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Love him or not, Mats Sundin was one of “ours”

The following is an article that I wrote for the 2012-'13 Lindy's Sports "In the Rink" Maple Leafs Annual  a few weeks ago.  (Alec Brownscombe, founder of the Maple Leaf Hot Stove web site, was the backbone of that project.  The Lindy's publication included a number of outstanding articles from writers across the mainstream media and blogosphere spectrum.)

Given Mats Sundin's official induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame Monday night, I thought it timely to include the piece today, for those who haven't purchased the Lindy's Annual.  (If you'd like to purchase the Leaf Annual, click on the Lindy's link above.)

You will notice that some things alluded to in the article, including references to the "Winter Classic", are now irrelevant given the CBA impasse.

As always here at VLM, I invite you to share your views (the longtime Leaf captain was always a bit of a lightning rod!)...including any thoughts you may have on the thoughtful induction speech Sundin delivered on Monday night. 

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When you look back and reflect on the history of the Maple Leafs, our “favourites” have come with different attributes.  They were certainly all unique—some were “winners”, like the gritty Teeder Kennedy and classy Syl Apps.  Others were offensively prodigious, like a Rick Vaive in the 1980s, or played with big doses of heart and sheer determination, like my personal 1970s favorites Brian Spencer and Scott Garland.   When it comes to our all-time greats, some we liked right off the bat, others we only appreciated over time.  Only a few, rare individuals fall into what we might call the beloved category in Leaf lore—and in our hearts and memories.

In the latter category, someone like Maple Leaf goaltending hero Johnny Bower comes to mind.  That he will be part of (will the soon-to-be 88 year-old Bower really play, I wonder?) upcoming Alumni game against the Red Wings in January is remarkable in and of itself.  But beyond the fact that Bower helped the franchise win four Stanley Cups in the 1960s, he has forever maintained a well-deserved reputation as a down-to-earth, everyday guy, a former Maple Leaf great who happens to be a genuinely nice person.  He’s a sweetheart.

Diminutive center Dave Keon, a Hall-of-Famer like Bower, was also in that “beloved” Leaf category as well.  He was an idol to hundreds of thousands of young Leaf fans throughout the 1960s.  Unfortunately, his longstanding and well-documented non-relationship with the organization, dating back to the time he was forced to leave the franchise by then owner Harold Ballard in 1975 has, sadly—and perhaps unfairly—tarnished his image in the minds of modern-day Leaf fans, and even some who loved him in his playing hey-day.
 
But what are we to make of someone like Mats Sundin?  Where does the modern-era Leaf star fit in the pantheon of Maple Leaf greats in our hearts?

The answer is not as simple as the question.

Most Leaf supporters would certainly concede that Mats was a very good player.  Acquired as he was back in 1994 for a Leaf heartthrob, Wendel Clark, he didn’t exactly come in riding a white horse, eh?  Clark was another Leaf, like Bower, Keon, and Doug Gilmour, who will live forever in people’s hearts.  Clark fought through injuries, played with very bad back and slayed much bigger dragons in his three incarnations with the Leafs.  He also played on some teams that did not always match his level of grit, to earn a cherished place in the hearts of many Leaf fans of the ‘80s and ‘90s. 

But Mats—where exactly does he fit for us?

Sundin had the challenge of being European, like fellow Leaf and Swedish great Borje Salming before him.  Those Toronto all-timers that I cited above were all ”good Canadian boys”, to borrow Don Cherry’s parlance.  We didn’t know that much about Sundin when he first got here, though he had been a very high draft pick of the Nordiques.  Some of us retain vivid memory of a very young Sundin being yelled at by then Quebec coach Pierre Page on the bench at playoff time—providing the first indication that, somehow, the big Swede was a talented under-achiever, someone who we might not be able to count on at crunch time. 

The team Sundin joined in 1994-’95 was (where have Leaf fans heard this before) a team in transition.  They were no longer the over-achieving Pat Burns team from years before.  They began to go backwards, and Sundin was there for the fall-back.

But over time, he slowly showed himself to be a first-line player here.  He had size and obvious skill.  And while he was maybe not quite as fancy (or nasty) as fellow-Swede Peter Forsberg—nor was he the prototypical “power forward” in terms of delivering punishing hits on a regular basis—there was something about him that we couldn’t help but notice.  He was really good.  He made those around him better, the sign of a special player.

He didn’t always play with top linemates.  But he put up points.  He produced.  When the Leaf captaincy was available after the departure of Gilmour in a trade, Sundin went public about his desire to earn that prestigious designation. Borje Salming, as fine a Leaf as he was, was not ever a captain during his long Leaf career.  The Hall-of-Fame defenseman was more the silent, dour Swede, though his former teammates have always spoke glowingly of his leadership and importance within the group.

But Sundin actually wanted the job.  And he wanted it in this market, where the phrase “Leaf captain” and the word “scrutiny” go hand in hand twelve months of the year.  Some of us were duly impressed.  We maybe weren’t sure if it felt quite “right”, but maybe he could lead us, we thought.  We wondered, and waited.

In the end, he did quite a job, in fairness.
 

He was different from the aforementioned Salming, the Gumbi-like defender could twist and turn away from danger, who had displayed his own brand of blue and white courage by jumping across the ocean in the summer of 1973 and playing in a hockey world which must have felt like it was a million miles away from what he had known at home.  Salming had to stand up “Bullies”, quite literally, in Boston and Philadelphia at a time when goon hockey was alive and thriving—and before the Leafs were a pretty “tough” team themselves, further emboldened by the arrival in 1978 of Dan Maloney.  Salming played his guts out for the Leafs for more than 15 years.  No, he never helped to bring us a Cup, but hundreds of stitches, blocked shots and some memorable playoff goals later, he became a modern-day Leaf legend.
 
In a sense, Borje set the stage for our accepting Mats.  Though not one of our “own”, Sundin grew into the captaincy. In the Pat Quinn years he twice led the Leafs to the “final-four”, though an injury curtailed his effectiveness somewhat in the spring of 2002.  For a time, the Leafs actually seemed to play better with Sundin out of the line-up in that playoff year, and that may have made people wonder all the more.  Is he a leader?  Were we in fact better off without Sundin?

We asked the question because others, like Alyn McCauley, stepped up and played the best hockey of their Leaf lives while Mats was out.  But when Sundin was ready to go, there was no question he would return to the line-up.

That injury that spring was a tad ironic, because one of the traits that we didn’t fully appreciate when he was here was that he was almost always in the line-up.  He played through injuries.  We just took it for granted that Sundin would be in our line-up.  He didn’t complain about injuries, he just played through them.  He did not whine about not being surrounded with better talent.  He just made the players around him as good as they could be.  Oh, you knew he always wanted to play more.  If it was up to him, he would have been playing 25 minutes a night.  Quinn was thinking long-term, however, and always tried to resist the urge to play his superstar more than the coach felt would be beneficial to the big Swede—and to the Leafs.

What do we remember Sundin—now a Hall-of-Famer—for?  Some huge goals, for sure.  His overtime “ping” marker against the hated Senators stands out for many Leaf fans.  (We never hated the Sens until they “got good”, but when they did, it was much more satisfying taking them out every spring—especially when they had the more talented roster, built as it was on the backs of draft choices acquired by having been lousy for so long…)  There was also that last-second goal in the semi-finals against the Hurricanes in ’02, when he wouldn’t be denied at the crease and sent the game into overtime.


There were the seemingly countless regular-season overtime goals.  (I always felt we had an advantage in those four-on-four situations, when the ice was there for Mats to take.) But you know what I remember most about Sundin?  I remember an angry look when he had been cut open and he had blood spilling all over his face.  I remember the quiet pride he played with night after night.  The way he could use his speed, size and strength to attack the opposition on his off-wing.  I remember how he could go full-speed around the opposition net, without fear of what lay on the other side, and inevitably make a play that would create danger for the opposition.  I remember the backhands and the slapshots and how he would plead the Leaf cause to referees, night after night, year after year.

He met with the media day after day, boosting his teammates when the Leafs won, while trying to explain the un-explainable when they lost.  He led with a certain dignity, which, for me, brought back memories of my youth and Montreal’s legendary Jean Beliveau, the tall, smooth-skating, elegant center iceman from the Hab glory years of the 1950s and ‘60s.  No, Mats did not deliver the many Stanley Cups “Big Jean” (left) did for the Canadiens, but he took often ordinary teams as far as they could go, and was inevitably the guy we turned to for the big play, the big moment, game after game.  He was our own "big guy".


As we look back, his was actually a very exciting era for Leaf fans.  There were plenty of playoff series’, some great rivalries with the Devils, Senators and Flyers in particular.  Big-time match-ups.  There were horns honking in the springtime, Maple Leaf flags on cars across the GTA.  Sundin was hugely instrumental in the success we had, though yes, we always fell a bit short of the ultimate goal.

But you know what I really remember most about Sundin?  It’s not the “stats”.  It’s not particular goals that he scored or set up.  In fact, I couldn’t tell you off the top of my head how many career goals he finished with, though I know it was somewhere north of 500.

No, for me, it was the smile.  I’m referring to the smile we would see after every big Leaf goal when he was on the ice, how he would turn to the teammate nearest to him and embrace them, while looking for others to come and join the celebration that awaited his open arms.  Most important to me, that wonderful smile was even bigger, if that’s possible, when a “lesser” teammate scored.  He would hug them in such a way as to make sure they understood, that ”dad”, the captain—their leader—was proud of them.

For me, that Sundin ”smile” will live in my Leaf memory bank forever.

In a way, this brings to mind what we are going through right now with Phil Kessel, our quiet, media-shy, under-stated American-born star.  Here in Toronto, our stars are never quite exactly what we want them to be.  Some thought Sundin didn’t have enough fire in his belly, though that point could surely be argued.  He wasn’t a fighter.

It’s the same criticism that dogs young Phil.   We see him as soft, not dogged enough.  We too often find his flaws, when we should probably be appreciating his rather rare skill—that unique ability to think and make plays at a rate of speed that most players can’t reach in their dreams.  We don’t cherish often enough his ability to cut in on his off-wing and release his shot at the precise moment that causes nothing but havoc for the opposition—and goal-scoring possibilities for the Leafs.

Yes, we always seem to want more.  We wanted Mats to be tougher, play even bigger, be more vocal, more passionate.  Perhaps even more “Canadian”.

We wanted him to bring us a Cup, as though he could somehow do it alone, because he was our superstar.

What he delivered, though, was something special.  When he goes into the Hockey Hall officially, he won’t need to choose or wear a particular “cap”, as they do in baseball, to signify what team he represents.  Though he performed for the Nordiques, Leafs and Canucks, who’s kidding who?   Sundin bled blue and white.

He was ours.  He will always be ours.  I don’t think he ever put up as many points, or scored as many goals while he was with the Leafs as he did in his best season in Quebec.  But his legacy, to me, is about his time in Toronto.  And if he wasn’t “good enough” for some here, well, for the rest of us, we’ll remember his angry eyes with a bloody face.  We’ll remember the plays that only he could make.  We’ll remember the “ping”.  We will embrace the fact that he wanted to stay a Leaf at the end of his time here, when so many others would have been on the first plane out of town for a chance at playing with a better team- and “winning”.

Instead, not just at the end, but through his entire time here, rather than look for the easy way out—a ticket to a better team with a better chance at “winning”—Mats Sundin stayed here and led our team, day after day, year after year.  His goal was to make us better, to lead us to a championship, not go somewhere where winning would be more easily attainable.

That he wasn’t ultimately successful in being part of a championship squad here does not, for me, diminish his legacy in Toronto. (Of course, his personal success with the Swedish national team was there for all to see over the years, including Gold at the Olympics in 2006.)

As the franchise—and Leaf fans around the globe—ache while we look year after year for a “number-one” center, I’m guessing we’d take Mats Sundin now…in a heartbeat.

And maybe we’d appreciate him this time around.

13 comments:

  1. Under the category "You don't know what you've got, 'til it's gone" there is a smiling photograph of Mats Sundin, his face alight with the accomplishments of his guys!

    If he hadn't cost us Wendel Clark, I would've appreciated him much sooner. If he hadn't cost us Wendel Clark, we would never have had him!

    It is 'in his absence' that we fully come to appreciate a man who quietly lifted a team and its fans onto his back (Atlas-style) and gave us hope when we had no other reason to hope. He did it so often that we came to expect it more than appreciate it. Of course, we loved it and experienced it, but we never really appropriated it until we reflected upon it.

    Perhaps the oft-discussed 'cost' to obtain Phil Kessel hinders our ability to fully appreciate his talent, quiet strength and personal growth in his youth.

    Mats grew into the leader that we now appreciate more fully... perhaps we should 'enter in' to enjoy Phil now as a lasting legacy to the lesson we learned from Mats Sundin.

    I loved Mats'loyalty and desire to stay with the Leafs to finish his career... if we hadn't been so quick to see his 'economic value' along with management who used that to usher him out the door, we might not have seen him end his career with the Canucks. I believe we could have had 2 more years of an exceptional talent under whom many would have grown as Mats did watching Gilmour and (later,) Wendel himself amongst others.

    The 'rebuild on the fly' would've given time to some youngsters to watch a true, quiet, consistent, hard-working and exceptionally talented captain plying his trade into retirement. His half year with the Canucks is not the legacy he deserved for his final season since half his heart was still in Toronto.

    Now, the whole of his hockey heart is forever enshrined in the hallowed Hall of Fame suitably located in the city that knows he was ours!

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  2. Beautifully said. Thanks, InTimeFor62.

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  3. Hey Mike

    As you well know I am a recent fan by the standards of most of your regulars, having viewed my first ever hockey game in 2000. This, though, is a subject which moves me to wax lyrical.

    I remember Sundin as the guy that you just took for granted was going to score on the opposition right when you needed it. A night when he was subdued was a night when you felt the Leafs were flat. He did it with some terrible baggage too: my Canadian friends who indoctrinated me into the ways of the Saturday night, pizza-eating, Alexander Keiths-swilling, arm chair expert were as quick to proclaim the entrenched incompetencies of Jonas Hoglund as they were to hail Mats' heroics.

    Your point about him wanting the Captaincy job is very well made. He never seemed to me to shirk; he was workmanlike by attitude, inspirational by action.

    Can you imagine, if you will allow my a flight of fancy, what Phil Kessel would be capable of with Mats Sundin as a linemate?

    Trust you're well, Michael. New Zealand is entering summer and I write to you from an ocean-side bar drenched with sun.

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  4. Good to hear from you, KiwiLeaf.

    Sundin was, in many ways (in hockey terms) the dutiful solider, doing his job, never really complaining. But he was also an extraordinary talent, a player who could lift you out of your seat and make plays at big moments. And yes, he could also lift players around him to be better than they might normally be.

    You are certainly allowed a flight of fancy, KiwiLeaf. Sundin and Kessel together would indeed be (have been) something.

    By the way, as you hit summer, we in the ocean-less Toronto area face a few months of...well, let's just say we won't be sun-drenched. But we will hope against hope that there will be NHL hockey at some point!

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  5. Michael,

    No Leaf player has ever had me as undecided as Mats Sundin. I am not old enough to have watched Dave Keon. In looking over the numbers, as it is all I can do. I see them in the same kind of way. I can't give Keon as much credit as some do for winning the Cup, there were only 6 teams in the League. They were both very good, but never considered the best player in the League. I have heard it said that Keon was the best two way player in the game at the time. I liked Sundins' ability in this regard as well. Especially, in the later years in the playoffs.

    Some times I did wish that Mats was more of a prototypical leader. At least from a fans perspective. Someone more like Mark Messier, the in your face, we are going to win kind of guy. You see, I really don't know what to make of Mats as a player. For me its about who else was in the game at the time. Would I rather have Mats on my team or some of the other centres that were playing. If we were to take a look at just the players that he was inducted into the hall of fame with. I would choose Sundin over Adam Oates, even though Oates scored more points in the NHL than Mats. However, I would much rather have Joe Sakic as my #1 centre. If the choice was mine to make. Mats is a very difficult player for me to absolutely love and idolize.

    I am not sure that Mats really made the players around him better. At least not in the same way that Lemieux turned Rob Brown into a guy that scored 49 goals. It is true that Leaf management did an awful job of acquiring talent to play with Sundin. They had one of the ten best players in the game and made him play with Jonas Hoglund. There was never a young stud winger for Mats to mentor into the higher levels of the game. He was constantly surrounded with players who were great 5 years before the Leafs acquired them. Mogilny, Nieuwendyk, Renberg, the list could be long.

    My dislike for the management and coaching staff of the Sundin era, stems directly from the inability surround Mats with players other than has beens. I feel that Mats was never given much of a chance to win, at least not as much of a chance, given how good he was. The way the team handled his last year here was terrible. Asking him to waive his no trade was ok with me, you have to ask in my opinion. It never should have gone public. I understand Mats wanting to win the Cup, and also not want to leave Toronto. Difficult choice for anyone to make, think he came to the right decision too late twice. If he wanted the chance to win, accept the trade, and try. The Vancouver experiment was silly, he perhaps should have stayed away, retiring as a Leaf.

    On a final note. Pat Quinn should have played him more at the height of his career. Mats might not have been as productive in those minutes as he was otherwise. There is no argument however, he was better than anyone else Quinn had on the bench. Great article by the way, thinking of Mats and all the other Hall of Famers, is something we should do more of.

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  6. Ocean-less TO might be but it's not so bad when you have lake-side towns like Tobermory within reach: now THAT is little piece of paradise right there.

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  7. Early June morning, 1994. I was at our summer cottage on Georgian Bay and had just walked the mile and a half along the beach to the next concession road where there were newspaper boxes. Pulled out the Sun and froze. I couldn't believe the headline. Fletcher had traded Wendel Clark. Unbelievable!!!

    I must take umbrage with your statement that the Leafs were a "team in transition" at that point. They were coming off two conference finals and the feeling was that they would challange for the cup in 1994-95. They had three point-a-game players in Doug Gilmour (114 pts), Dave Andreychuk (99 pts) and Clark (76 pts in 64 games). They had a solid defense with Dave Ellett, Sylvain Lefebvre, Jamie Macoun, Bob Rouse, Todd Gill and Dmitri Mironov. They had a very good goalie in Felix Potvin. They had toughness throughout the lineup and solid role players such as Rob Pearson, Peter Zezel, Glenn Anderson and Ken Baumgartner.

    I feel that Fletcher tore the guts out of this team by trading their blood and guts spiritual leader and their best shut down defenseman (Lefebvre). Consequently I had a difficult time warming up to Sundin. Clarke was one of ours from the beginning. He was drafted by the Leafs and he gave his heart and soul to them. He epitomized everything a Leaf should be. My rational, analytical self tried to rationalize that Wendel was injury prone and that Matts was an elite offensive talent but my passionate Leaf loving self would not buy it.

    Matts Sundin was an elite hockey player, at times the only elite player on the Leafs. He deserves to be in the Hall of Fame. He deserves all the accolades that have come his way but I always felt he had more to give a la Frank Mahovlich and I could never completely warm up to him.

    I guess if he hadn't been traded for Wendel Clark I might have felt differently.

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  8. Jim, you're post captured the aching, torn/divided feeling so many Leaf fans had during the Sundin "era". Well done.

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  9. I can't argue with your point about the Leafs not being necessarily a team in transition at the time. I was perhaps thinking in terms of them being a team that was being re-sculpted, because Fletcher felt they were not good enough to win as is, thus the deal for Sundin. (And they soon became a team in transition, because they were never as good again during the Fletcher regime, mostly floundering in the years after the Sundin trade...)

    I, too, mourned (n hockey fan terms) the loss of not only Clark but Lefebvre, who I thought was probably the most accomplished Leaf defenseman of the Burns era.

    Thanks PeteCam. You well articulated why many leafs fans were slow to warm up to Sundin- and some never fully did.

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  10. As bleak as the Leafs have been in recent years, I can't help but think back in great fondness to the thrills Mats Sundin gave us. It sometimes seemed almost out of a Hollywood script. My favourite memory if I may share, and I'll go right to the public address announcer -

    "Toronto short handed goal, his third of the game, his fourth of the season, and the 500th goal of his NHL career....number 13...Mats...Sunnnndin!"

    Damn, I get chills just writing that.

    You could barely hear that announcement over the roar of the crowd, you almost just had to imagine it.

    I've written before of what Darryl Sittler meant to me as my biggest Leaf hero in my youth. A generation later, I quickly realized that Sundin is the exact same thing to my son. Thank you Mats Sundin for a glorious, exceptional career, for your pride and effort and unselfishness. And the great memories that will live forever to Leaf fans.

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  11. You speak for many Leaf fans, Pete Davies. I have to believe that for many youngsters who were becoming Leaf fans as Sundin arrived, he was "the guy" - as Sittler was for those of your generation and Keon was for me and my generation. Well said, Pete.

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  12. I've never had quite the love/hate relationship with a hockey player, as a fan, as I've had with Sundin. I mean, sure, as a hockey fan, you can enjoy moments of magic from players such as Phil Kessel or Sidney Crosby, and get frustrated once the former manages to completely disappear or the latter starts whining about the unemployed car factory workers in Detroit cheering when he gets a slight knock.

    Sundin, I just plain hated, because he played for Tre Kronor, the Swedish national team, and he managed to kill Team Finland quite often enough in heartbreaking, soultwisting moments before he even joined the NHL and Quebec Nordiques, which was to be a franchise forever blacklisted in my book, evermore.

    I was happy to see Sundin gone from European hockey, as I would rarely have to worry about him ever again, as the Nordiques weren't really going places, unless by places we mean Denver, but that's not really relevant.

    I felt absolutely cursed, personally, by all the gods of hockey, when Wendel and Sylvain Lefebvre were sacrificed to get Sundin. For a time, I honestly hoped Sundin would either flop completely, or suffer a career-ending injury just so I could feel smug about him, but his record speaks for him.

    Probably the best offensive talent the Leafs have ever had. A totally awesome, game-breaking player. As a Tre Kronor player, I love him gone. As a Leaf, I miss him dearly.

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  13. Love that post, CGLN. As a "Finn", you had a bird's-eye view of Sundin's hockey development. You've so well described the pain he caused you (and no doubt fellow Finnish fans) when it came to your national teams.

    Great stuff, thanks CGLN.

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