Perhaps it was Mats Sundin himself who best explained the reason for the disconnect that lingers between some Toronto Maple Leafs fans and his legacy as one of the team’s great captains.
It came shortly after Friday’s announcement that Sundin donated a third of a million dollars for two young researchers who study early childhood health to participate in an exchange program between the University of Toronto and the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm. He was asked about his greatest team accomplishment in hockey and described what was going through his mind at the age of 35 when he was standing on the blue line at the 2006 Turin Olympics just after leading Sweden to the gold medal.
“When you’re 22 or 23, it’s kind of just about winning the championship,” Sundin said. “And as you grow older, it’s a cliché, but you’re enjoying the journey, the travel and the grind of getting together as a group in the fall and just build up for a goal in the spring. It was kind of the thing that was great, the long-term commitment.” He said much the same in the days leading up to the 2008 NHL trade deadline, Sundin’s rockiest time with Maple Leafs fans in his 13 seasons in Toronto. The team was sorely in need of a rebuild. There was pressure from the public and some in Leaf management for Sundin and several other veterans – the Muskoka Five they were dubbed – to waive their no-trade rights so they could be exchanged for draft picks and prospects.
But Sundin resisted, much to the consternation of some fans. He loved playing in Toronto, loved his team and his teammates. He even said he thought the Leafs could make a run at the Stanley Cup if they somehow made the playoffs. Winning a Stanley Cup as a rental player with an unfamiliar team had no appeal.
“I always saw myself winning the Stanley Cup in Toronto – I wanted to do that,” Sundin said Friday. “And also realizing it would never feel the same doing it somewhere else.”
It is that loyalty plus Sundin’s unassuming, down-to-earth personality and inclusive nature that made him one of the Leafs captains most loved by his teammates. A lot of them will be seen Saturday night at the Air Canada Centre when the team honours Sundin by raising a banner with his No. 13 to the rafters to join those of other Leaf greats.
Former Leaf Glenn Healy played with Wayne Gretzky in Los Angeles, won a Stanley Cup in New York with Mark Messier and finished his career as Sundin’s teammate in Toronto. What amazes Healy is that Sundin never let himself become that kind of celebrity in a city that makes them out of fourth-liners.
Forget low maintenance, says Healy, Sundin was a “no-maintenance superstar.” The diva routine and making the gossip pages were for someone else. For Sundin, it was all about hockey and the team.
“He made every guy on the team feel part of it, no matter if they were on the first line or fourth line,” Healy said. “He made every team dinner and he made sure everyone was included. He would make sure the trainers came. I can’t say enough good things about him.”
As a player Sundin was a horse, a big, skilled, durable centre who finished as the Leafs’ franchise leader in goals (420) and points (987) in 981 games with the team.
The Leafs may not have won a Cup during Sundin’s best years with the team but they were playoff fixtures, something that seems foreign now, almost eight years beyond their last postseason appearance. Sundin wishes the 1999 and 2002 teams could have made it one step past their appearances in the conference final but otherwise has no complaint with his Leaf career. He also has no bitterness toward those who thought he should have left his team so it might have become better.
“There’s a business side of hockey, and I have no regrets at all over what went down there,” he said. “I’m so proud to be back and be honoured. I have no regrets with the Leafs. I think they tried to do everything and anything they can to improve their team, to build a championship team and win a Stanley Cup. That’s just part of the business.”
Sundin will turn 41 on Monday and as he walked around shaking hands and signing autographs after Friday’s news conference, with his wife Josephine, parents Tommy and Gunilla, older brother Patrick and younger brother Per looking on, the overwhelming impression was that here is a man comfortable in his own skin. He is well-off financially and unlike many of his peers, unafflicted by the angst of leaving the sport he loves.
“I don’t think he misses hockey that way,” Per Sundin said. “I think he enjoys his life after hockey.”