirms the hockey program’s financial woes and the tattered building can easily be mistaken for a barn. More events like the Off the Leash Luncheon, which saw nearly 900 people in attendance, just might be the remedy the ailing Huskies hockey program needs.
Signed NHL jerseys ranging from John Taveres to Bobby Hull were sold in a silent auction and a hockey vacation to Chicago was publicly auctioned off at the end of the luncheon to garner some funds for the Dogs hockey program. Huskies goaltender Jeff Harvey’s mask was also auctioned, with the proceeds donated to the Huskies Play for a Cure cancer initiative.
Clark’s long-time friend and former teammate, Chase, fulfilled the MC duties for the Off the Leash function. Chase racked up the most penalty minutes in the WHL in 1987-88 as a Saskatoon Blade and went on to establish himself as a wrecking ball for the St. Louis Blues during his NHL career. Returning to Saskatoon and the roots of his hockey career was a humbling experience for Chase.
“It’s great to see people from the community here. To see the way Saskatoon has grown, what they’ve accomplished and put into this city, it’s inspiring;” said Chase.
“You see a lot of young people I used to run around with who are becoming pillars of the community.”
Aside from the two ex-NHL players, the Off the Leash Luncheon impressed with other guest appearances in and out of the sporting world. Saskatoon’s mayor Don Atchison and CTV sportscaster Kevin Waugh were also on hand to take part in the festivities. After Atchison slipped a Huskies jersey over his head on stage, Chase jokingly remarked to the crowd, “You know you guys have a goalie for a mayor, right?”
TSN anchor Darren Dutyschen graced the luncheon with his presence as well — but from a projector screen on the stage. A brother-in-law to Chase, Dutyschen crafted a special Saskatchewan edition of SportsCentre, made especially for the Off the Leash Luncheon. With brotherly ribbing, Dutyschen made it a point to acknowledge that Clark’s 330 NHL career goals far surpassed Chase’s mere 17 upon introducing video clips of the pair’s NHL moments. When signing off, Dutyschen playfully uttered a “Go Huskies!”
Apart from sharing old hockey memories, both Chase and Clark touched on the importance of university-level hockey programs in Canada. Clark, whose retired No. 17 with the Leafs and No. 22 with the Blades hang as banners in the Air Canada Centre and the Credit Union Centre, also stressed the need for athletes to return to Saskatchewan to play the game.
“We have the greatest junior league in the world where players can develop. The ones that don’t go on from there can do the university program, still be watched and have a place to go,” commented Clark.
Chase also agrees with Clark on the necessity of a higher standard of university-level hockey in Canada. Chase believes university hockey leagues such as Canadian Interuniversity Sport will eventually emerge as a more integral part of the NHL drafting process, much like its American counterpart, the National Collegiate Athletic Association.
“It’s an important part of how the collective bargaining agreement has gone in the NHL. There’s an advantage when scouts can watch a player develop from 21 or 22 years old instead of picking up a guy that’s just 18 and trying to decide whether to sign,” said Chase.
“The Canadian colleges are going to start producing NHL hockey players. I think its important. Kids are going to mature differently and once this exposure comes I think its a great way to continue to grow hockey in Canada, which is part of our culture.”
photo Andrew Steward