Since many of us prefer story-book endings, it might have been best if Mats Sundin had retired after the 2007-’08 season with the Maple Leafs.
He contemplated retirement as a Leaf, unsure about whether or not to return last season, and as we all know joined the Vancouver Canucks for the last half of the 2008-’09 regular season. He seemed to play his best hockey in the playoffs, but finally announced his retirement—f or good—after 18 seasons in the NHL.
Sundin always seemed to be one of those players—like Frank Mahovlich many years before him—who had size and so much natural talent that people always wanted just a bit more.
Sometimes a lot more.
But Sundin was a consistently outstanding player for the Leafs, particularly effective during the Quinn years, making players around him better when it would have been nice to see it the other way around on occasion.
Something Gary Roberts was quoted as saying in a Toronto Sun piece not that long ago caught my eye: He spoke of Sundin’s leadership, of course, but also about Sundin’s smile when someone scored a big goal. The Leaf captain was no showboat, but was very expressive and joy-filled, like a big kid, when he or one of his teammates scored a key marker. His proud post-goal embraces with teammates were like that at any local rink on a Saturday morning—the way hockey should be.
Now Salming was a more dour-looking guy on the ice, kind of the ‘stoic Swede’, if that’s a fair reference. He was without question a courageous player, verbally belittled and physically badgered by opponents, especially the tough Flyer and Bruin teams of the early and mid-‘70s, because he was European and thought to be “soft”.
He disproved that label early and often, though his immensely talented teammate and fellow Swede, Inge Hammarstrom, never quite escaped that tag.
Salming generally looked serious, almost pained, on the ice. But when the Leafs scored a big goal, nobody (well maybe Tiger Williams) would rush to the player who scored and give a bigger embrace. He was a team guy who blocked shot after shot and gave up his body for the team regularly.
The play I remember most involving Salming was during the 1976 playoffs against Philadelphia, the Broad Street Bullies. (And they were all that, slashing and hacking all night long, all season long, year after year, dropping the gloves if anyone looked at Bobby Clarke or touched one of their ‘skill” guys.)
The season before, the Leafs went out in 4 straight to the Flyers, but in that ’76 season, (the spring of Coach Red Kelly’s ‘pyramid power’) Darryl Sittler and Lanny McDonald, along with Salming, began to establish a leadership role and an identity as a at least a bit tougher Leaf team to play against.
Though the Leafs dropped the first two games in Philly, who had won the Cup the two previous seasons, they came back and won Game 3 in Toronto.
In Game 4 (or was it in fact Game 3?), Salming scored a huge goal when he was sent in alone on a breakaway—on a pass from Sittler, I think it was—and drove a quick shot past Bernie Parent. The manner in which he jumped and celebrated while rushing back to be greeted by his teammates after that goal—which pretty much clinched that game for Toronto—was beautiful, if you were Leaf fan.
The Leafs lost in 7 games, but had established a little something in the process.
But when I think back to that goal, that night, he was so joyful- much the way Sundin looked on many occasions, years later, in his time with the Leafs.
The one thing that always troubled me about Salming was that, though he was a wonderful and shifty skater and puck handler, and courageous in terms of blocking shots and taking physical punishment, he would go down too much in front of his own net. I’d see he and partner Ian Turnbull flopping around the ice sometimes and big forwards from the Bruins or whoever knocking the puck in the Toronto goal.
I would have preferred seeing the opposing forwards on their ass and Salming being the one knocking them down.
But he was a deserving Hall-of-Famer, as is Sundin—because of their performance, consistency, talent and in Sundin’s case, that smile.