Those who know what this site is “about” will know going in that I don’t really have any inside knowledge that will help me shape a great “story” about, for example, Mats Sundin. (Nor is my choice of penning something about Sundin remotely original this weekend, eh? Yet if I neglected to discuss his pending “ceremony”, I may be missing something Leaf supporters want to touch on—so here goes…)
In truth, I've not exactly ignored Sundin in this space. We've touched on his possible Hall-of-Fame candidacy, for example. And I've also posted about something that struck me as a similarity between he and his countryman, another Leaf legend, Borje Salming. But I haven't chatted about Mats a lot here.
It so happens that I did have a professional relationship with some individuals I respect a great deal within the Leaf organization at the time that Sundin played in Toronto, but anything I might have “heard” with regard to Mats will stay private, as it should. I will only say this: nothing that I might have heard would have, in any way, dissuaded me from thinking that that he was a wonderful player—and a fine leader and person.
But beyond that, I’m simply another longtime Leaf observer. I have, though, had the privilege of seeing all the great ones come and go since the late 1950s. I did a piece here recently on Dion Phaneuf and the rather challenging captain’s legacy he has walked into here with the blue and white. (In short, not one of the captains, since George Armstrong, retired happily as a Maple Leaf with the “C” on his jersey….)
It’s not easy being the captain of the Leafs, and not easy to handle the many and varied demands that come with the job. Forget the always high on-ice expectations—what you have to do off the ice is exhausting and very stressful.
Darryl Sittler and Wendel Clark both were powerful guys and had elite skill, for sure. But I’m not quite comfortable saying those two ex-Leaf greats were graceful or elegant. (I’m guessing Wendel would laugh at that suggestion…) Dave Keon was the ultimate in skill and grace as a long-time Leaf and captain, but obviously not a power guy, nor did he have a large frame for his era, like Beliveau. George Armstrong (Leaf captain just before Keon, starting in the late 1950s) was a tremendous leader but a choppy skater who had a weak shot. He succeeded—and led—through determination, smarts, guts and guile.
No, Sundin was a rarity. And we’re not so far removed from him playing here that we are kind of over-glorifying his skills or his impact. He was a Lindros without the mean streak who lasted a lot longer and, ultimately, was far more productive (though who knows how high the ceiling would have been for a healthy Lindros). I would never argue that Sundin was Mark Messier, who was a different kind of player and a very different kind of leader. But Sundin was very, very tough in his own way. He played hurt. He bled for this team, quite literally. While not a guy who had to fight (I say that in a complimentary way), he was not exactly a guy you could shove around.
Was he a perfect player, or a peerless leader? Of course not. Oh, we can mention the awful playoff elimination night in New Jersey a decade or so ago, when the Leafs mustered, what was it, 6 shots in an entire game against the Devils? A critic would say, what kind of “leader” allows that kind of effort to happen in a game like that? But that was not all on Mats. That was a team that had hit the wall, and just didn't have enough to fight through the Devils one more time, one more game.
Some will not forgive him for “how” he left the Leafs—that is, “refusing” Fletcher’s request to trade him. Personally., and I am probably in the minority, while I understand the fan sentiment, I don’t know exactly what it was Sundin’s job to help the Leafs re-build. Sports is ultimately me against you, and once my boss tells me he/she doesn’t want me around anymore, for whatever reason, my interest in “helping” my old employer drops to zero, just like their interest in keeping me around.
That Sundin, or Kaberle, for that matter, wanted to retire in Toronto as a Leaf, was, for me as a long-time Leaf guy, what I want to be the case. I don’t want guys who want out of town as soon as things turn tough.
In any event, I prefer to think of Sundin for countless great moments in his 13 or so years in a Leaf uniform: for example, his seemingly countless regular-season overtime goals over the years. (I always felt that the Leafs would win if it got to overtime, because Sundin, four-on-four, would make something happen. Often, he did.) Of course there were the playoff moments, getting to the “final-four” twice, including the excruciatingly close shot at getting to the finals in 2002 (though Mats was—a rarity for him—hurt a lot of the time that spring). Of course there was the “ping” OT winner against Alfie and the hated Senators, along with his last-second goal against the Hurricanes in Game 6 of the semi-finals in ’02. (We so should have been playing Detroit in that finals that year….)
Sundin may not realize it himself, or acknowledge it, but he played the best hockey of his life under Pat Quinn. He was a really nice player before Quinn and still a fine player afterwards, but I would argue that all those years, when Quinn was refusing to play him 23 or so minutes a night (when Sundin wanted to play more), were Sundin’s very best in a long and distinguished career. He was fresh come playoff time and delivered more often than not.
While Mats often seemed to have to carry his line many years, he did play well with Gary Roberts for a time and they were tough to contend with. Mats generally made the guys around him better, but didn’t play with another true “superstar”, I think it’s fair to say, (like Orr and Esposito, Lafleur and Shutt, Park and Ratelle, Potvin and Trottier, Gretzky/Messier and Coffey, etc…) in Toronto—someone who would have perhaps made him even more of an impact player and dangerous presence on the ice.
Anyway, my “memories” of Mats will no doubt be sparse and nowhere near as touching or in-depth as the many fine hockey writers who “covered” the Leafs during those Sundin years, or Leaf fans for whom Sundin was their “favorite”, as say, Keon was for me when I was much younger.
All I can really say is this: when I look at all the leaders I have witnessed in a Leaf uniform, Sundin is “up there” in terms of the respect I have for him as a player—and for the way he conducted himself publicly in a tough, tough market. We have to remember, there were perhaps some “dressing room” issues around players like Corson (who left the team suddenly at one point), Domi’s ill-timed hit on Niedermayer in the playoffs (and resultant suspension) and a variety of things that he no doubt handled deftly—and quietly—behind the scenes during some fairly tumultuous years when the team, as Curtis Joseph once said, was a pretty “combustible” group.
I have probably mentioned this before, but you know what I remember most about Sundin, or perhaps I should say, what my real enduring memory of him as a Leaf will be? It is simply this: whenever the Leafs scored a big goal, whether it was him that netted the marker or the least-known of his teammates, he smiled and embraced his teammates in a way I just can’t forget. I realize everyone celebrates after a key goal, and players smile, and understandably so, when they have success. They put a lot of work into achieving what is sometimes fleeting recognition and success.
But for me, an individual that can be as—or even more—happy for a teammate than he is for himself at those special times is a rare individual. (Hell, it’s tough for anyone in sports, or anyone on life for that matter, to truly feel happy for someone else when that other person succeeds. Envy, jealousy and competitiveness so often creep into the equation. I just always sensed that, through those years, if Quinn was the sometimes demanding father of the brood, Sundin was, in his own way, the big brother who helped to achieved even more by supporting, encouraging and nurturing his less skilled teammates He was the perfect foil for and complement to his head coach through the truly “good years” in the late ‘90s and early 2000s.
We won a lot of games in those years, and a lot of playoff games, too. There were a lot of flags and a lot of horns honking, between 1999 and 2004—and a lot of smiles all-around.
Sundin was a huge part of it.
It’s too bad, I think sometimes we don’t appreciate a guy maybe as much as we should have, until he has retired. How good would Mats look in his prime as the number-one center for this young crew?
So it’s happening a little earlier than maybe I was expecting, but by all means raise the jersey high. We all need a Leaf high once in a while—and we’re due.